by Buster Fayte, Featured Writer, Buster Fayte’s Rockabilly Romp
Imagine that you, a 14-year-old junior high student in small town Missouri, USA, had started getting interested in music in 1955. Then, imagine you’d seen a young new singing sensation with the crazy name of Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 playing a wild new kind of music the kids were calling rock and roll. And then imagine that inspired you to buy a guitar and start your own band. And finally, imagine if you had kept a notebook in which you jotted down notes on every single gig you ever played from your first one in 1957 right up to today. Just imagine the stories you’d be able to tell!
Well, singer/songwriter/guitarist Lee Dresser did exactly that and he’s summed up his entire career from 1955 up to 2008 in his book Was There A Band Here Tonight? Fifty Years in the Wonderful World of Music.
The first entry in Dresser’s notebook says,
At our first performance we played in the cafeteria of the Moberly Junior High School on February 14, 1957. It was a Valentine’s dance given by the FHA organization on Thursday night….We went over pretty good this time, although we had no mike (sic).
Dresser writes in the book that as he sang a few Elvis songs and saw the girls screaming and carrying on, he knew right then and there what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. And then, he proceeded to do it.
He’s one of those ultra-rare musicians that managed to make a living his entire adult life playing music. He’s never held another type of job—ever. What makes that even more astounding is that Dresser never actually broke into the “big time” as a musician. But he came close. He rubbed elbows with a long list of the most famous musicians in the business and he always managed to keep his career going strong enough to pay the bills and live a happy, comfortable life.
And the whole story is told in this self-published book. Dresser’s a professional musician, not a professional author, so the book is a bit clumsily written at times, but I still enjoyed reading it. It may have even been a bit more enjoyable for its lack of professional writing polish because you know your getting the story straight from his heart.
He starts the book out with a bit of background on his childhood. You’re left gob smacked by the unimaginable tragedy of a little boy who’d lost both of his parents by the time he was 13—his father dying of a heart attack and his mother being crushed by an out-of-control car driven by his aunt about two years later. You can imagine that someone starting out so young with such tragedy might never really recover, but Dresser’s grandparents saw him through.
Throughout the book you’re also struck by the boundless optimism that fills this man. Starting with these tragedies, he stubbornly refuses to let the setbacks that are thrown his way stop him. Where many people would have become discouraged and given up when the band didn’t break, or the song that was supposed to be the first hit never quite made it, Dresser comes through it smiling and stronger for the experience. The whole book is full of stories of meeting famous and influential people who could potentially make his career take off, but never quite do. Instead of being bitter that he’d come so close without making it, Dresser talks about how wonderful it was—how lucky he has been—to have come so close at all. I came away from this book really respecting this man’s spirit.
And as I’ve gotten to “know” Lee over the past year or two as we correspond every once in a while, my admiration for him only grows. After winning a recent fight with leukemia, Dresser’s back on stage with his old band, The Krazy Kats, rockin’ the ‘50s nostalgia gigs like they were still 18!
As you read through this book, you ride along with Dresser through the late ‘50s when he and the Krazy Kats where just getting started singing rockabilly music. You live through the ‘60s when he struck out on his own and had his closest brush with the big time with his song “El Camino Real.” Then you follow along his endless string of stories through the ‘70s right up into the first decade of the 21st century. It’s incredible that Dresser kept the kind of notes that would help him recall all these years and we get the benefit of his foresight in this book.
You read all kinds of stories about Lee navigating situations that seem surreal to us. Like the time he tried to get Madonna’s autograph for a young girl when they were all passengers on the same flight. It is without any apparent malice at all that he recounts how he was rudely snubbed by the superstar. Instead of writing the kind of four-letter words that come to mind when I read about how the “great one” acted toward him, he chuckles about it, and tells about how the young girl and her mother gave him a “big wave and a smile” for his efforts, and “Hey, that’s better than any old autograph any day!”
You can’t help but to like Lee Dresser after you read this book. His optimism is not only impressive, it’s down right contagious. The book forced me to look at my own bitterness and reevaluate my own feelings of persecution at things that haven’t gone my way in life. We all have these things in our lives to deal with. Dresser takes all that has happened to him and processes it as part of who he is. And though it hasn’t all worked out just as he’d once dreamed it would, you get the definite sense by the end of the book that, now as he looks back, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. I don’t know about you, but I could sure learn a lesson from that!
You can find out more about Lee Dresser, his band The Krazy Kats, his various recordings, and how to get your own copy of Dresser’s book, Was There A Band Here Tonight, on The Krazy Kats website.