116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Bob Dorr, a fixture on the Midwest music scene, gathered up a few longtime friends to mark three milestones with a concert Wednesday night in the Riverside Casino Show Lounge: turning 70, serving 50 years with Iowa Public Broadcasting and spending 45 years as a band leader, mostly with various iterations of The Blue Band, ending that run four years ago.
Inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 for radio and 2007 as a musician, and the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2005, he set the first rock ’n’ roll show spinning on an Iowa Public Radio station Oct. 2, 1972.
He’s now the host and producer of “Backtracks,” “Blue Avenue“ and ”Beatles Medley“ for Iowa Public Radio, and plays in smaller configurations of bands, typically duos and trios, but not multi-musican outfits like The Blue Band or its predecessor, The Little Red Rooster Band.
Technology has changed some aspects of his work, age has changed others. He still kicks some things old-school, eschewing cellphones for his landline to preserve some digital privacy, and producing his radio shows out of the garage at the Cedar Falls home he shares with his wife, Carolyn Dorr.
Born in Chicago, he spent kindergarten to second grade in Madison, Wis., as his dad “followed the corporate ladder,” then moved back to Chicago until the middle of eighth grade, when the family moved to Davenport. He graduated from Davenport Central High School, and is in the Hall of Fame there, too, for sports. “I was a jock. I was a really good football player,” he said. The star quarterback also lettered in baseball.
Earning his first money playing drums in the band he formed in high school, Tortoise & The Hair, at age 14, he then played in the Raggs Revue in Cedar Falls in the mid-70s, followed by Little Red Rooster from 1977 to 1980, sliding into The Blue Band in 1981.
In his youth, he went the band route "mostly because it was an avenue to get girls,“ he said. ”Then in the ’70s I realized it was easier to get girls if you stood in front rather than sat in the back. So I proceeded to teach myself how to play harmonica so I could stand in the front. Isn’t that terrible?
“I wish I was driven by something else, but it was a need for personal adulation. … It didn’t really work out really well for me, but it was the attempt, and I wound up with a wonderful girl.”
With a bachelor’s degree in radio/TV speech from the University of Northern Iowa, he landed his first radio gig at 19, and has been carving a career out of radio, television and music ever since.
“My dad always said, ‘Well, Bob, your problem is you love what you do.’ My dad was all about trying to make a living, make a buck. I guess that is the problem. … I love what I do, and I've been able to cobble together three or four sources of part-time work into making a living. And I don't see any reason why I should stop as long as I love doing what I do, except for just the physical demands of it all.”
Q: Turning 70 on Jan. 12; 50 years with Iowa public broadcasting; 45 years as a bandleader. Which milestone would shock 15-year-old Bobby the most?
A: Reaching 70. Reaching 50 and reaching 60 was not near the emotional and mental experience, but facing 70 is definitely eye opening — let's put it that way. When you start realizing that the actuary tables say that a white, male American human being will be dead at 78 and a half — I’m very healthy, and I don't anticipate that, but you know, the percentages say that I get another eight and a half years, and that is really sobering. And it’s not like you get the vital years at the end.
There was a period of time in my 30s and 40s when some of my behavior would suggest that I never would get to 70. I quit drinking 22 years ago New Year's Eve, so that helps quite a bit, but I didn't really make a grand plan for reaching 70 and beyond, so it's new territory and it's daunting. I know that I physically cannot do what I did 30 years ago.
Q: What are some of the changes you've encountered gigging in bands over the years?
A: The biggest change is just seeing the demographic of your audience change, and what's important to you as a musician.
For the longest time, for me, what was important was do whatever it takes to draw a crowd. Which was sometimes 15 shots a night, which led to other poor decisions.
And then it became more of a business.
But all the while, while you are getting older, so are the people that follow your band, if you go back to the 15 years on either side of you kind of thing. So when I was 28, there were way more avenues to get in trouble and more people egging me on to get in trouble or to do foolish things than there are now.
Also the biggest difference for me is literally the people that come to follow the band, the people that watch the band, and the venues themselves. At my own suggestion, the time that you play is no longer 10 until 2 o'clock in the morning. It’s regularly a 7 to 10 kind of thing, earlier in the night. At Riverside on Wednesdays, they do 5:30 to 9 — perfect for 70-year-olds.
It really isn't a music change for me. I’m locked into playing the blues, and I get more locked into just traditional blues. The Blue Band was scattered all over — blues, soul, rockabilly, reggae, rhythm band, right? But the older I get, the more I just want to play simple three-chord blues and try to get within the emotion of that thing. So there's been a kind of evolution or devolution of music for me. It’s either the blues or it's nothing.
Q: How did you get turned onto the blues?
A: I've answered this same question many times, pretty much with the same thing. I loved the British Invasion era. That was the greatest musical influence and cultural influence for that matter, in my entire life. That 1964 to 1968 period of British Invasion things.
At the time, I did not know that “I'm a Man” by the Yardbirds was by Bo Diddley. Or “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” that the Dave Clark Five did was really by Chuck Berry. Many of the British Invasion bands wanted to be blues bands, too. And I didn't know that all these songs were by these guys until I grew up, and I started to understand it was the British Invasion band covers of those classic American blues players that I gravitated to. …
I don't know how that happened. I wish I could say, ‘Well, I grew up in Chicago,’ but no, I grew up on WLS radio with the British Invasion bands, and those songs just grabbed me. And it's been a pursuit of that style of music forever.
Q: How has technology changed the way you do business?
A: Fortunately for me, I have a little radio production studio in my garage and I've been making the radio shows in my garage, at my own pace, with my own technology that slowly evolved into the technology of today.
But I have gone kicking and screaming every inch of the way to new technology. I'm one of those human beings who believe that the greatest records ever made were 45 rpm mono track.
The early days, if you were to record a show, it was very seldom at that point in the game. It was all live, so 40 hours of live radio. That's one very, very big difference. And if you recorded anything, it was on giant 12-inch reel-to-reel tapes that ran for an hour. Even if you were gone and you left the tapes, someone had to be there to change them and start them, and all of that. And then that became digital audiotape so that two hours of a show could be on one little cassette-like thing. And now it's on an 8-gig thumb drive.
So the digital world has allowed me to take an entire weekend's worth of radio shows in on a little 8-eight gig them drive and leave it for the technically advanced. They do some kind of audio massage here in Cedar Falls to it, and then they electronically transfer it to the IPR office in Ames, which does all the automation. And so I can be anywhere on the planet, and those radio shows will happen simply because it's in the automation system. Someone has entered it during the week and it fires off exactly when it's supposed to. And that's all kind of cool. I am also fortunate that I married tech support. Carolyn has a master’s in educational technology. …
Listening patterns of people are completely different, and the fact that they can get their own playlist on Spotify or some of the other streamed things they have on a smartphone. But having that resource in my mind, it makes having a radio personality more important, not less important, because that makes it different from all of the playlists and music online services. …
I know what works for me, anyway, and life's too short now to start all over again, to reinvent yourself. Maybe that's sad, in that I'm not all that inquisitive or want to move on to the next thing. But in the end, for me, it's the pursuit of happiness, and I'm pretty happy.
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