Retro-Rockets keep audiences dancing

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Anne Ball
The Retro-Rockets, a group composed of seasoned veterans of other area bands, plays golden oldies at community and senior centers. Shown in the front row (from left): Glenn Bullion, lead vocalist and guitar; Bob Jones, drums; Dave Armbruster, bass. Back row (from left): Dave Kroop, keyboards; Iris Hirsch, lead vocals; Larry McCoy, saxophone.
Photo courtesy of the Retro-Rockets

"Sentimental Journey," "Misty," "Rock Around the Clock" — most of the couples on the dance floor were in their teens and 20s when these tunes were topping the weekly Hit Parade selections.

The dancers are smiling, but they’re concentrating on their moves, too. Swinging arms high, hands clasped with their partners, they sway, twirl and dip. A few minutes later, they shake and shuffle to "The Electric Slide" and "Loco-Motion."

The saxophone player swaggers onto the dance floor, his instrument bopping away, never missing a beat. He’s back with the band for the next number, then a few minutes later out into the crowd again to lead some lively hand jive.

It’s another retro dance at a senior/community center or VFW hall, fired up by the Retro-Rockets, last month recognized by WJZ-TV as Baltimore’s Best Retro Band.

A relatively new genre of bands, retro bands play music from the ‘40s through the ‘80s-plus, bringing back memories and creating new ones for their audiences.

Seasoned veterans of other Baltimore/Central Maryland area bands, the half-dozen members of Retro-Rockets rock and roll in place as they perform. Those on the dance floor and folks seated on the sidelines sing along with the vocalists, segueing from "At Last" to "Mack the Knife" to "Stand by Me."

At a recent performance at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, the Retro-Rockets played to an audience dressed for the occasion, some women wearing fringe-trimmed ‘60s style cocktail dresses, some in the straight skirts of the "sock hop" genre, and others in shorter skirts that spun out in circles as they twirled.

Building the band

It all began five years ago when Dave Armbruster on bass and Dave Kroop on keyboard were playing together in a praise band at Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

Kroop, 69, a retired scientist who lives in West Friendship and still does consulting with technology companies, played with bands in Chicago and Baltimore in his earlier years. He also worked as a booking agent in Chicago for bands that opened for some famous ‘70s groups.

Armbruster, 69, who lives in Catonsville and owns Armbruster AV (which installs audio and video systems in churches and other places of worship), had played with the Sentries, a Baltimore band in the ‘50s and ‘60s that backed such big name recording acts as Chubby Checkers, The Platters, Otis Redding and Ethel Ennis.

"Dave and I were playing together at other churches and community gatherings and got to talking that it might be fun to expand a bit into the oldies," Kroop recalled. "We were not really sure what we were doing, but we put an ad on Craigslist."

From that ad and subsequent others, they put together an ensemble that now includes Bob Jones, 65, "The Drumguy," a founding member of Cindy & the Censations, who also played with the Sentries and taught drumming for 25 years at Bill’s Music House in Catonsville

Larry McCoy, 65, also of Catonsville, joined the group as well. McCoy has been playing saxophone for some 30 years with jazz bands (Unit One and Gerrell) as well as Oliver Moore and the Gospel Sounds. He likes to work into any conversation about his music a shout out to his teacher and mentor Eddie Williams, 89.

Rounding out the instrumentalists, guitarist Glenn Bullion, 60, of Finksburg also played with the Sentries and performed with the group Glenn & The Gemtones.

Perfect harmony

Bullion supplies the male lead vocals for the Retro-Rockets, while Iris Hirsch, 58, belts out and croons female vocals. Hirsch, retired from Prince George’s County Public Schools, came to the group via a Craigslist ad, too.

"About five years ago, I saw the ad for a male vocalist, and I wrote back asking if they would consider a female instead," she recalled.

They did, she auditioned, and signed on. She also takes on the secretarial, public relations and marketing chores for the band, and writes its newsletter.

Hirsch, who lives in Columbia with her husband Peter, had sung with Partners in Song and the Baby Boomers, local folk singing and children’s music groups. That energy comes through in her band performances, as she bops around in front of the band, steps in and out among the dancers, mike in hand, clapping or shaking mariachis or a tambourine, depending on the song.

When Peter Hirsch, 61, retired from the federal government, he volunteered to serve as business manager for the expanding group. Today he handles bookings and other logistics-related activities, overseeing a schedule well into the fall of next year.

That schedule is posted along with news and photos of recent performances on the band’s website, www.retro-rockets.net.