Talkin’ QCB: History & More

The Leo Coffeehouse is one of the oldest, longest running folk and acoustic music venues in the United States. The Leo was started in 1963, when a group of students at the University of Cincinnati formed the Queen City Balladeers and the Leo Coffeehouse.

The coffeehouse first opened in the basement of the University of Cincinnati YMCA and was originally called the Wise Owl. The named was changed to the Leo Coffeehouse and the music continued at the University Y for many years. The Leo moved down the street to Old St. George’s Church in 1999, and moved to its current home, Zion United Church of Christ in Norwood, in 2006.

Over the years, many nationally-known artists like John Denver and Utah Phillips have performed at Leo, but the coffeehouse is mainly an outlet for the many Tri-state area artists. These artists love performing to a “listening room.” where they don’t have to compete with pick-up lines and drunken conversations (as they do in bars) or the grinding of the espresso machines  (as they do in most coffeehouse.)

QCB 30th Anniversary

The early years, as reported by Prudence Hunt in the opening of her article in the October, 1993 edition of Folk Notes, were times of high camaraderie

HAPPY 30TH ANNIVERSARY
TO BALLADEERS PAST & PRESENT

By Prudence Hunt

I’d like to teach the world to sing …

The above lyrics speak to the togetherness that people shared in ’60’s and ’70’s — a lifestyle exemplified in the Queen City Balladeers. In the summer, the Balladeers, as a group, held folk festivals, went picnicking, swimming and camping; in the fall they organized Halloween parties, hay rides, and square dances; and in winter it was ice skating and Christmas caroling.In 1975, there was even a group pilgrimage to the folk singers’ Mecca: the Martin Guitar factory in Pennsylvania. Member participation during these decades was astounding. On one evening, 180 people showed up at the Leo.

Meeting minutes from the ’60’s and 70’s show that the Balladeers were very much into community well-being as well. Members played at hospitals, schools, nursing homes, orphanages, country clubs and other venues throughout the city. Workshops and projects with other organizations were held regular basis. For example. Balladeers gave freely to early WEBN album projects.

Members also gave back to the Balladeers: there were T-shirt and sweatshirt sales; bulk orders of guitar strings to give members a price break. Each meeting including a “buy-sell” session where trading went on between members.

After all these years, one thing remains true: The Leo Coffeehouse is an incredible place for an evening of high-quality entertainment.

Recalling the Rabbit Hash Ramblers

Randy Wakefield has provided us with a memoir of how, in the early1960’s,  a group of UC Industrial Design students came to form a Bluegrass band called the Rabbithash Ramblers. Read it here. 

Have a Story to Share?

If you have a story to tell about the history of the balladeers, please add it as a comment below. If you have photos or other items to share, send them to the Queen City Balladeers using the contact form.


Comments

Talkin’ QCB: History & More — 44 Comments

  1. Eric S. My dad Haden Williams used to work with your brother Mike at P&G in the 1960’s. (when I was a kid). I was wondering if you have a contact email for Mike S.

  2. Great to catch up with QCB. Never a member but lived through a few years with the Rabbit HashRamblers. Many great memories of the Candlelight, chapter 13 and too many other gigs to mention. Thanks again to John Marlowe and Harry Sparks for discovering old 79641 Gibson mando. still playing it.

  3. OK, a good friend’s son-in-law sent me a link to this page and it got me thinking that perhaps it would be “stimulating” to write about the inception of the Rabbithash Ramblers and how we all related….back starting about 1962 until 1966 or 1967. I’ve got about 4 of probably 6 pages completed and I’m wondering if anyone would be interested in reading this tome? Some of it is quite humorous and the things we did ( actually Sparky mostly) were amazing. It’s really a long narrative on how we all got together. Ideas on this? I could save it as a PDF and make it available on this website perhaps? Great reading up on all these blasts from the past!

    • Yes, I would like to learn more about the Ramblers. I am a relative newbee to the QCB, and I find this stuff fascinating. I was in California during the 60’s, and the music there did not have the bluegrass or Appalachian influences, or at least I didn’t know enough to recognize it.

      Dennis Iverson

    • Eric HovemeyerRandy - I used to enjoy the Rabbithash Ramblers performing week after week in the basement of the Candlelight bar/restaurant on Calhoun Street across the street from the Y where the QCB's Wise Owl was located. I would be very interested in w on said:

      Randy – I used to enjoy the Rabbithash Ramblers performing week after week in the basement of the Candlelight bar/restaurant on Calhoun Street across the street from the Y where the QCB’s Wise Owl was located. I would be very interested in whatever you could write for us about that time. – Eric

    • You bet, Randy. There are lots of people who’d like to read your tome on The Rabbit Hash Ramblers. Put that PDF out there!

  4. Watching the PBS series The Appalachians brought to mind old times at the UC Architecture School, and on a whim I typed Rabbit Hash Ramblers into google. Voila, here I am. I will add this bit of history.

    I was there before the RHRs when Randy Wakefield took up the banjo. A 4 string tenor at first for folk (I think) but upgraded quickly to a 5 string and bluegrass. His learning piece was John Henry which he played over and over and over until he got it right. If he made a mistake, no matter how many bars in, he would go back to the beginning.

    He hooked up with Sparky on guitar and his wife on auto-harp. Mick Lynch rounded out the quartet, teaching himself, and playing a big metal bass. The first Rabbit Hash Folk Festival, as I recall, was about twenty people and a keg on a front porch (maybe a relative of Jim Stagge’s).

    I left UC in 1965 to go into the Peace Corps. They all graduated before I got back and I lost touch. I had no idea that the RHRs had a life after UC. Great to hear! Memorable times!

  5. I recently saw a reference to the National Folk Festival’s
    being held in Covington, Kentucky. This was before my
    years at UC and the Balladeers. A web search shows that
    it was held in Devou Park in 1863, and at the Latonia
    Race track in 1964.

    I missed it. Although about 5 years later, I did
    hear a John Jacob Niles performance at the Playhouse
    in Eden park.

    Do any of the old timers recall having attended either
    of those? Would you have any memories, descriptions,
    or stories about that that you might like to share?

    I for one, would love to hear about it. And I am
    sure others would too.

    Bob

  6. I was a member in the early years and performed with a group called The Merrill Dwimph Trio. I’m trying to track down the other two members. Does anyone know the whereabouts of Tom Rogers and Dave Smith?

  7. I am still in Cincinnati, after a six year working stint in Europe and middle east circa 1980. I still play and remember the words to most of those 60’s songs that we sang. I have built out a little place in the country in SE Indiana and hope to get back on stage again soon. For now mostly I play in niece and nephews weddings!

  8. Wow! I just stumbled across this wonderful web site, my first QCB contact since a reunion at Bill Sherman’s house in Dayton, Ohio many years ago. I am a past president and treasurer from the pre Leo, Wise Owl days. A few of those early D-28s mentioned in this blog involved short term treasury loans, a secret not divulged until this very day. Rest assured they were paid back promptly and in full.

    I learned guitar primarily from John Marlowe and Eric Sylvester (formerly Zwertscheck) with whom I have had some contact with over the years. John picked up a 1956 D-28 in a Nashville pawn shop and sold it to me. I still have it. John, Eric, and Ken Lohr played at my wedding. I left Cincinnati in 1970, am retired, live in Bass Harbor, Maine and play guitar in a local bluegrass group known as Dog Mountain. We play civic events, private parties, and bar and restaurant gigs. Although we advertise our availability for Bar Mitzvahs and Funerals, we have, from some reason, yet to get any gigs in those venues.

    Reading through the web site comments bought back a flood of memories. Here is some history on early balladeers, groups not yet mentioned in this blog and ancient bluegrass goings on.

    I first started playing in a duo with a girl named Donna, since married whose last name I don’t recall. Next with Bill Chamberlain, who is still a close friend. Then with the Johnson Fork Boys, a bluegrass group composed of Joe Stone on banjo, John Marlowe on mandolin, Bill Middleton on bass, and myself on guitar. We played at the Wise Owl, the Eden Park Concerts, and had a regular gig at a Mt. Adams bar called the Chapter 13.

    We hung out at the Ken Mill Café (long gone) at the corner of E. McMillan & Kenmill streets and learned from the house band called the Stoney Mountain Boys. It was composed of Jim McCall, guitar and lead; Earl Taylor, mandolin and harmony; Vernon (Junior) McIntyre, banjo; Harley Gabbard, dobro and harmony; and Boatwhistle McIntyre (Junior’s father), bass and humor. They were one of the best traditional bluegrass bands ever and still get air time on Serius radio. Jim had turned down two offers from Bill Monroe because he had a steady day job and family. Earl had diabetes and was tired of road travel with Flatt and Scruggs and Jimmy Martin among others.

    I stole licks from Jim as he played on stage and learned others he showed me in the back room after closing time. After Jim’s passing I recounted some of these experiences with Jim’s son Dwight McCall who plays mando with J.D Crowe. And Ricky Wasson, JD’s guitar player, said he has Earl Taylor’s old Gibson F5 mandolin. I remember taking Earl to Will’s Pawn Shop to get it out of hock so he could play a gig with the Johnson Fork boys at a – can you believe it – Mexican restaurant. As we warmed up for that gig, Earl showed me how to play the Carter style scratch lick on my guitar.

    You never knew who was going to stop by the Ken Mill to jam. For example, I saw the Osbornes and Stanley Brothers there on multiple occasions. The first bluegrass lead guitar solo I ever saw was by Larry Sparks who had just stepped in after Carter Stanley’s death. He was probably 16 years old at the time. I remember Sonny Osborne saying “always a day late and a dollar short” after missing a really ugly fight that was over by the time he made it from the bandstand to the alley behind the Ken Mill. He got there just as the loser was being carried off by his buddies. All this for no cover and .35 cent beer – 6 days a week from 9pm until 2am.

    Those were the days. The Balladeer members and related experiences shaped my life in many ways and continue to influence it to this day. I’ll be forever grateful and would love to hear from old friends.

    mailto:dogmountainbluegrass@gmail.com

    • Mike:

      Thanks so much for this post. It’s great to get information like this, especially now as we enter the 50 year celebration. In addition to this year’s events, we are planning on a big 50 year birthday bash next September so if you can be in town ….

      Jack Lohman visited recently and we’ve got him on video talking about the early days. Not sure of the quality, but if it’s at all usable I will post it her for all to see and hear.

      Eric Hansen
      current president and web master

    • Mike Ryan,

      I believe it was Donna Umbach who you played with, her maiden name, who turned into Donna Stohr when she got married. Nice to hear from you. Where is Donna Stohr I wonder?

    • I’ve been a UC faculty member since 1963, and in those days I was playing a lot of Pete Seeger and Weavers stuff when the Wise Owl opened. So I played there a few times and in the course of events managed to meet Bob Dinerman. We got a group together and played around town. On one occasion we met up with Len Goorian and he suggested we start a local TV show called Hootenatti, which was to be the Cincinnati version of the popular Hootenanny show. We lasted several months, drawing mainly on local talent but also bringing in some big names. I particularly recall Ian & Sylvia being on the show one night. They were terrific. Those were great times, and I am pleased that Leo Coffeehouse has survived to this day.

  9. Since I haven’t heard much from the QCB in the past couple of years I wasn’t sure about contacting you. I was happy to help out in securing some of the musicians for that celebration (e.g. John McC). I’m friends with Harry “Sparky” Sparks and can chat with him about QCB if you’d like.

  10. I was involved in QCB in the 70s and early 80s. I booked for Leo, was president, and summer concert director. I have fond memories of the talent and events. I went to the reunion at old St George with George Uetz and we had a great time reconnecting. It is nice to see an online presence. Wishing the group continued success.

  11. My name is Chuck Keller and i was involved in QCB throughout the 70s and into the early 80s. I booked acts at Leo, served as president, and summer concert director. That was a fun, fun time. I met so many talented people and have such fond memories of that time. I still play although I now play in a rock band. Good to see something like this online.

  12. After Gene Bush left town, I took over the dobro in the Rabbit Hash Ramblers for a while and played with the band at the Candlelight. Harry Sparks lives in No Ky and sometimes sits in with the jam session that happens every Monday in Covington. http://www.mollymalonesirishpub.com is the place. The jam session has a facebook page: search for “monday night bluegrass molly malone” you will hit it. Scroll down for a pic of Sparky and Sam Bush. Gene Bush lives near Nashville and toured with a pro bluegrass band for many years. In 2005 he made a solo CD in delta blues style. Search cdbaby.com for “gene bush” and you will hit it. Sparky told me Randy W. has not played banjo for many years. Mick Lynch played bass. Sparky knows where he is. See my band CD on cdbaby.com. Aloha.

      • Hi Terry,
        There can’t be many T.T.’s and so you are probably the one
        from whom I took high school physics, waaay back when.

        And I thought about you this morning before seeing your note. Perhaps it was you, (or else it was my other Intro to Physics
        teacher) who posed the problem where a truck full of chicken cages pulls up to the scales, stops, the drive gets out and whacks
        the cages so that the chickens all fly up. The question
        is, “what is the time history of the weight on the scales?”

        The problem I solved this morning was a related one.
        There is a car with closed windows, stopped. There is
        a helium balloon in the middle of the passenger compartment.
        The car accelerates to 30 mph. What happens to the balloon
        with respect to its location in the car? I’ve only know about
        this problem for a little more than 20 years. The insight came
        when, this morning, waiting for the water in the pan to
        come to temperature in boiling eggs, I gave the pan a
        quarter turn on the burner. Aha! And the outcome is
        way beyond introductory physics. It involves turbulence
        and fluid dynamics.

        So I gotta crow!

        Obligatory music content: I have performed at
        least one chicken song in a jug band w. Erich Sylvester.

        Best of music to all.

        Bob Palasek

      • Yes, came to the wedding and stayed at Jerry Lackamp’s house in Shaker Heights. And I have partnered with Bob Palasek to make music. I live very close to the Golden Gate bridge in former army housing at the Presidio. Mark Splain lives across the bridge a few miles. Marc Young is in Cincy area now after many years in Boston.

  13. The 50th season of the Leo CoffeeHouse begins on September 9th! I’m trying to locate more of the Balladeers from the 1960s and 1970s to interest them in renewing their connection to the Queen City Balladeers to one degree or another. An earlier posting here mentioned the Rabbithash Ramblers. I remember them! I used to enjoy their act at the Candlelight Bar (across the street from the Wise Owl at the Y on Calhoun Street.) I recall Harry (“Sparky”) Sparks on guitar. Didn’t he become part owner of the Famous OldTime Music Company on Vine Street? –before Vernon MacIntyre owned it? I also recall Randy Wakefield on banjo. –and, Gene Bush on dobro and autoharp. What has become of these people? Where are they now? FaceBook shows a Randy Wakefield living in Montgomery, Ohio. Did Gene Bush re-locate to Tennessee and do some work at the Country Music Hall of Fame? Where is Harry Sparks?

    • Eric,

      Turns out I have a friend named Randy Wakefield. Further, when asked he admits to being the same RW from your post! I never knew. From Randy:

      “‘Twas me…….we didn’t pick together as I was doing that B 4 you were born! That was back in the days of….let’s see……Eric Swarttzchec (sp) and a blond gal whose name escapes me that was sooooooomuch like Mary Travers of PP&M.
      After that, it was a Bluegrass group – The Rabbithash Ramblers for $$$ during my 5th and 6th year of architectural year. Gawd…….we had fun and drank waaaaaaaay too much beer! The lead singer for our group, Harry Sparks, still lives in N. Ky and is a virtuoso mechanic on acoustic bluegrass instruments…..for a lot of folks in Nashville. Dem were the daze… rw”

      So, I did a search for HS and he is well known in the banjo repair circuit. He also owned OTM before Vernon M and had a venue in Louisville. Here is a recent post re: Harry.
      http://doughutchens.blogspot.com/2012_01_01_archive.html (Need to scroll down about 2/3 the way to Monday, January 16, 2012 post).

      Interesting that I have known Randy for 20 years or so and we never discovered our mutual connection to QCB. Dave.

      • The “blond gal” who looked like Mary Travers was Peggy Wahl, I believe. Please tell Randy that he is more than welcome to attend QCB events, even if he does not play his instruments any longer.

    • Yes, Eric. Harry was the driving force behind Old Time Music. He became a partner in a successful Architectural Company in Covington and retired from there a few years back. He and I are good friends, and I’ve offered to get info between QCB and him, but haven’t heard from anyone regarding this.

  14. Hi Eric,
    They say proper names are the first things to go.
    I do need more context, maybe even a picture from the 1960’s.
    Do I remember you also from the math department?
    Best regards,
    Bob P.

      • John, thanks for the mermoy. I attended QCB jams at the Y a couple of times circa 1967 and saw John Denver (with the Chad Mitchell Trio, less Chad) at the Wise Owl. I never forget a guy named Paul Prestipino, a one man orchestra, who took some time to show me some chords, nor will I forget the friendly Balladers who added to my meager guitar skills. After 40 years and retirement, I’m picking up my guitar again and look forward to hearing the Leo concerts.Glad the QCB are still around. Fred

  15. Hi, Bob! I remember you! –from the late 60s or early 70s –your jug band days. I have wondered from time to time what became of you. I’m glad to see that you are still interested in good music. Hey! Why don’t you plan a trip to Cincinnati sometime during the 2013-2014 season of the Leo CoffeeHouse –during the 50th anniversary year of the Queen City Balladeers. It would be fun to see you again! I wonder if I would recognize you. Do you remember me? — Eric Hovemeyer

  16. I remember the open mike nights at the Leo in the basement of the Y in the late 60’s and early 70’s – heard Erich Sylvester, Jack Gambetta, Nat and Paul, quite a lot of good pickers and singers, and genuine tolerance for us newbies. Dave was the president I remember – can’t recall his last name. Toby Skeen once repaired a crack in the back of my Martin 0017 – excellent craftsman. On a few slow nights, I even got roped into MC-ing.

  17. Hello all,

    The “asian guy” who played mellow blues (a good man feeling happy) and to whom Gary Weisman refers was/is Dave Kimura. I too wonder what Dave now is doing, and what he is playing. He may have been from Hawaii if I recall correctly.

    I also wonder about Roy (Toby) Skeen who was starting on fiddle about the time I left Cincinnati.

    As for myself, after jug band, and then a couple of decades as a bluegrass mandolinist, lead and tenor singer, and guitarist, I got into old time fiddling in the mid to late ’90s. And now I am also doing quite a bit of Scandinavian fiddling.

    “Out in California, where they sleep out every night, a-cha, cha, a-cha, cha, cha, a-cha”

    Best regards to all,
    Bob Palasek

    • Bob — I believe your jug band group was called the Millcreek Revolutionary Marching Jug Band; right? Who else was in that group? Are you still in touch with any of them? A couple of other people that I recall from that time period are Miki Kitchkowsky and Barb Bristol. The Internet seems to indicate that Miki is now living at Berry, Kentucky. Do you recall Barb Bristol? –and do you have any idea where she is today?

  18. I just happened to check out the QCB website and was delighted to see comments from my old friend Fred McCoy (see you this summer, Fred!) and John Dieters, a name I haven’t heard in a very long time. Fred and I and the rest of the members of the “Newcomers” (7 of us total!) were no doubt the youngest members of the QCB back in the mid-60’s. As high-school kids from Mason (then a small town), we drove down to the Wise Owl in the Y every Sunday night that we could manage. John, you may not remembers us, but you taught me how to Travis pick! Mostly we learned from the many seasoned (and generous and kind) musicians in the group, but we also performed a couple of times there. I particularly remember a blugrass group called the Rabbit Hatch (Hash?) Ramblers that came up from Kentucky and another youngster (maybe 17 years old) named John Zwerchek (sp?) who was a very talented guitarist who I heard later backed Mary Travers after PP&M broke up. I also remember an Asian guy who dressed in leather and engineer boots and played a very mean blues guitar (Hot Tuna and Snaker Ray-type stuff). EVERYONE at the QCB was friendly and treated us with respect despite our young ages. I was also there at the after-concert QCB party with the “Mitchell Trio” when John Denver played “Jet Plane” before it was ever recorded by anyone. I missed out when Ian and Sylvia came through town. I also remember that at the time we were members, QCB had the largest collection of Martin guitars in any one organization in the country (over 70 as I recall). I remember more than one 1940’s era herringbone D-28’s!! The Newcomers mostly played to senior citizens and other such groups, but we had a lot of fun and many of us are still playing. We did get to open for John Jacob Niles (yes, that one…I have the pics to prove it ) at the Warren County Fair. One of our members, John Gould, became quite an accomplished guitarist and played quite a bit in the area and out on the west coast. We’re having a reunion this summer, so I have to practice!

    Keep on keepin’ on, Balladeers!

    Gary Weisman
    Durham, New Hampshire
    (Still playin’ my ’76 Guild F-50)

    • My name was Erich Zwertschek in those days, not John as above, and I did play in Mary Travers band on her first solo concert tour. Mike Z. is my brother, who was one of the founding QCB members. Thanks for writing. Check out my new CD selling via cdbaby.com

  19. John, thanks for the memory. I attended QCB jams at the “Y” a couple of times circa 1967 and saw John Denver (with the Chad Mitchell Trio, less Chad) at the Wise Owl. I never forget a guy named Paul Prestipino, a one man orchestra, who took some time to show me some chords, nor will I forget the friendly Balladers who added to my meager guitar skills. After 40 years and retirement, I’m picking up my guitar again and look forward to hearing the Leo concerts.
    Glad the QCB are still around. Fred

  20. As I remember it , I was the third president of the Queen City Balladeers. We were still performing in what was called “The Wise Owl” in the basement of the YMCA on Calhoun St. Full crowds every night…great talent. I was almost impeached when I approved buying an upgraded sound system with new Electro-Voice microphones and just about emptied the club’s treasury. Once we had the equipment and enjoyed the upgrade peace returned. We also start the concerts in Eden Park and was surprised with the large turnout we had with only donated advertising on the radio. They were a success the entire summer. J. Henry Miller, with the YMCA will always be remembered for his help. Trust me, there would have been no Queen City Balladeers without him! Happy Holidays Balladeers John B. Deiters , Miami, Florida

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