A history of musicPublished 12:00pm Sunday, February 17, 2013
Denny Charnecki has spent his life in music, playing with big names and promoting shows
When Elvis Presley’s son asks you to play in his band, you don’t say no. The same goes for Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty and his son Michael, The Crickets, Richie Valens’ family, former stars of the Grand Ole’ Opry, the television show “Hee-Haw,” and numerous other acts that have come and gone from Denny Charnecki’s life over the past 50 years.
Charnecki, the well-known promoter and musician, has toured with his band Denny and the DC Drifters for decades, opening for big stars and playing backup for some of the biggest classic rock n’ roll and country acts in U.S. music history.
Those who don’t know the 63-year-old quickly learn how much of a performer Charnecki is. He talks fast, thinks faster, and always sounds like he’s selling something. More often than not, it’s a new talent he’s booked to play in the area, or a show he’s put together using talents as local as Austin’s Amanda Corey, and as big as former Grand Ole Opry stars. He has jackets, shirts, pants, belts and all manner of costumes for various tribute shows.
“We’ve got hundreds of these costumes in the house,” Charnecki said earlier this week, rummaging through his closet to show off various set pieces.
Charnecki started his musical career in 1963, forming the DC Drifters in junior high, but he got his taste for music early in life. He remembers sitting around at night in his first home in Blue Earth, listening to his father, uncle, and friends play.
“There was a lot of blues and country music played on that guitar,” he said, motioning to his uncle John’s guitar in the corner of his basement.
Stepping into Charnecki’s home is a lesson in music history. He’s likely to play some classic rock n’ roll song on the TV, or go through the myriad posters and pictures on the wall of various groups he has played with, or acts he he has opened for. There’s signed posters and pictures from people like Tommy Roe, Tommy Cash, Dan Seals, and others.
Almost hidden among the posters is an advertisement for the Parrish Brothers. Though Denny and the DC Drifters had played some around the area, it wasn’t until the Parrish Brothers came to town that Charnecki caught a break. Foy Parrish took Charnecki under his wing, teaching him how to play the guitar, and the band let the DC drifters open for them in various southeastern Minnesota venues.
From there, it was more phone calls and opportunities. Columbia Records asked the DC Drifters to cut a record in 1965, and the DC Drifters came out with their hit single “I Know,” in 1966. It was originally Barbara George’s song, but the DC Drifters version eventually became more popular.
And the phone calls kept coming. The DC Drifters toured with former Grand Ole Opry singer Dottie West, eventually earning a reputation for being a solid band to tour with.
“That’s how this business works,” Charnecki said. “Someone hears about you and they give you a call, say ‘Can you come on tour?’ and then more people hear about you and you get more phone calls.”
Charnecki is a prototypical entertainer: He can’t quite keep all the details of his career straight, often pausing to remember just when certain tours took place, or when certain acts came to town. Yet he’s got plenty of stories from being on tour, plenty of memories of old, corny jokes, and good shows.
“My God, he’s played with all kinds of people,” said Scott Anderson, former Paramount Theatre manager and Charnecki’s good friend. Anderson played with the Drifters from 1980 to 1982, a couple years after Denny finished touring with Hee-Haw, the wildly popular ‘70s country variety show. Anderson has played in various bands himself, and knows what being on tour means.
Back in the day, Austin was a lively place for musical acts. The bar business encouraged live bands, and Austin had plenty of dance halls and bars to play in.
“We would play in one bar and wheel our equipment across the street to the next bar for the next weekend,” Anderson said.
Denny remembers those days, too, reminiscing about opening for Chuck Berry — “That was pretty cool,” he said — and traveling across the country.
He hasn’t just toured the country, however. For the past 30 years, Denny has promoted various musical acts in Austin, bringing in bands and singers from all over to play at places like the Paramount Theatre.
“He does a lot of shows that appeal to a wide range of audience members, bringing in people that wouldn’t normally come to a Paramount Theatre show,” said Jennie Knoebel, Paramount executive director. “He is a really fantastic promoter. He really knows a lot about music.”
The highlight of Denny’s career, is his various hall of fame and lifetime achievement awards. He remembers inducting his good friend Parrish into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and watching as Foy inducted him in return at the same ceremony.
“We got to pass each other the award,” he said with a smile. “I got to give my teacher an award, and he got to give me one.”
Charnecki hasn’t slowed down his work, even if he doesn’t tour for weeks at a time as often. There’s still a market for “the roots of rock and roll,” as Charnecki calls it, and the DC Drifters are still playing large gigs. The DC Drifters opened the Surf Ballroom’s Winter Dance Party this year, featuring the likes of Eric Burdon and the Animals, Gary Busey, Peter Asher, Matthew & Gunnar Nelson, and more.
“We sold out 1,700 people on a Wednesday night,” Charnecki said, looking excited. “On a Wednesday!”
He plans on bringing the “Age of Aquarius,” the ‘60s and ‘70s psychedelic music revue back to the Paramount next month, and he has plans to collaborate with Richie Valens’s family to organize further tribute shows. He may joke that he won’t slow down for another 35 years, but he may not have to: He still knows how to work a crowd, and he still loves performing.
“There’s nothing like getting a good show, and knowing you’ve made the audience happy,” he said. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”