Life

Family and friends pay tribute to hall of fame musician Ron DeWitte

Struttmann Photo

Married musicians Lynne Rothrock and Ron DeWitte share a laugh during their recent Christmas cabaret performance in the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Whipple Auditorium. Blues guitarist DeWitte lost his nearly four-year battle with pancreatic cancer Friday night. Even though he was a quiet man who preferred to stay in the background, music was his sustaining force, so Rothrock said she created as many performances as possible to let his music shine in the spotlight.
Struttmann Photo Married musicians Lynne Rothrock and Ron DeWitte share a laugh during their recent Christmas cabaret performance in the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Whipple Auditorium. Blues guitarist DeWitte lost his nearly four-year battle with pancreatic cancer Friday night. Even though he was a quiet man who preferred to stay in the background, music was his sustaining force, so Rothrock said she created as many performances as possible to let his music shine in the spotlight.
/

Ron DeWitte of Cedar Rapids always poured his heart and soul into his music, but through his nearly four-year battle with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, he played his heartstrings with more abandon.

“He played with a different sense and engagement and fearlessness,” his wife, singer Lynne Rothrock, said. “He was kind of broken open by (his illness).”

And while his guitar gently weeps in the wake of his death Friday night, tributes have been pouring onto Facebook to honor the life and legacy of the celebrated blues guitarist. They include words such as “inspirational” and “mentor” and notes citing his final performances in his wife’s Christmas cabaret as “particularly transcendent, beautiful and bittersweet.”

“Ron was a god before he joined the Blue Band in the mid-80s,” frontman Bob Dorr of Cedar Falls said as he wrapped up his own career with the Blue Band, where DeWitte provided blazing guitar until 1989. “He was a god then, and he still is today. ... He taught us a bunch of cool songs, too. ‘Walk Right In’ is a song that he brought to the band, and people still ask for it.

“What a kind and gentle soul, and a just on-fire guitar player all the time. When he played for the Linn County Blues Society’s (Czech Village Blues Festival) in August, I got a chance to be part of that, and he was on fire then. Ravaged by disease, he still gets up there and it’s like there’s some kind of little switch that he leaves all that behind — some kind of shot of energy or something that allows him to transcend his physical challenges and just be a monster playing,” Dorr said.

“He’s always been the star of every band he’s been in, not only his own, but he has been an inspiration to many others, to try to do what he’s doing, and persevere and be as great as they can be. So I think he’s been inspirational to others to carry on music careers and a music lifestyle. That’s pretty much all he’s ever done. He worked at West Music for a while, but that’s still part of the music business.”

Music was his life, Rothrock said of her husband, a four-time inductee in the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a member of the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“I just think he was the most innate musician I’ve ever met — just completely in his soul,” Rothrock said. “He would say, ‘I just try to get out of the way and let the music come out.’ He was extraordinarily humble and probably never really knew how good he was, never quite could accept how gifted he really was. He would say, and I would agree, that he really didn’t like a lot of really ‘busy’ playing. He didn’t need a million notes — he just needed three that would grab your heart.”

DeWitte’s brand of guitar playing was his own, Dorr said, and even while influenced by others, “in the end, it’s all Ron.”

A longtime host for Iowa Public Radio shows, Dorr noted that all the blues greats he’s interviewed over the years say the key is to “play it your way — be yourself. Don’t try to be B.B. King because there’s already been a B.B. King. And Ron personifies that. Ron is Ron. He really has done it his way, and for that, I will forever be in admiration.”

Rothrock said her husband’s mission was to always serve the songs and play what was right for each one.

“It had to be what would honor the actual piece of music instead of showing off technical skills.”

Conversely, as much as music was ingrained in his soul, he never listened to it at home or played his guitar, unless he was learning something for a gig, Rothrock said. Music was active for him, not relaxing.

“He would never just sit around and noodle on the guitar,” she said. “He probably did when he was young and developing his skills, but he didn’t need to do that anymore.”

His gigs were all about honoring his audiences, too, showing them they were important enough for him to typically dress up in an old-school way, wearing a suit and jaunty hat on stage, or at least a “clean, crisp white shirt” in more casual settings.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“He cared about the experience you were having as an audience member,” she said. “He had the most amazing ability to make an emotional connection with the audience. One note, and the audience was with him.”

And Rothrock, who spent 11 years singing in Nashville before moving back to her hometown in 2003 to help care for her father, said she was never happier than when she was standing next to her husband on stage.

“It was so thrilling to hear him” connect with the music and his audiences.

The past years, however, were hard. She never glossed over that. Facebook was the social media platform where she so candidly shared the good, the bad and the ugly of their journey through surgery, treatments and setbacks, beginning in June 2014.

“I didn’t make a conscious decision to do it,” she said of going public with their battle. But because they were always in the public eye, social media allowed her to provide updates, and sometimes, as a caregiver, to just vent.

“I can tell the story 100 times or I can post it on Facebook,” she said.

Her father had the same disease, the same Whipple surgery to try to stem its advance, and died at the same age as her husband — 68. She was a caregiver for both.

“We don’t handle illness and death well in our culture,” she said. “When something happens, nobody knows what to say or how to say it.”

She hopes her frankness helped give voice to what others are experiencing.

“It was cathartic for me to write,” she said. “With the risk of putting things out in the public, the payoff has been just enormous, with the amounts of support and care and prayers. Everything good you would hope would come your way did. That was the trade-off. We’ve been the lucky recipients of very much kindness and consideration.”

Music brought the couple together. He took her breath away when she first heard him play during a shared New Year’s Eve gig in 2003, and they married in 2005.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“He was the greatest gift of my life, hands down,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll do music-wise. I’m sure at some point I’LL figure out how to make music again, because I did before I met him, but it’s a huge loss — the biggest loss to me, and to many.”

In addition to his wife, DeWitte is survived by his daughter, Jody Jensen, and her husband, Scott, of Cedar Rapids; his son, Michael DeWitte of Long Grove; two grandchildren; and other relatives, as noted in his obituary on page 10A.

A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

MORE Life ARTICLES TO READ NEXT ...

PARIS - Global wine output fell to its lowest level in 60 years in 2017 due to poor weather conditions in the European Union that slashed production in the bloc, international wine organization OIV said.Wine production totaled 250 ...

LONDON - Online streaming services such Spotify and Apple Music have become the music industry's single biggest revenue source, overtaking physical sales and digital downloads#xa0;for the first time, a global industry body said on ...

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.