The Coachmen started out as many bands do, in a basement, right here in Peoria, Illinois. The exact year that the band started is a little fuzzy, but it was sometime around 1963 that the band was born. The Coachmen evolved into one of Peoria’s most successful local bands and they opened up for iconic ‘60’s groups like The Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Turtles and The Hollies. Like all bands, there were some personnel changes, but the classic line-up of The Coachmen (also known as the New Coachmen) was: Jon Asher, Robyn Sleeth, Tom Cain, Terry Walters and a kid you may have heard a little bit about through the years, Dan Fogelberg.
I got in contact with the surviving members of the band (along with some quotes from an online interview with Dan Fogelberg and other information from a few sources named at the end of this post) and what follows is the oral history of The Coachmen. Take it away, Coachmen...
In The Beginning...
Tom Cain (Lead Guitar in The Coachmen): Terry Walters and I were introduced. We lived within a couple blocks of each other (in West Peoria) and we both had just started playing guitar. I was going to Manual with a drummer named John Mayers, and Terry was at Peoria High with a bass player named Jim Ketchum. The four of us jammed. Soon thereafter, Jon Asher of Richwoods came aboard to play keyboards and sing lead vocals. Voila, The Coachmen were born!
Jon Asher (Vocals and Keyboards in The Coachment): The first rendition of the Coachmen wore red coats, ruffled shirts and knee high boots. Tom played lead guitar. Terry played rhythm guitar. Jim Ketchum played bass and John Mayers was on drums. I was lead singer and keyboards. Terry’s Mom, Alice made our coats, one red set and one blue set.
Terry Walters (Guitar and then Bass in The Coachmen): The Coachmen practiced in my parent’s house in Peoria. All of the band’s gear was stored in the basement. We painted the walls black and had a mixture of all kinds of what we called “works of art” on the walls. Naturally we had “black lights” too. This basement became a sort of meeting place for the band, the roadies and all sorts of colorful characters. It got crowded when we practiced. It was like a teen nightclub of sorts.
Tom Cain: We constantly hung out in Terry Walter's basement. His parents were real troopers to put up with us!
Terry Walters: My parents in those days were more understanding than I can now imagine. They rarely interrupted us; I suspect they didn’t really want to see everything that was going on under their own feet. When we practiced they often would just leave; going for a ride in the family car.
Jon Asher: We were managed by Frank and Pat Bunzell and Peoria Musical’s Hank Skinner. Frank got us a gig opening for the Dave Clark Five. We felt like stars signing autographs at the stage door while we smoked our cigarettes. Our big show stopper was James Brown’s “Out of Sight” a choreographed tune we ripped off from Duke and the Inn Group—an older band we looked up to. We were so young our parents had to drop us off. Somehow in a few short years we moved culturally from Leave it to Beaver to The Rolling Stones.
Robyn And Dan Join And The New Coachmen Are Born
Robyn Sleeth (Drummer for The Coachmen): They lost their drummer and I was available after the breakup of the band I was in—The Furniture.
Terry Walters: Dan would often come by the basement. Back then, as kids we all wanted to get out of the parent’s house for a while. Dan was always playing a guitar.
Jon Asher: Then came Dan Fogelberg. Tom asked Dan to join after the Clan, his first group broke up. I remember sitting in Terry’s living room harmonizing with Dan. Our new sound was born. The New Coachmen formed with our new drummer, Robyn and Dan on lead vocals. Terry shifted to bass guitar and we became a five piece with me on keyboards. Keyboards consisted of an electric piano to a Vox organ to a Farifisa.
Dan Fogelberg (Lead Vocals and Guitar in The New Coachmen): My first band, The Clan broke up, and I found myself invited to play with the big band in Peoria, the one that was really working a lot and everybody knew, which was called The Coachmen.
Tom Cain: Dan was asked to join shortly before our concert with The Who, mainly to add another dimension to vocal harmonies. But, he brought so much more than that. Jon and Dan's vocals were a perfect match. In terms of complimenting each other, they were spot on.
Robyn Sleeth: Dan joined the band with the proviso he did not have to wear the red jackets. He was probably the most talented person I have ever met. Musician, artist, photographer, a real Renaisance Man!
Dan Fogelberg: So I got them into wearing bluejeans and turtlenecks and things, you know, just get a little funkier on stage and and the name of the band changed to The New Coachmen.
Jon Asher: Immediately, the long coats and ruffled shirts gave way to Nehru coats then fringe and moccasins. Dan refused to wear the Coachmen outfit. We used to shop at Chief Little Wolf’s Indian Teepee Gift Shop on Main Street in Peoria.Terry’s Mom Alice, who made our original outfits also made our Nehru coats. The Beatles had just returned from India wearing them.
Robyn Sleeth: There was a big rivalry among local bands at this time in Peoria.
Tom Cain: I remember it being a friendly rivalry among the local Peoria bands. Naturally, we all wanted to be the best.
Robyn Sleeth: Dan was a perfectionist and he wanted us to be right.
Jon Asher: It was important for us to practice new material constantly. We had to keep our edge and compete against our nemesis The Shags, a popular band that could have been the first “boy band”. They out-harmonized us and had a bigger female fan base! Damn!
Robyn Sleeth: Some of the musicians and bands that influenced us include: Jimi Hendrix, Sam and Dave, Buffalo Springfield, Yardbirds... just off the top of my head.
Tom Cain: Personally, I would say our influences were: Eric Clapton (Cream), Jimmy Page (Yardbirds), Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, Rolling Stones, The Who and just about any other band from the ‘60’s. It was an exciting time for rock ‘n roll and we kind of got in on the ground floor.
Jon Asher: We did renditions of Sgt, Pepper’s theme, “Magical Mystery Tour”, “Purple Haze”—with Dan throwing flowers to the crowd through the strobe lights. Dan was bored with the music and showed up at rehearsal with a guitar and a banjo. We were learning Steven Still’s “Bluebird.”
Tom Cain: Dan was always looking for new song styles to perform and introduced us to Buffalo Springfield. We were the only local band that I know of who performed the album version of 'Bluebird.” Dan played acoustic guitar, then finished with banjo. Another Buffalo Springfield song we did was “Questions.” In fact, we recorded that song at Golden Voice Studios, but it was never released. Jon and Dan's harmonies on that song were incredible!
Jon Asher: The Dave Clark Five, almost as famous as the Beatles were booked for two shows in a roller skating rink in Peru, Illinois.There was an afternoon matinee and an evening show at 7 pm. The show was produced by Frank and Pat Bunzell local promoters that teamed up with Hank Skinner of Peoria Musical Enterprise. We still wore our Coachmen outfits and did some cover tunes. The concert had three opening acts. The Friars, The Inn Group and The Shillings. At the last minute the Inn Group cancelled. This is historically how we got our groove and eventually became the band that Dan Fogelberg would join and become a member of. We rehearsed our songs and then decided to do something new. The Inn Group had been playing James Brown tunes like “Out of Sight” and “Please Please Don’t Go”. We pretty much stole these right out of their set list. I think we got to play five or six songs. The other bands were real pros and that intimidated us. Terry however stuck a turkey feather in a specially designed belt harness and shook it in a rousing rendition of “Shake A Tailfeather”. We had no fear and went for it. We smoked cigs at the stage door and signed autographs. Yes, it went right to our heads.
Tom Cain: Playing at the Opera House at Expo stands out. I loved the high stage, the side dressing rooms, the back door entrance to the stage, opening up for the Buckinghams, the Cryin' Shames...
Robyn Sleeth: Opening up for The Who and Turtles were the best! I remember The Who as being friendly towards us which was nice because I was in awe of Keith Moon. I was out back when the Turtles arrived for the gig. A huge billowing of smoke flowed from their limo along with a few girls when the doors opened!
Tom Cain: One of my favorite stories was when we opened for the Hollies. We were all in the same dressing room when Dan asked Graham Nash how he managed to get his voice so high. It was a legitimate question. Graham hesitated, looked at Dan and said, “I had me balls cut off.” Oh yeah...then there's Pete Townshend's white boots!
Drugs And Groupies And Spinal Tap Memories...Oh My!
Robyn Sleeth: As far as drugs and if you’re wondering if The Coachmen ever inhaled...never!
Tom Cain: You’re wondering if we ever inhaled? Let's see...musicians...playing in a band...during the 60's...No sir! Nope. I don't believe we ever did.
Robyn Sleeth: Yes there are groupie stories, but I’ll leave that for another time!
Tom Cain: (On the groupie subject) I’ll never tell!
Robyn Sleeth: (On if he has any Spinal Tap memories) None.
Tom Cain: Do these qualify as Spinal Tap memories? Opening for Paul Revere and The Raiders at the Spalding Gym wearing our redcoat outfits, which had a strong resemblance to their redcoat outfits! How about this—we were opening for the Box Tops. We arrived early to get set up and heard them playing “The Letter.” I thought they were practicing it. In retrospect, they were probably just doing sound checks. That song was in our repertoire and I thought we did it as well, if not better, than them. Of course we performed before them and we played that song! I don't think we received any autographs from them!
Jean Fogleberg (Dan’s wife): Dan laughed so hard when, in the film "This Is Spinal Tap,” the characters talk about when they went from being called "The Originals" to being called "The NEW Originals.”
Jon Asher: What started in 1964 had now seen four years of change and growth. It was 1968 and The Coachmen were restless. One was in college and two of us had just graduated high school. One of us was falling hard for a girl. One was writing love songs and planning an escape from Peoria. By then the set list was centering around the Buffalo Springfield. We did renditions of “Bluebird” and “Questions.” Neil Young’s “Down by the River” had become one long jam. “Gloria,” “Wild Thing,” and “Louie Louie” were gone from the set list.
Terry Walters: My girlfriend, Debbie at the time, was in the basement one night. Dan stopped by. Debbie’s parents were moving to Michigan and Debbie was flying out with her parents the next day. Dan was casually playing a few tunes and finally he played, “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” He played the entire tune and it was heartfelt. That just tore us up—Debbie cried. I have never seen or heard from Debbie since.
Jon Asher: Friends we knew were being sent to Vietnam. The anti-war protests were in full swing across the nation. We witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Lines were being drawn between generations. The Coachmen like all good bands drifted apart. We did one last show with “Give Peace a Chance” as the last song. Joining us were members of another local Peoria band, Suburban 9 to 5. Gary Richrath, soon to be a member of REO Speedwagon, was on lead guitar.
Dan Fogelberg: I mean in Peoria you either end up working at Caterpillar or at Hiram-Walker, you know? Or Pabst Blue Ribbon. That's all there is, you know? You're either chasing your beer with whiskey or chasing your whiskey with beer in Peoria. That's about it. And making tractors all day. A lot of my friends from high school are still doing that. You either get out of there or that's what you do. It's like a space shot in Peoria. You get your one chance. You get your opening in the sky. Like a sky window. You hit it then or you don't and it closes forever. So I got out of there...
Robyn Sleeth: We’ve had three reunions since Dan died.
Tom Cain: After a 40 year absence, we gathered for three epic jam sessions, in as many years. As we all age, that became more difficult to repeat, however, we do maintain contact. The musical history and friendship we share, will forever bind us. I think it was Jon who once said, "there will always be the music.”
Thanks and Sources For This Post, Plus Coachmen Links
Thanks of course to Jon, Tom, Terry and Robyn, the surviving members of The Coachmen for sharing their memories and stories for this oral history! Extra thanks to Tom for the photos and editorial suggestions. I really enjoyed putting this together and it’s such a great slice of Peoria rock ‘n’ roll history! I’m honored that all of you let me put your words together for this story! It's one of my favorite stories ever!
Thanks also to Amber and Diane Asher. Amber originally sparked the idea for a story when she told me about her Uncle Jon who once played in a band with Dan Fogelberg. I got in touch with Jon and he said he’d be happy to participate in some sort of story for this blog and then I got busy and didn’t do anything and kind of forgot about it. About a year later, Amber’s mom, Diane gave me a poster of the concert when The Coachmen opened up for Paul Revere and The Raiders and that’s when the idea for an oral history came to me! No wonder Amber and Diane are my favorite two females on the planet! Without them, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Some of the material used in this oral history came from the following sources:
Here’s some Coachmen links on YouTube