A Life Time of Music: Roger Rettig

Roger Rettig’s love of music has led him from England to Medora Musical stage.

This guest blog was written by Linda Sailer of the Dickinson Press. The full article can be found on the Dickinson Press website.

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MEDORA — Over the past 10 seasons of the Medora Musical, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler said has come to know Roger Rettig well.

“We have a weekend routine when we all get together around a campfire in the backyard,” Hatzenbuhler said. “Roger and Bill (Sorenson) start telling stories — it’s like Laurel and Hardy. I love his British humor.”

England is where Rettig’s music career began 55 years ago — and he’s still going strong. Rettig is the pedal steel guitar player with The Coal Diggers Band, which plays for the Burning Hills Singers and takes center stage nightly at the Medora Musical. Rettig called Burning Hills Amphitheatre “an absolutely unique venue,” and referenced the recent spell of cold weather when describing how much he appreciates playing there.

“Can you imagine people sitting out in 40-plus degrees and giving us a rousing ovation all the time?” he asked

English roots

Rettig came up in the music business surrounded by some of England’s all-time great musicians. Mentioning The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as his contemporaries, he has enough stories to hold any listener’s interest.

He grew up in London and started playing guitar while in grammar school. “I spent every hour playing guitar — I loved it,” he said. Rettig credits British singer, songwriter and musician Lonnie Donegan for inspiring him to pursue music as a profession while he was still in high school. “Back then, Lonnie had a huge influence on me,” he said. “I love that man for what he had given me when I was a boy.” Donegan entertained with folk and blues songs, which were described as “skiffle-style” music. While attending a Donegan performance, Rettig recalled, “I was looking at the guitarist with the band, and decided, I can’t be Lonnie — but I can be that guy.”

Rettig turned professional in 1959. One of the early highlights was playing with Eden Kane. “At that point, Eden Kane was a pretty big star — he was very well groomed and very good looking,” Rettig said. “It was a great job. I was making four times the money my dad was getting and, of course, I thought it would last forever.” At one point, the band was double-booked with The Beatles. It was during the week when The Beatles’ debut album “Please Please Me” topped the charts. The venue’s manager decided Rettig’s band was to remain on stage.

“Funny part is I remember John muttering a string of expletives, but Paul said, ‘Calm down, John. Don’t forget we get paid anyway,” he said.

Rettig recalled the time when the Eden Kane band was invited to a poll winner’s pop concert. Kane had topped a poll for having the best single of the year, “Boys Cry.” “We were on immediately after The Rolling Stones and immediately before The Beatles,” he said.

Playing with the band

Talent is necessary to be a part of the band, Rettig said, but attitude is just as important. “It almost goes without saying that 50 percent of this job is attitude and getting along with everyone,” he said. “You’re rubbing shoulders with people every single night.” Keyboard player Chad Willow has a friendly dispute with Rettig as who has been with the band the longest. “Roger and I have played 10 years, but here’s the rub: last year, I came and played 10 shows, so this is my 11th edition,” he said jokingly. “Roger is a great guy, great to be in the band. He’s one of the favorites in town. He’s almost like family because we spent 10 years together.” Guitarist Nick Kellie described Rettig as having a great sense of humor. “It’s a little twisted at times — that’s the word — dry, very dry. But he’s great company, great to be around, an excellent musician and it’s a privilege to share the stage with him.”

If Rettig is ever weary, the audience has no way of knowing. While on stage, he’s sporting a smile, chatting with a singer or two, or taking the good-humored jabs from his buddy and show co-host, Wild Bill Sorenson. When not performing at the Musical, Rettig can be seen entertaining at Chuckwagon in downtown Medora or at the pitchfork fondue on Tjaden Terrace. He’s also volunteers Mondays at the Harold Schafer Heritage Center. “He’s become part of the Medora family,” Hatzenbuhler said. “The show is still lots of fun for him. When you’re playing a show every single night, you could go on autopilot, but his music and arrangements are so interesting, and so good.”

Beyond the stage

As the Medora Musical winds down for the season, Rettig is looking forward to a game of golf — his favorite hobby. “I’m on the golf course every day,” he said. Rettig’s second passion is preservation of the trolleybuses in London. He is one of 25 members of the London Trolleybus Preservation Society, which owns and operates vintage trolleybuses in East Anglia and Suffolk. “Any spare monies are poured into the preservation and operation of the old London transport trolleybuses,” he said. “I’ve loved these six-wheeled vehicles since the very early 1950s and far beyond 1962, when LT abandoned their huge trolleybus network.” Rettig said the trolleybuses ran on rubber tires, but operated on electricity provided by booms on the roof. “Whenever we can acquire another, we do, so we have four London trolleybuses now,” he said.

Rettig is never certain if he will return to Medora the next season — that’s for the show’s producer to decide. “At times, it’s hard to be away from my wife,” he said. “But given this band, I love it, the area is beautiful and I’ve got a lot of good friends up here.

“You can’t compare anything else to the Musical.

To read the full Dickinson Press article on Roger, follow this link.

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