There have been a few movies recently that have chronicled famous musicians and musical groups that have gained fame, notoriety, and even icon status worldwide for the ways in which their sound changed musical history forever. Most people know what kind of music they like, but they don’t always know all of the history behind the genre of music, the instruments, the musical groups, and so on. Like any topic, there is usually an interesting history behind them, and the recent movies and documents made me interested in finding out more about more local groups that have gained fame in South Dakota and the region, and I came across Gene Carroll and the Shades.
The group, which was inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, started out as three members of the Harold Johnson Orchestra out of Sisseton, S.D. - Gaylen Johnson, Bob Syverson, and Gene Okerlund, who performed under the name, “‘Gene Carroll.” Johnson played upright string bass and tuba; Syverson played guitar; and Okerlund played trumpet. An article in the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association’s “2009 Hall of Fame 1st Induction/Concert Spectacular” program describes that the group “played Old Time, Country-Western and ‘Modern’ music. But soon the three decided they wanted to play the music all the kids were talking about, Rock and Roll. With Gaylen on Gibson Bass, Bob playing the Chet Atkins Gretch and Gene on the Wurlitzer electric piano, The Shades were formed.” The group formed in 1959, and Odean Anderson, on rhythm guitar, and Larry Wattier, on drums, would also join The Shades.
The article about The Shades in the association’s 2009 program describes that “Initially, everyone wore sunglasses to coincide with the name but after playing in a few poorly lit clubs, that proved impractical.” So even though it didn’t always match their name, the group stopped wearing sunglasses at every gig, seeing as they would not have been able to see very well otherwise! I doubt they considered the logic when choosing the shades, versus the stylistic impact.
The Shades continued to expand, adding Dave Johnson, on saxophone, when Wattier exited the group, and Anderson would switch to playing drums. When he left the group, he was replaced by John Leppart, “legendary Fargo drummer,” the article states. “The guys played at ballrooms, armories, high school gyms and even on flatbed trailers. Crowds were very receptive and the band started to build up a following in northeast South Dakota.”
The group’s fame increased when booking agent Jimmy Thomas, “who would also book Myron Lee and the Caddies and the Trashmen, helped the group expand their coverage area to include North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.” Some of the venues along The Shades’ tours included The Ranch at Sisseton, Johnny White’s in Sioux Falls, the Dell Rapids Pavilion, Selby Opera House, Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, and the Hollyhock in Hatfield, the article describes.
“The Shades developed a unique sound that caught the attention of Midwestern teenagers as well as older fans. They drew big crowds and became very popular,” the article states. It describes that in 1959, The Shades recorded a 45 in Sioux Falls on Bob Helgelson’s M&L label. The recording featured the instrumental, “Red Devil,” on one side, and “Do You Remember,” featuring Okerlund’s vocals on the other side.
The group disbanded in the early 1960s, with the members going in various directions. Dave Johnson continued to play in the Fargo area and also played with the Corvettes out of Minneapolis, and he went on to work with Howie Johnson, the original drummer of The Ventures, and other national acts, the article describes. Okerlund found fame as an announcer for professional wrestling - known as “Mean Gene” Okerlund - and also worked in the food business; Syverson continued to play music in the Fargo area and also played with The Corvettes.
The article concludes, “The Shades were not together for a long time but they provided us with some great music.” You can still find that music online, so if you are looking to take a walk down memory lane, search for The Shades and have a listen!