In the Fall of 1964, five students at Graceland College, a church sponsored college in small town Lamoni, Iowa, got together to form a rock and roll band that would forever change the campus. Steve Gunlock, Jack Cave, John Hatton, Fred Silvester and Ned Ashbaugh, the original members were all students living in Gunsollie Hall.
When the band attended Graceland, dancing was not permitted on campus. The only functions the band played on campus were roller skate parties, club functions or talent shows. Initially the band didn't have a name, matching outfits, or really good gear.
This is the first photo taken of the band at one of the skating parties in the Student Center.
For one of the early campus appearances, the Band wanted to look more professional. The guys wore black pants and black turtle neck shirts. When they were all together, John Hatton, the bass player, made the comment that they looked like a bunch of Morticians. The name stuck. The Band took the name The Fabulous Morticians.
By the 1965-66 school year, the guys added more "cool" gear...guitars, amps etc. They had also developed fans at Graceland and throughout southern Iowa and northern Missouri. A 1951 Cadillac hearse was purchased to transport gear and band members. (Affectionately named, The Gray Ghost.) It was quite a sight, the band would leave campus on a Friday evening to travel wherever to perform. Students in cars would follow The Fabulous Morticians all with lights on...as in a funeral procession.
The band traveled to the towns near Lamoni, renting legion halls, roller skate rinks or similar buildings to hold dances. Because students with cars often loaded up Graceland students and traveled to the dances, school administrators became concerned, both from opposition to dancing, and worry the students might be involved in car accidents.
One winter evening the band played a dance in Ridgeway, Missouri. After the dance, not far out of Lamoni, there was a car crash. When the band members happened on the accident, police were searching a nearby cornfield for victims. The car was on its side having missed a turn in the road. The car had been full of Graceland students and one of the students suffered a broken collar bone. It was fortunate that no other students were injured.
The following Monday morning, the band were called into the Dean’s office and told they could return to the college the following year, if they broke up the band. After some soul searching, the guys decided to move on. Steve, Jack and Fred transferred to Central Missouri State, located in Warrensburg, Missouri. John transferred to the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. Ned Ashbaugh joined the Air Force a step ahead of the draft.
Kansas City became the base of operation. The band needed a new drummer and recruited a young drummer who was working in their favorite K.C. music store. That drummer, Larry Pollard, became the drummer with the most tenure in the band but Ned Ashbaugh would join up with the band years later in its present two drummer set up.
The fall of 1966 was spent by the band playing in small towns in Missouri. During that school year the band started playing clubs in the Kansas City area. There was also a spring weekend show at the Tan-Tar-Ra resort, on Lake of the Ozarks. Finally in early 1967 the band was hired as one of the house bands at the Pizza Villa, the local hangout for the Central Missouri State students, locals and Military from Whiteman AFB. They alternated weekends with another good band, the “Broadway Clique”.
The summer of 1967, after doing a recording session for the “Guillotine” label, the band loaded up the “Mort Van” (the Gray Ghost was outgrown by then) and headed west. They played clubs in Wyoming and Utah. Working six nights a week made The Morticians a very tight band.
That summer, the band turned down an offer to move to Las Vegas and become the lounge band at the Thunderbird Hotel. Wisely or not the guys, their families and friends all concluded returning to college was better than the life of professional musicians.
After graduation from college, Steve accepted a teaching job at William Chrisman High School in Independence, Missouri, and quit the band business. However, in 1968 Graceland College’s administration approved dancing on campus and the Morticians were invited to play for that first dance. The Fabulous Morticians got back together for one final gig. Thus, the change the Fabulous Morticians brought to Graceland College was institutionalized in classy fashion.
Steve later sold all of his gear, Fred moved back to Utah and neither picked up a guitar for the next thirty years. The rest of the band members continued on in music. Jack became keyboard player of the popular KC band, “The Classmen”. Larry and Jack started a KC band called “Union Station”. That band played together from 1972 to 1989. John Hatton became the full time bassist for the “Pete Eye Trio”, a jazz trio that performed one of the longest gigs at the Kansas City Playboy Club. John was also named best bassist by Downbeat Magazine during the 1968 Notre Dame Jazz Festival. Johnny later moved to Los Angeles where he is a very successful musician. Johnny has toured with many well known national acts, including Seals & Croft, Dolly Parton, John Davidson, Big Daddy, Jose Feliciano and others. John plays with almost any band that will hire him, but has been bassist for The Brian Setzer Orchestra (formerly the Stray Cats) for the past 14 years, traveling the world as the premiere “slap” bass player in music today.
Jack Cave became a very successful insurance executive. He and a couple of his associates started the “Entertainment Brokers International” firm. That firm insures many top rock stars, movie stars, touring acts and is literally the insurer of the stars. Jack sold his interest a few years back and is now on sabbatical as the CEO of a Graceland owned company.
Fred went back to school, at the University of Utah, where he obtained his law degree and is a very successful trial lawyer. He’s living the “good life”.
After a stint in the Air Force, Ned returned to Graceland and became the drummer for another Graceland band, “Family Phat”. After his band days, he became a successful chiropractor in Zanesville, Ohio. Ned has a larger collection of drum sets, and has never stopped playing.
Larry put away his drumsticks in 1989 but started playing again when the band was exhumed. He and Kiera live in Half Rock, Missouri, or they own Half Rock, Mo. Larry and Kiera raise cattle and grand kids.
Over the years, the Morts played with several sidemen. Some stay in touch and others have lost contact.
In 2001, Graceland announced that it would put on a show featuring most of the musical groups that had come out of the school. Steve and Fred began dusting off their guitar skills, and the band resurrected many of its old tunes. The Morticians enthusiastically participated and were the last act on the bill. The band played for two packed houses. It was a great show, featuring good music and many funny stories Larry related about their younger playing days. This one show brought these old friends back together 35 years after their last show and pumped new blood into these old rockers.
In 2002, the Morticians were inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association’s Hall of Fame. There have been many good rock bands from the state of Iowa. The Band is proud to be among that group. The September induction ceremony and live performance for all the selected bands, took place at the historic “Roof Gardens Ballroom” at Arnolds Park on Lake Okoboji, Iowa. Saturday morning, each inductee band had a section set up for friends to visit, get autographs, t shirts, photos, etc. That evening the guys and along with families and friends had dinner at one of the local steak houses in Spirit Lake. There, John penned the tune “Okoboji”, sung to the tune of “Oklahoma”. The Band performed the song as an encore to their induction show.
Sunday’s activities included the induction ceremony followed by live performances by the inductee bands. The hall was packed. It was a great show in a historic venue.
Back To the Recording Studio
During the week of February 2 - 8, 2014, the band traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah for a week long recording session in preparation for the upcoming Morticians 50th anniversary show at Graceland, which will be October 18, 2014. The Band recorded eight songs to add to the three “rock-a-billy” tunes recorded in 2008 for the IRRMA. The new 11 tune CD will be ready for sale at the 50th Anniversary show in October.
The Sunday they arrived at Salt Lake was the first time the band members had been in Salt Lake City since the summer of 1967. The guys visited the location of some of the clubs they played in 1967. Some were no longer in existence and some had new names, but it was fun to tell stories about recollections of the summer that was.
How long will the band continue to get together to play, who knows, these ancients seem to keep young by playing music together occasionally. As long as they are healthy and active, they are likely to play somewhere. Some of them don’t move as quickly as they once did, and the music may be dated, but it is old time Rock and Roll and they love it.