Dave Mitsko spoke for most boomers in Indiana County on Monday.
“I’m heartbroken,” his voice cracked.
The word of the death of Ken Holliday came out first on social media. The bass player and a lead singer in his band — his wife, Judy — posted of his passing on Facebook.
“Lord Hiram,” to those who remembered when rock was young, had been in failing health for some months. He was 73.
Fans, friends and colleagues testified of six decades of music performance that won’t soon be forgotten.
With a band he picked up with schoolmates at Indiana High School, Holliday led The Cavalcades from about 1959, according to his interview with The Indiana Gazette about a decade ago.
Bred on the music of his eastern European heritage, he became immersed in the blues, the doo-wop and the driving rock that changed American life for the kids of the ’50s and ’60s.
By the mid-’60s, Holliday and his buddies blended the name of a television character, Hiram Holiday; the name of a liquor company stamped on bottle in his basement, Hiram Walker; and the air of royalty exuded by “the lord of the estate,” to brand him and any lineup of local musicians assembled with him onstage for decades to come as Lord Hiram and the Walkers.
A fixture on the dance hall circuit in his own right, Holliday and his bandmates got a boost in the early days of rock when up-and-coming singing groups lived on the road and toured through Indiana, choosing them as their backing musicians for their Blue Angel and Red Rooster concerts.
Most influential of the groups they met in Indiana easily was The Duprees, whose ballads became signature pieces for Holliday’s group and his dynamic lead singer, Johnny Lopacinski — stage name Johnny Rand — who still is active on the regional oldies circuits.
“I was at my uncle’s barber shop at the Ernest intersection, he was cutting my hair, and he said he knew of a great new guitar player,” Lopacinski recalled. “In comes this guy who played this blues and stuff and I though he was fantastic. I’d love to play with him!”
He made his way into The Cavalcades.
“That introduced me to rock and roll music,” and introduced Indiana to Johnny Rand, he said.
Holliday’s band thrived on covering the hits and popular nationally known bands but emerged as a premier entertainment group in the region not just for doing them well but for doing them distinctly, his fellow musicians said.
A keyboard player with the Walkers, Bill Simmons joined the group just out of school in the late ’60s after Holliday was well established. For years, he said, Holliday put his own stamp on the music he played.
“He was ahead of me at school, but I remember the high school band director liked him and selected him to play trumpet for the (Memorial Day) program in Memorial Park,” Simmons said. “He was to play echo taps. He played it in a different key to see if anyone noticed. He was a character. He had a good sense of humor, and a good heart.”
Stories of the band’s adventures in touring western Pennsylvania and southern New York stayed confidential.
“What happens on the road stays on the road!” Simmons said.
What Holliday also represented to his legions of fans was his “one of us” status.
He was Russian Orthodox, a Byzantine Catholic. He painted religious icons in his spare time.
He played in the Jet Tones, an equally known and beloved local polka band headed by his dad. He played mandolin and balalaika.
He played from the pits. Holliday logged 34 years in the coal mines, at Lucerne 6, from the portal near Homer City.
“One place we regularly played was the Croatian Club in Homer City,” Simmons said. “When we played Sunday nights, and he was scheduled to work hoot owl, he skipped the last hour of the show to get to work.”
And Holliday inspired others.
“Back in the 1960s, he didn’t know me, but I knew him. I’d sneak into private parties sometimes just to see him play,” said Russell Deyarmin, better known as the leader of another top regional oldies cover band, Buddy Dee and The Hitmen.
Dee, a fellow coal miner, said he was a fan for years but became friends with Holliday in the 1980s.
“What I can say about him is the respect. He had respect for me and I had respect for him. He was loved by everybody,” Dee said.
Occasionally they shared the stage, not in the same group, but for the same events on behalf of the United Mine Workers of America.
Holliday left his distinct mark on every show.
“He had a uniqueness,” Dee said. “When he played, he made the music his own. I like to hear a record, but he’s like me when it comes to interpreting the music. You do the song so everybody knows it, but you tweak it to your talent and make it your own.”
And so it was with songs that became as much Holliday’s as “Mustang Sally” belonged to Wilson Pickett. “Wild Thing” was Holliday’s as much as The Troggs,’ and “Dirty Water,” the Standells’ hit, was Holliday’s own, Lopacinski said.
By 2000, four decades into the Walkers’ dominance as a premier dance and wedding reception band for Indiana County, a setlist ran the gamut from Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top to Tommy James and Bob Seger, the Temptations to Hank Williams Sr., Junior Walker to Brooks & Dunn.
“It was an honor to know and work with him,” Lopacinski said. "He always had something funny to say. And he was an icon. Everybody that heard him play wanted to play like him or be in his band.”
Mitsko, a fan and a former coal miner, relied on Holliday for humanitarianism.
“He was always there. Every time I needed somebody to perform, he and his bands were there,” Mitsko said.
The Walkers anchored benefit concerts for Mitsko’s UMWA Unemployment Assistance Fund, a support group that grew as the coal mines began idling down in the early 1990s.
Holliday’s band headlined a rock and roll reunion concert Mitsko organized for the Chevy Chase Community Center.
“He helped us make $10,000 to keep the doors of the center open,” Mitsko recalled Monday. “I loved the guy.”
The Rairigh-Bence Funeral Home in Indiana is handling the arrangements for Ken Holliday. Visitation is scheduled Friday. An obituary appears today on the Indiana Gazette Online.