Rockin' Into the Hall of Fame
By Scott D'Camp Thief River Falls Times - April 24, 2007
Longtime Thief River Falls resident Al Finney will be inducted into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame1 this weekend (April 26-28). Finney’s band, The Charms, will perform during a live induction ceremony Saturday night.
The Charm’s induction into the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame could be described as the crowning achievement of a rock band that got its start in the infancy of rock and roll.
Al was playing music long before he joined The Charms. Both of his parents had a musical background and the Finney brothers honed their musical skills while growing up on the family’s Humboldt farm.
Al recalls music being a big part of Finney family reunions. Nearly all the men in the family played some type of instrument. His father played saxophone and banjo and his mother was a skilled pianist with a good ear.
"Every time there was a family gathering, my mother would play piano," Al said. "She was a very good piano player by ear and she could hear a song on the radio and play it."
The Charms was mostly a family band that consisted of original members, Al, his brother Maury and cousin Louise Finney. The group got its official start in 1960, when Al Finney returned from the U.S. Army, though the brothers performed together long before that. The group played together for more than 10 years, but most of the original members were going their separate ways in the late 1960s.
A young drummer named Doug Renaud from Neche, N.D., joined the group during its first official year. Al and Maury discovered Renaud, while he was playing at an area dance club.
It wasn’t until after they persuaded Renaud to join the band that the Finney brothers found out he was just 14 years old. Renaud was the son of a drummer, though, and he was encouraged by his father to join the band, despite being several years younger than the rest of the members.
"He was very mature and he handled himself quite professionally," Finney said of the young drummer, who was small enough that he could sleep underneath his drum set during the group’s early road trips.
The Charms original five members consisted of Al Finney on Guitar, Maury Finney on Saxophone, Louise Finney on Piano, Renaud on drums and Arlo "Dee" Dinusson on bass guitar.
The group played three-chord rock and roll and despite only having one horn player, The Charms successfully created a horn band sound.
In 1961, the group was signed to a record deal by Jerry Diamond, a Hallock businessman, who distributed records regionally under the name "Jay D Records." Diamond took the group to Minneapolis to the Kay Bank Recording Company to record four records that would be released on the Jay D label.
Al wrote the group's first record, an instrumental song, titled "Oh Mercy." The group also recorded popular records, “Rambunctious,” an instrumental piece, and "Dig Yourself," a vocal piece, during the first recording session.
Maury sent the group's first record, "Oh Mercy," to Billboard Magazine, where it received a four-star rating. Distribution of the record was limited to the area, however, and to this day, Al wonders what the record may have done had it been released nationally.
"If we were to send a 45 to Billboard today, it would either end up in the garbage, or it would be returned to sender," Al said. He added that "Oh Mercy" received plenty of airplay on area radio stations, but since it was distributed regionally, the record’s true level of success will never be known.
Louise left The Charms shortly after the group's first records were recorded. He was replaced by a piano player from East Grand Forks named Gary Emerson.
Performing is where The Charms became a household name. The group played for crowds all around northwest Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, including places like the Crystal Ballroom2 in Fargo, N.D., the Maple Lake Pavilion and the Battle Lake Pavilion. On one occasion, The Charms opened for the Everly Brothers in front of a capacity crowd at the Maple Lake Pavilion.
"We had a lot of on the job training," Al said. "Somebody would yell out a song. One of us would know it and the others would learn it on the job."
To meet the demand of weekly performances, the group purchased an old 1950 Dodge school bus.
"Gary Emerson took all the seats out and painted Charms on the side," Al said. "The bus had no brakes, the speedometer didn’t work and the bus vibrated at 50 miles per hour."
Al added that the vibrations stopped shortly after 50 miles per hour, so whoever was driving had some idea how fast they were going. Al said riding the bus was like riding a land missile. He joked that the brake pedal seemed to be attached to the gas pedal, because the bus seemed to speed up when the driver hit the brakes. The emergency brake was the only brake that worked, so stoping the bus was always an adventure.
The group continued to play together throughout the 1960s, but its original members began to leave the group as pursued other musical endeavors.
Dinusson left the group in 1965 to go to Vietnam. Several bass guitar players filled in for Dinusson during his military service, including Wally Krueger, Terry Erdmann and Jim Harrinton.
Emerson left the band in the late '60s to start his own band called Gary Ray and the Checkers. He later joined Maury Finney's country band called The Reedsong Music Company.
The group's youngest member, Renaud, also departed the group in the late '60s to peruse a career in Nashville. Renaud’s career was cut short, however, when he lost control of his vehicle and died in an auto accident. "Doug was on his way to being a big time musician," Al said, noting that it is believed that Renaud fell asleep at the wheel following a gig.
Al still plays guitar and steel guitar regularly. He played with several groups over the years, including his most recent group, "The Fugitives," that included area musicians Al and Ed Walseth, Jim Matson, Greg Dalley and Jackie Helms.
"I think playing music is the greatest hobby in the world," Al said. "I love music. I don’t care what kind of music it is."
Al, like many guitar players is a self-taught musician. He never learned to read music and he has limited experience reading tablature. "I'm kind of like the guy who bought the Mel May guitar book and looked at the first page and turned it to the last page and wondered why I wasn't a superstar yet," Al said.
Al said that he has no regrets about his musical career, but he still wonders what "Oh Mercy" may have done if it was distributed nationally.
"Music has been a big part of our life, even though we never made it big," Al said. "We all had jobs. If we had a record deal, we'd be faced with a tough decision. Besides, you can't have a family and be in a really successful band."
Al and his bandmates chose family and secure jobs over poverty and a chance at fame. He said it was the willingness of the wives of each band member, including his wife Marie, that made The Charms' regional success possible._______________________________
"Our wives were terrific," he said. "They took care of the home place while we were out having fun Saturday nights. We owe a lot to them."
Saturday, The Charms will take the stage for the first time since the 1970s. The group will perform three songs, with three of the five original members playing. Al will again play guitar; Maury will play saxophone; Emerson will again play piano; Dinusson will play bass; and Maury’s son, Duane, will make his debut with the group on drums.
1 - The link for the hall of fame disappeared sometime after this entry was posted on this blog. After doing some research, I discovered that the hall of fame had fallen on hard times. They now have a fundraiser set up online ...
2 - In 1940, Duke Ellington played the Crystal Ballroom