The Starliters

  Business card for The Starliters. The Starliters played popular music in and around Big Rapids, Michigan, in the 1960's.

The Starliters combo included the three key personnel listed on their business card:

Ed Roberts, drum set
Dan Kirchner, lead guitar
Glen Newton, piano, trumpet, bass guitar, and organ

As advertised in their business card, the Starliters played popular music, waltzes, and polkas. These were all instrumentals. When they played for wedding receptions at Miller auditorium in Reed City, a few miles north of Big Rapids, Glen had the pleasure of playing the auditorium's theater organ. This was his first opportunity to play bass parts on organ pedals. (Later Glen played the Hammond B-3 at the Brown Bungalow in Big Rapids as part of an instrumental and vocal duo with drummer John King, and his previous pedal experience came in handy. Dan and Glen also performed at the Brown Bungalow in a trio with a drummer.)

The group played for wedding receptions, as suggested by their card, and they played for dances at the Big Rapids Elks Club on a semi-regular basis, sometimes adding a tenor saxophonist from Ferris State College.

Glen's father, Roy Newton, a member of the Elks Club, gave him some good advice when he first began playing for dances:

"Don't talk about what you might see at the club or other dances where people have been drinking, because it might embarass the patrons."

That's why Glen never mentioned outside of his family the night certain members of the enthusiastic Elks crowd liked the band so well that they started throwing tips at the band: pennies, then nickels, then quarters, and finally half-dollars. The latter stung enough that the band members stopped playing so they could duck, and that was a sufficient consequence for the tip-throwers to stop and regain their composure.

Glen Newton plays tenor sax. Bigger picture is 26K. The Starliters evolved from an earlier group, the Crusaders, in which Glen played piano, trumpet, bass guitar, and sax. Although Glen was already a very capable trombonist, he never played his trombone in a combo because he felt that his $25 trombone didn't make a good enough impression in tone or appearance.

Later, the Starliters evolved into a country-oriented vocal and pop group with the addition of singing guitarist Ken McWilliams. Ken, who was several years older than Dan, had achieved fame as a young child, winning a talent contest singing his own composition, "Let Me Be Your Popcorn Ball". Over the years, he had developed into a fast lead guitarist on country tunes and had learned to imitate the singing style of some of the country greats, while maturing his own vocal style. After the Starliters had disbanded, Ken once again was in the news with his song, "Devil on Death Highway", which he wrote to publicize the need to improve US Highway 131 between Grand Rapids and Big Rapids, Michigan.

Glen, Dan, Ken, and a drummer (usually Jack Frizzell or Chuck Bowden) had a steady summer job playing Thursday through Sunday evenings in Cadillac, Michigan, at a bar originally called "The Cock and Bull". When the bar's ownership changed, so did its name --- to "Mr. G's Back Door Lounge". Mr. G, the new owner, even went so far as to lock the front door, forcing all the patrons to enter via the back door.

Playing in the Starliters at Mr. G's, Glen alternated between piano, trumpet, and bass, and Dan usually played lead guitar, with Ken on rhythm guitar and vocals. Glen sang backup vocal for Ken and occasionally sang a solo on "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" or some other pop tune. The Starliters' crowd at Mr. G's was so rowdy and noisy that for some of the polkas, Glen played the offbeats on the piano with his elbows rather than his hands.

Occasionally, near the end of the evening, the quartet would switch instruments in the middle of a selection. During Jack's drum solo, Glen shifted to guitar, Dan to bass, and Ken stood by to take over on drums; when the others were ready, Jack passed the drum sticks to Ken (much like passing the baton on a relay team) and shifted to piano; the group never missed a beat. By the time the song was through, each of the four had taken a turn on drums, guitar, bass and piano. Due to the limited skill of some group members on some instruments, the song was always a blues in E major. The Starliters never claimed that this was their best music, but it amused the heavy-drinking crowd.

This page was last updated
Friday, February 07, 2020.

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