Lake Minnetonka’s ’60s Surf Band — The Yetti-men (Part Two)
“To this day, when I smell English Leather Cologne, I am immediately transported back to that era.”
– former Yetti-Men member Brian Mahin, recalling Lake Minnetonka’s early sixties youth scene in a recent interview.
Last month we discussed a group of five young Minnetonkans who rode the popular wave of sixties surf music, forming a band called “The Yetti-Men” and composed of: Lee Hanson (lead guitar), Henry “Skip” Webster (rhythm guitar), Joel Peterson (bass), Brian Mahin (sax, keyboards), and Jim Robinson (drums). In the last article I was able to spout some basic facts about the group but there were a lot of unresolved questions, so I had to do some digging around. I managed to find two of the Yetti-Men still living around Lake Minnetonka: Brian Mahin and Skip Webster, and they graciously gave of their time and answered my many questions. I also was able to get some very good assistance from probably the most knowledgeable guy on the planet when it comes to Minnesota rock ‘n roll history-Jim Oldsberg-who has written extensively about the Minnesota groups of the sixties, which must number somewhere in the lake figures. His writing includes THE authoritative history of Minnesota and Upper Midwest rock ‘n roll history, called “Lost and Found” (in five volumes), as well as “The Flip Side: An Illustrated History of Southern Minnesota Rock & Roll Music, from 1955-1970.” Jim has also interviewed some of the Yetti-Men and has helped get much of the obscure recorded material from Minnesota rockers onto CDs, on the Sundazed and Norton labels.
I now had the resources to cover the history of Lake Minnetonka’s Yetti-Men, whose story deserves re-telling…
Growing up in Vacationland
“Lake Minnetonka in the late fifties and early sixties was a great place to grow up,” said former Yetti-Men member Brian Mahin, whose family moved to Deephaven from Des Moines in 1956. He still lives in the area today and considers himself and his family very fortunate to live in a beautiful “vacationland” setting. Henry “Skip” Webster, former Yetti-Men rhythm guitarist, also has a strong feeling of attachment to Lake Minnetonka, where he also still resides with his family today. “My family lived on Wayzata Bay,” recalled Skip, “Lee [Hanson’s] family lived on Smithtown Bay,” he added. “All of the members of the Yetti-Men lived in the immediate area and attended Minnetonka High School,” said Brian. He recalled that as a boy he would spend his summers honing his tennis skills (he would letter in tennis and reach the state finals while at Minnetonka H.S.), playing baseball, waterskiing and taking on various jobs for extra income, such as mowing lawns, lifeguarding and teaching tennis around the lake. Teenagers could go to Big Reggie’s Danceland in Excelsior to see nationally-known as well as local groups performing on the old wooden stage. Brian remembered going to dances there and seeing the sun-tanned girls in dresses or wearing “koolats” which were sort of a cross between a skirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts, and guys with English Leather cologne slathered on. “To this day, when I smell English Leather, I am immediately transported back to that era,” he recalled. “There used to be many small vacation cottages along the lake which have since been knocked down to make room for larger private homes,” he added. Both Brian and Skip noted a fundamental change that has taken place along the lake: as the vacationland cottages and big amusement park at Excelsior have been razed, Lake Minnetonka lost some of it’s innocence and social diversity. Like many lovely waterfront communities, Lake Minnetonka’s properties have soared in value. “While in many ways life has changed around the lake, in other ways things haven’t changed, such as the beauty, safety and the seasonal changes that allow me to ice skate in winter and swim and boat in summer,” said Brian.
From “just bashing around” to bloody fingers
In the beginning it was just Joel Peterson, Jim Robinson, and Lee Hanson, “just bashing around” in Lee’s basement, having fun. It was summer, 1962. “Jim called me up and asked if I wanted to grab my sax and come over,” recalled Brian in an interview with Jim Oldsberg. He continued, “We just kind of banged around for a little while, eventually picking up Skip to round out the group on rhythm.” “Lee and Joel were the founders of the group,” said Skip. “We really didn’t stop to think about what we were really doing-things sort of fell into place on their own to some degree,” Brain told Oldsberg. “Lee and I had Fender Stratocaster guitars and I think Joel’s bass was maybe a Les Paul or a Fender Bassmaster-I’m not sure,” said Skip. “We bought our guitars and amps at a music store that used to be downtown, at Cedar and Hennepin, and I think we paid something like $189-$389 per month for everything,” he told me.
“I had always wanted to play the bugle,” said Brian, “but picked up the saxophone instead, taking lessons and playing first chair in high school band.” Brian also recalled that all of the families of the group were, if not completely supportive, not at all critical of what the guys were doing in playing rock ‘n roll music. “My mother was very supportive,” said Brian. “She plays piano, my sister teaches music, and my brother plays in a band today.” Skip Webster had had formal musical training as had Brian, and drummer Jim Robinson also played in the high school band with Brian Mahin. All five guys were in the same year of high school together, the future class of 1965.
“Lee was the strength of the group, the driving force, and Joel was the glue that held us together,” according to Skip, who considered those two to be of the “highest tier” of talent and ambition of the members. Lee chose most of the songs and allegedly had a well-developed ear for music, although he was not formally trained and could not read sheet music. He would go to shows at Danceland and come back with a thorough understanding of what the musicians had been playing, just by standing in front of the stage, carefully observing the performers, watching how they did their chording, picking, etc. “That’s how he basically learned how to play the guitar,” Skip told Oldsberg, continuing: “Lee could play by ear better than anyone else in the band. He had such intensity about the music that he became our driving influence.” Apparently Lee also had a knack for electrical gadgetry and built the first sound system that the group had. “Most of us played by ear and practiced by repetition, spurred by Lee to play together once a week on average, and usually over at his house,” Brian related. “Although I was trained to read sheet music at an elemental level, no sheet music was used in rehearsals, and chords were assigned on a loose basis, with Lee bringing rough chord charts that he drew to some rehearsal sessions,” he added. Brian also has a vivid memory of Lee with blood on his fingers from practicing so intensely on guitar.
“We were sitting around over at Lee’s house watching a movie on t.v. called ‘The Abominable Snowman,'” said Brian. The term ‘Yeti’ was used in the film, and Skip thought it was unusual enough to think about as a possible name for the group. He suggested they call themselves “Yetti-Men” and the abominable tag stuck. Eventually someone (perhaps Jim Robinson or an artistic friend) painted a gruesome-looking ‘Yeti’ face on the bass drum, and put “The Yetti-Men” across it in bold red letters. Lee would later write a song entitled “High Himalayas” which would further cement their identity. The ‘Yeti’ uniform of sorts was a pair of white or light-colored slacks and matching dark maroon-colored tweed short-sleeved shirts, although in the early days the group tried matching white scarves.
Many kids were beginning to sport a “surfer look” of white Levis and Jack Purcell tennis shoes, along with either a Gant button-down shirt or even t-shirts which were actually worn not UNDER another shirt, but ALONE, sometimes even in a different color than white–quite the novelty for the America of the day! Brian recalled that, although gangs like the Baldies and the Ex-boys wore matching jackets and uniforms of sorts, there wasn’t the variety of options in clothing styles and tennis shoe choices like kids have today.
Duane Eddy and Victor Borge
“We all listened to two major radio stations, KDWB and WDGY, although I used to listen to other stations sometimes that would beam in from far away,” remembered Skip. “Locally, KDWB was the better of the two popular radio stations,” he added. In addition to the radio and sometimes t.v., the other major influence was Big Reggie’s Danceland, where Lee and others would go to see popular national and local acts live, such as Johnny & The Hurricanes, The Ventures, and such local acts as The Underbeats, who had a regional hit with “Footstompin'”. Other influences were surf groups like The Astronauts, who came from “Mile High” Denver, and who scored a national hit with an instrumental tune called “Baja”. Big Reggie even had the fortitude/luck to book The Beach Boys in early 1963, just before they broke BIG nationally. By the time they got to Danceland later in the year, cars were stacked up from Minneapolis to Excelsior, and Skip remembered the place being just “complete pandomonium.”
Brian Mahin was quite taken with the King of Twang, Duane Eddy, who invented the “hollowed-out pipe sound” by playing in huge concrete pipes back in the fifties, before reverb units created the sound electronically. His musical family introduced him to classical music and jazz at an early age, and he grew up with quite a diverse range of musical interests-from Chet Atkins to big band jazz (“our parent’s rock ‘n roll” according to Brian) to comedian Victor Borge! Other influences were folk artists like The Kingston Trio.
Entering “scary territory”
In the early days, the Yetti-Men focused on mostly instrumental tunes, covering such artists as Johnny & The Hurricanes, The Ventures, The Astronauts, and Duane Eddy. Skip related to Jim Oldsberg that the idea of doing vocals was “kind of scary territory” to go into at first. He related to me recently that he felt that Lee Hanson had the best vocal ability but that he was in part brought into the band not just for his rhythm guitar abilities but because Lee had thought of him as having vocalist potential. Perhaps as nationally-famous groups such as The Beach Boys gained in prominence and moved the popular conception of surf music away from the purely instrumental music it had started out as, singing vocals became more of a realistic option for the Yetti-Men. Gradually vocal tunes, including many of Lee Hanson’s own compositions, began to be a part of their performances. Skip related this in greater detail to Jim Oldsberg: “I was originally supposed to be lead singer, but to be honest, I wasn’t as good as Lee. It was one thing to be able to sing. It’s certainly another to be able to sing with strength over a long period of time. Lee could pull it off, sucking throat lozenges, he was able to master the 3-4 hour marathons we used to play at. The rest of us contributed backing vocals for Lee. Brian took on the falsettos and we had some really nice harmonies going on.”
Next… The Yetti-Men go vinyl and visit a bunch of Fiji Islanders, then go their separate ways in the conclusion of the Yetti-men series.
Read Part Three of The Beachcomber’s series on the Yetti-Men.
Return to Part One of The Beachcomber’s series on the Yetti-Men.
Visit The Beachcomber’s virtual hut at: www.SnyderConcepts.com.