Daily Archives: April 22, 2010

From dropout to successful songwriter

Bobby and Helen Fischer. Phil Roberts photo.

Bobby Fischer chats with John Wayne. Contributed photo.

Bobby Fischer and Eddy Arnold. Contributed photo.

Bobby Fischer. That name may not be familiar to you. But some of the country songs he’s written or co-written just might be.

Some of the Wilton native’s better known tunes include “You Lie” recorded by Reba McEntire; “Writing on the Wall,” by George Jones; “What in Her World Did I Do,” by Eddy Arnold; and “Goodbye Says it All,” by Blackhawk.

Other artists who have recorded Fischer’s songs are a who’s who of country music: Moe Bandy, Charlie McClain, Mickey Gilley, Mindy McCready, Jeanne Pruett, Tanya Tucker, Roy Clark, Charlie Pride, Vern Gosdin, Conway Twitty, Lee Greenwood, John Conlee, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Price, Faron Young, Joe Stampley and others.

Fischer, who lives in Nashville, will be back in the area the weekend of April 24 and 25 for a family reunion. On April 26, he will be a guest at the Mississippi Valley Country and Western Music Association’s 50th anniversary celebration in East Moline. He is a lifetime member of the group.

Fischer’s life and his road to Nashville have the makings of a country song themselves.

He was the youngest of five children, all born two years apart, to Walter and Vivian Fischer of Wilton. They are both deceased.

Bobby Fischer’s siblings are Marjorie “Dolly” Neipert, who lives in Wilton with her husband, Don; Dick, of Coralville; Lois Ludtke, of Davenport; and Pat Maule, of Aledo, Ill.

Fischer was just 2, he says, when his father died in an accident in the Stockton or Walcott area. He was killed when the rendering truck he was driving slipped off the road and rolled in a ditch.

Fischer, who will be 75 in August, says he was 15 when he started learning to play the guitar and writing song lyrics. He may have inherited his love of music. His father had played piano in saloons, and his mother came from a family of musicians.

“I never got that great on the guitar,” says Fischer. “I learned three or four chords that were basic to play country songs.”

He wrote his lyrics to go with other people’s melodies until he discovered, quite by accident, that he could write his own tunes.

Fischer was looking for his sister Pat at her friend’s house when he saw the friend’s brother playing notes on a piano, then pausing to write them on paper.

“I’d never seen that before, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m writing a song.’” That’s when Bobby Fischer learned that someone could write his own songs.

Fischer left high school at age 16.

“I was just a crazy kid,” he says. “I was wanting to get out into the workforce, and I actually got tossed out of school.”

He says he and a buddy, Dean Sawvell, left school one day but expected to return later. “But they (the school officials) didn’t want us coming back in.”

Fischer believes Sawvell eventually was readmitted but dropped out prior to graduating. Fischer never went back.

“To me, I was thinking, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get into that workforce.’” And he did just that. He went over to Durant and took a foundry job that involved a lot of lifting.

“I thought, ‘Why in the world did I want to be in the workforce?’”

(Years later, after becoming a successful songwriter, Fischer was surprised to receive an honorary high school diploma while serving as grand marshal at a Wilton Founders Day parade. He said he was so overcome with emotion he could not speak. The diploma hangs proudly with his music awards.)

After his foundry job, Fischer subsequently worked other labor jobs at places like Pioneer Seed Corn in Durant; the Heinz plant and Huttig Building Products, both in Muscatine; Economy Lumber in Wilton; and Oscar Mayer in Davenport. He didn’t stick with them long.

“I had 12 different jobs one year,” Fischer says. But he admits, “I didn’t want any job, really.”

Fischer says he was still 16 when he went to work at International Harvester in East Moline but left at age 19 to join the Navy. He was honorably discharged in 1958 after four years and returned to I.H. He had married Helen Ryan of East Moline in 1960.

The Fischers had a son, Robbi, in March of 1962. He’s a youth pastor at a church in North Carolina. A daughter, Lori, was born in March 1964. She’s a New York singer, actress and playwright.

In the years after his return from the service, Fisher worked at I.H. by day and wrote songs and sang and played country music at pubs evenings and weekends.

He sang with the Rainbow Rangers from Atalissa and had bands of his own, including Bobby Fischer and the Tunesharks.

He also found financial backing and, with the help of fellow singer and former area deejay Jack Barlow, on three occasions he went to Nashville and recorded songs he’d written.

Fischer had 17 1/2 years seniority when he left I.H. in 1970 to move to Nashville to try to make it as a full-time songwriter. It was a risky move. But his wife, who was working at Servus Rubber in Rock Island at the time, told him to follow his dream and she’d stay behind with the children.

Fischer says, “She stayed working, and she told me, ‘Go ahead and try it.’ I just can’t believe she did that.”

Helen Fischer stayed at her job two more years.

“She made enough to pay the bills, and our bills were not that much,” Fischer says.

Then she and the children joined Fischer in Nashville, and she took a job at a department store. Later she went to nurse’s training and now is retired from that career.

Bobby Fischer says his first two years in Nashville were tough. He did odd jobs, worked for a publishing company and, when he qualified, collected unemployment, all the while writing songs when time permitted.

“I just had a cheap little apartment,” he says.

Fischer says he achieved some success while writing for Tommy Overstreet’s company, Terrace Music. He eventually left and formed his own company, doing record promotion. He’d call radio stations and try to get them to play his clients’ records.

“I got pretty good at that,” he says. “I had quite a few different accounts.”

Fischer also formed his own record label. If a recording artist had recorded a song and didn’t have a label, “we’d put it out on our label for them.”

Fischer still remembers his first big writing success. “My first hit was in 1972 when I wrote ‘Love Isn’t Love Til You Give It Away’. It was recorded by Bobby Lee Trammell. It went Top 20 in Billboard magazine.”

Fischer estimates he has written 2,000 songs over the years.

“I’ve had about 700 cuts now,” he says. “Some songs have been cut eight to 10 times (by various artists).”

Fischer can write both the lyrics and music. Many of the songs are co-written, and he says whoever has the best of either one is what they use.

“For a long time I had about 30 writers that I could call and line up — maybe write in the morning with one and in the afternoon with another,” Fischer says.

He says he used to start writing 52 songs a year, hoping to finish about 30 of them.

“You have to write a lot to try to get something to pop out,” he says.

These days Fischer is semi-retired, and he has only written eight to 10 songs this year. He’s not doing as many, he says, “because sometimes you’re just writing to be writing. What I’ve been trying to do is write with somebody who has a record deal or they’re a producer. If you just write with other writers, they’ve got the same problem you have — getting somebody to listen.”

Where do his ideas come from? Anywhere and everywhere, Fischer says. He says his “Hit the Ground Runnin’ (When Your Heart Gets Hurt)” by John Conlee is a good example.

He and his wife were leaving a Cracker Barrel restaurant one morning after breakfast when he saw a newspaper in a rack with a story on its cover about a team that had lost a game but had “hit the ground running.”

He used that in a song he wrote in less than an hour. In addition to Conlee’s recording of it, you made have heard that tune and these revised lyrics on a TV commercial a while back: “Hit the ground runnin’ in your new Ford truck.”

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article was submitted to the Wilton-Durant (Iowa) Advocate News.

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Posted by on April 22, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Family secrets uncovered in old trunks

Beth and Todd Roehlk of Walcott display some of the documents, including prisoner-of-war letters written by a great uncle, that he found in two old trunks full of family history. Photo by Phil Roberts.

A couple of old steamer trunks have yielded a treasure trove of family history for a Walcott, Iowa, man. That includes an intriguing story of two brothers, his great uncles, who fought on opposite sides in WWII.

Todd Roehlk, son of Donald and Sandy Roehlk, ended up with the trunks that were owned by his great uncle, the late Erwin Roehlk, who emigrated to Davenport from Germany. “They went from mom’s garage to my garage,” he says of the trunks.

The trunks are filled with documents, letters, naturalization papers, passports, newspaper clippings and photographs.

He’s always wanted to go through Erwin’s trunks, Todd Roehlk says, “because I knew there was a lot of history in there he kept.”

Roehlk finally accomplished that last fall on a day off from his job at ALCOA. “It was a nice fall day, and I spent 12 hours in my garage. I went through it all.”

The trunks were full. “I probably threw away more than I kept,” Roehlk says. That’s because his great uncle kept everything, including a receipt for a 25-cent bag of seed from 1930.

Roehlk explains that Erwin, his only ancestor of that era that he knew, and Erwin’s relatives were from Stein, Germany. Erwin was born in 1908 and came to the United States in 1925. Many other family members, including a brother named Ernst, stayed behind.

As was customary, Erwin received a visa to enter the U.S., and Roehlk found a medical form associated with his application for it. Topping a list of conditions the applicant had to be free of were idiocy and feeblemindedness.

“He worked for a farmer in Nebraska, who I guess he kind of got sponsored by,” Roehlk says of Erwin, “and became a U.S. citizen in 1934.”

The trunk also contained some information about another great uncle, Henry, who was born in 1868 in Schleswig-Holstein and, in 1888, had become his first ancestor to emigrate to the U.S. Henry became a citizen in 1894 and worked as a gardener for Davenport’s wealthy Putnam family.

In 1921, Henry spent $6,000, payable in three years, for 15 acres, which included a house and a couple of buildings, north of Davenport along what is now Division Street at Cheyenne Boulevard.

Henry apparently farmed the land for 20 years, Roehlk says, then leased it to his brother Erwin. Henry died in 1945, and Erwin inherited everything. Erwin, a bachelor, lived on the property, which Todd vaguely remembers visiting, into the 1970s. Then he sold the land and moved to a farm located northwest of Walcott.

Someone who knew Erwin back when he lived north of Davenport told Roehlk that Erwin’s house never had a toilet or heat. Erwin reportedly kept warm on winter nights with an electric blanket.

Adds Roehlk: “And he’d sit in his truck a lot with it running, the heater on, reading the paper.”

Erwin worked at John Deere for 30 years and died in 1989.

The most interesting part of Roehlk’s genealogy research, in which his wife Beth is assisting him, deals with World War II.

Erwin was drafted into the Army in 1942 and spent three years fighting for the U.S. in WWII, serving as a medical aide in England, France, Belgium and Germany. He won some awards including three bronze service stars, Roehlk says, “which I found in a little matchbox.”

Ironically, Erwin’s brother Ernst fought for the Germans in WWII and was captured and held in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp.

“That was the biggest find of all this,” Roehlk says of his research.
Roehlk discovered letters from Ernst to Erwin written while Ernst was a prisoner of war. But they are written in German, a language Roehlk does not know.

So, he says, he contacted the American/Schleswig Holstein Heritage Society, based in Walcott, and Jack Schinckel and Glenn Sievers of the group stepped in to assist.

“Glen and Jack really helped me a lot,” he says.

A Muscatine woman, the sister of a man Beth’s brother works with, translated Ernst’s letters over the Christmas holidays.

Most of the sentences in the letters, Roehlk says, are “pretty generic. ‘How are you doing? I hope you’re doing fine. How did your discharge go? Write me. Come visit.’ That sort of thing.”

He says Ernst, despite being a prisoner, seemed well informed as to how family members in Germany were doing, and he passed that information along to his brother, Erwin.

It also appears, Roehlk says, that even though Erwin received a lot of letters from Ernst, he did not write back very often because Erwin would sometimes inquire, “Did you get my last letter?”

Roehlk notes he has some 40 additional letters from the trunks, some of which have been translated, that were sent to Erwin from Ernst and other family members. “It’s all in German,” he says, “and some of it is not even legible. Some of it is swirl marks. It’s amazing that even back then they could understand it.”

Some letters, Roehlk says, from his grandfather, Werner Roehlk, who was a brother to Erwin and Ernst. Werner had emigrated to the U.S. and was a farmer.

“My grandfather Werner died when he was 33 years old and my dad was only a year old, so obviously I never met him,” Roehlk says. He says he doesn’t yet know the details of his grandfather’s death. Werner’s wife, Wilma, remarried when his dad was 5, he adds.

Roehlk says he also has a letter dated 1932 addressed to Werner and Erwin from their parents. It expresses hope that Germany will improve under Hitler and have no unemployment. They say, “We don’t know what will happen if Hitler doesn’t make it.” The letters also discuss the weather and the family farm in Germany, lamenting low prices for apples and eggs.

Roehlk has met with Sievers, who can speak some German, a couple of times and provided him with the names of family members in Stein. Roehlk says Sievers has a German phone book, found some Roehlks in that area of Germany and phoned them. Those he spoke with, Roehlk says, were middle-aged people who were familiar with his ancestors.

Roehlk’s next project is writing those German folks in hopes they can provide more information about his roots.

“It’s a slow process,” he says of the research. “You try to devote as much time as you can here and there. I’m just taking baby steps, I guess.”

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.


Posted by on April 22, 2010 in Uncategorized