Music history played out in Bay City bars and clubs during the early days of rock and roll

When Fred Reif began researching music history for a book, he found a number of influential musicians have ties to Bay County and the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Fred ReifReif was inspired to dig into the history of music by his own experiences as a band manager and blue musician in the area.  Reif’s love of blues music comes from playing in, managing, and interviewing local bands in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1991, he left the area to take a job at the University of Michigan. When he returned to his hometown in September, he brought his passion for American blues music with him.

Reif has published two books already and he’s working on a third now.

“My next book that I’m working on is kind of Volume Two of my first book which is about mid-Michigan musicians,” Reif says. “It’s going to start in the late ‘40s and go up until around 1970 or so. As I’m trying to wrap up my research, a lot of the information that I want right now on the early rock and roll bands are from Bay City.”

Reif was inspired when he started researching outside his own musical interests to learn about other artists who got their start in the area.

“Little Jimmy Dickens, he first came to Saginaw back in 1947,”  Reif says. 

“He was discovered here by Roy Acuff who took him down to Nashville and, of course, the rest is history. So I want to make sure I have his Saginaw story in there. When he was at WKNX Radio, he played all over Saginaw and Bay City.” 

Fred Reif has written two books about the history of music in the Great Lakes Bay Region.Reif says this is an important part of local musical history that wasn’t covered in his first book. He wants to branch out from his typical blues focus to highlight other styles such as country and R&B in his new book.

Reif started out as a washboard musician and owner of Black Kettle Records in the 1970s. 

“I was in the Davidson Building across the street from the State Theater,” Reif says. “I used to have a recording studio in the basement as well.”

He has a lot in common with the musicians he interviews and writes about because of his own musical roots in the area. 

“I’ve been finding out a lot of the different musicians from the early rock and roll days were out of Bay City,” Reif says. “I don’t find it that surprising. I’m also a musician and back when I lived in Saginaw, we always played a lot. Then as I look back on it, most of our gigs were in Bay City.”

He performed at the places where a lot of local bands get their start. 

“The Holiday Inn [now the Comfort Inn], we used to play there five nights a week back in 1969, 70, and 71,” says Reif. “We used to play there and at a pizza place on Euclid.”

His interest in interviewing and learning about these local musicians started long before he became an author.

“My first book on Mid-Michigan, mostly Saginaw stuff, started back when I was working in Downtown Saginaw at the Record Hut,” Reif says. “Local musicians used to come in there with really interesting stories from the 30s and 40s. I started interviewing these guys and collecting information and photographs.” 

Fred Reif has written two books about the history of music in the Great Lakes Bay Region and is working on a third.These collections didn’t start to come together in a cohesive project until he moved to Ann Arbor and could look at them with an outsider’s perspective.

Reif eventually transitioned from playing with the bands and collecting information and photographs to writing about them. 

“I used to write articles for a number of different blues magazines over in Europe,” Reif says. “That’s how I originally got in. There was an article in Blues Unlimited about Lightenin’ Slim of Louisiana. He was the swamp king of that type of blues music. [Blues Unlimited said] he was living in Michigan now and someone should try to find him. Well, I did.”

From there, Reif kept finding new artists, getting them to play again, and writing articles about them for magazines in Europe. “So those articles I’ve always saved and they ended up becoming parts of the chapter,” Reif says.

Reif considers his books an important part of the history of the area.

“All this stuff should be preserved,” he says. “I think it’s important history. There were a lot of bands in Bay City, Saginaw, Essexville, that made records and now those records have become very collectible.”

Reif emphasizes that a lot of American music has influences from local bands. Styles in R&B, country, and rock and roll were borrowed from the area and credit was never given to the local bands who pushed those boundaries.

“A lot of the [musicians] were on the edge of maybe making it maybe not. Those are the bands I want to write about.”

More information about Reif’s books is available on his website.
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