Harmonious living: Oak Forest man enjoys being one-man band
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent October 31, 2012 1:42PM
Bill "Bill the Band" Ehm, of Oak Forest, performs at the Acorn Public Library during an appearance in October. | Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 2, 2012 6:03AM
He is now known as “Bill the Band,” but Bill Ehm said his musical career began with a single instrument: a dime-store harmonica.
“I bought a toy harmonica for 29 cents when I was 9 years old,” said Ehm, 61, of Oak Forest. “It had instructions for ‘Oh! Susanna!’ on the package, and I taught myself to play.”
When his father noticed how well he played, they upgraded to a Hohner harmonica, he said.
“I just had an aptitude,” Ehm said. “I kind of played by ear.”
What Ehm calls “aptitude,” others might say is a gift, judging by the audience reaction at one of his recent public performances as a one-man band. He does shows at retirement homes and recently did one at the Oak Forest Public Library.
Ehm’s performances include playing his melodic, 15-year-old Fender Stratocaster guitar, aka “Old Blue,” from which he can entice melody, bass and chords to produce everything from the smooth sounds of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” to the biting vibrations of the steel guitar in Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.”
Next, he sets his “primitive drum machine” to provide background for every song.
“Then I add my vocals and it sounds more like ‘Bill the Band,’ ” Ehm said.
He also still plays the harmonica.
Ehm’s impersonations of B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and others become part of the act. The audience on a recent night didn’t seem to miss “Satchmo’s” coronet as Ehm performed his imitation of Louis Armstrong singing “When You’re Smiling.”
Ehm credits his audience for the idea to create “Bill the Band.”
When Ehm found himself in the late 1990s accepting daytime gigs for his band but playing them alone because his other band members had day jobs, he knew he was on to something.
“Everybody said, ‘Hey, Bill, you sound like a whole band,’ and then the name ‘Bill the Band’ was born,” Ehm said. “I’ve been doing that pretty much ever since.”
Ehm’s love affair with music began with the harmonica and then moved to the clarinet. He said he learned to play as a fifth-grade student at Arbor Park Middle School in Oak Forest.
He was content with that until 1964.
“Then the Beatles hit,” Ehm said. “I liked the Beatles. ... but what I really liked was Chuck Berry. I said, ‘I really want to play that.’ ”
Ehm and three friends formed a band named “The Blues Possessive” to reflect his love of blues. The group began playing in an Oak Forest tavern, the Ten Pin Lounge, owned by the parents of one of the band members.
“We were working two or three nights just about all through high school,” Ehm said.
The band members were paid $40 a night, he said, until an Oak Forest bowling alley “stole us away” for its lounge and “bumped us up from $40 to $75,” he said.
After he graduated from Tinley Park High School, Ehm said he traveled “all over the country,” from Utah to the East Coast.
“I’m kind of the Forrest Gump of music,” he said.
By 1975, Ehm returned to Illinois to play country music at the Pink Cloud Lounge in Alsip.
“I went there to fill in for someone for the weekend, and I stayed three years,” Ehm said.
He married his wife, Barbara, in 1987. They settled down in Oak Forest and raised a daughter, Christy.
Ehm’s band worked mostly corporate and private parties until he began working on his own.
Ehm said that although he loves to perform, he hasn’t brought his marketing techniques into the 21st century.
“I’m probably the best-kept secret on the South Side,” he said.
He depends on word-of-mouth advertising to get jobs, but he’s working on creating a website and a CD, he said.
“My goal is to come up with a finished product that I can hawk to get jobs,” Ehm said.
In the meantime, his favorite audiences are at the retirement homes where he frequently plays.
“In the process of becoming ‘Bill the Band,’ some of the most rewarding moments of my life are because I do a lot of work with seniors,” Ehm said.
He has no plans for his own retirement, saying he’ll play “until I drop dead.”
“People ask me if I’ve been playing guitar all my life,” Ehm said with a twinkle in his eye. “I tell them, ‘Not yet.’ ”
Contact “Bill the Band” Ehm at (708) 687-4086.