A drummer who never missed a beat

JAMES HENRY KROHE Nov. 22, 1924-Oct. 8, 2020

My father liked to tell this story. He was a professional musician, and a country band out of Ashland had hired him to play at that year’s Chandlerville Burgoo. “Just go down 78 to the end,” the leader told him. “You can’t miss it. If you do, you’re in the river.” When he met his new bandmates, he found that one of them was named Doc Holiday, another Jack Daniels and the third Bob White. “Maybe I should get a stage name too,” he joked later. “How about ‘Jimmy Crack Corn?’”

Happily, he remained just Jim Krohe. He worked as a professional drummer in Springfield and mid-Illinois for some 75 years as a pro, playing in dozens of venues with bands working in nearly that many styles. For a freelancing musician with lots of energy and a family to feed, Springfield in those days was heaven. The town had a symphony, marching bands, dozens of night spots where people loved to dance and more than 80,000 people who liked to get married and dine to the sound of live music. Early in the 1950s and 60s, the local musicians’ union passed a rule that all the house bands playing in the clubs and taverns had to take one night off each week, to give its members a little break.

The sun set on those days in the 1960s. Over the years he made up what he couldn’t earn playing as a bookkeeper, salesman, teacher and, briefly, as a trucker for a circus. For a while he commanded the Illinois National Guard band based in Springfield. (He was a by-the-book soldier, but it was not the Army’s book, and he eventually went AWOL from his military career.) Most evenings and weekends and holidays, however, found him somewhere behind a drum.

Jim continued to find work because he was not only one of the best drummers in town but one of the most adaptable. I assumed that a guy born to back big swing bands must have hated playing square dances but he later described working with the aforementioned country band as “another opportunity for me to branch out into different types of music . . . the first time I ever played with a steel guitar or a ‘hoedown’ fiddle.”

While a fine drummer, arranger, leader and teacher, his soul was that of an entertainer. It was no accident that the young Krohe was nicknamed by an indulgent and prescient sister “Krup-y Krohe,” after Gene Krupa, the most flamboyant of that generation’s big band drummers. All of us children have a little of that part of him in them. In most families, the siblings give each other gifts at Christmas get-togethers; we give each other straight lines.

He lived in Springfield for more than 70 years, but Beardstown was always his home. He returned to it often in stories. (Spending time with Dad sometimes was like living Groundhog Day.) We learned about how he used to deliver lunch to his big brother by riding up to him at the top of the local feed mill in a bucket on the lift belt, how he and his buddies surfed the wakes of the river tows and how his grandpa stopped by the front porch to take him for a ride – in a rowboat during one of the floods Beardstown regularly suffered until they built the river wall.

Jim indulged in three loves. One was music. Another was sports. Among his kids and grandkids were varsity high school and college athletes in five sports. (Luck? Genes? Wishing really hard?) Their careers in Little League and youth soccer gave him chances to be the coach he always wanted to be. Because his two younger sons in particular were good at what they did, his teams won often; he proudly displayed all the kids’ trophies at home, in a room that came to look like a pawn shop.

And then there was Dot – Dorothy Anderson, his Beardstown belle. Asked about her, he once told me, with characteristic understatement, “There was just something about her.” Apparently. They made six children (He loved to tell jokes, and I’d long suspected that he and Mom had a lot of kids so he could always count on having an audience.) and he stayed with her through health problems, money problems and problem problems until they were finally laid in a grave together after 74 years.

He was the most indulgent of fathers in that he was proud of his kids just because they were his kids, which spared us any expectations that we be successes in the world’s terms too. No Father Knows Best homilies, thank goodness, but a dozen assorted from Gold N Glo on Sunday mornings. What we learned from him we learned from his example, which was to not worry about living a good life. Just live your own life. It might work out.

The author’s website, The Corn Latitudes, contains all his Illinois-related work, including articles and columns from IT. You will find it at www.jameskrohejr.com.