Community Interest

Gene Ackmann: 45 Years of Making Music, Making Friends, Making Memories


By Dianne Sudbrock

If you were a child of the 50s or 60s you came of age during a phenomenal period in music history — the birth of rock and roll. It’s probably safe to say that most people from that era still love the music of their youth, now officially known as “The Oldies.”
Helping to keep that music alive, and the youthful memories that come with it, is one of the premier bands in the St. Louis region: Butch Wax and The Hollywoods; as well as a smaller off-shoot known as The Garden Party. The leader of both bands is Gene Ackmann. Gene grew up in the Harvester area and attended Francis Howell High School (Class of 1972.) In his senior year, he was voted “Best Dressed” (which might explain why he’s a bit of a stickler when it comes to how his band members dress on stage!)

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 Butch Wax Band (L-R) Front: Liz Henderson, Tandra Williams. Back: Mike Lutz,
Richie Daniels, Doc Simpson, Gene Ackmann, Rob Miller, Sonny McGraw.

Gene started playing music when he joined the school band in Junior High. In High School he played in the Concert and Marching Bands, and served as Drum Major. Gene majored in Music in college. He learned a lot about music theory and various instruments, but what he really wanted was to play rock and roll.

Soon after he got his first “real job,” Gene bought a bass guitar and a keyboard, and started teaching himself how to play– by listening to records – mostly Chuck Berry. He’d drop the needle on the record, ping out the chords by ear, and jot down the words to learn the lyrics.

One day, Gene saw an ad for a bass guitar player in a music store. He called the number, and it was Ronnie Schneider from New Melle. So Ronnie, Art Balducci and Rick Gibson (both from Wentzville), and Gene teamed up and started the band “Ruckus.” They played together for about three years, then Ronnie started another band, Coyote, which featured more country and country rock. Gene stayed with Ruckus for a while, then played a couple of years with a band called Windfall.

Along the way, Gene met Billy Peek, a renowned St. Louis born, rock and roll/blues guitarist who had played with Chuck Berry, had been Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist for five years, and had his own St. Louis band that played a lot of Chuck Berry’s music. (Chuck Berry has been quoted as saying, “Billy [Peek] plays my music better than I do.”) Gene told Billy, “Hey, if you ever need a bass player, I’m a huge fan, and I know all of Chuck Berry’s music.” After Rod Stewart’s band dissolved in 1980, Gene played with Billy Peek for several years.

When Gene’s daughter was born, he took three years off from playing music to devote more time to raising her. Then about 1985, he got together with his sister, Donna (who taught music in the Francis Howell School District) and some others. “We put a little thing together and started doing a lot of oldies music, which I always liked,” he said. “The crowds liked it too, and we decided we needed to name the band something that sounded retro. I thought of Butch Wax, which guys used on their hair. I was thinking ‘Butch Wax and the Cadillacs’, but then someone suggested ‘Butch Wax and the Hollywoods’, which sounded really cool, so that’s what we went with.”

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The group that started Butch Wax and the Hollywoods (L-R) Gene Ackmann,
Donna Russell (Gene's sister), John Botz, Bob Hammett, and Mike Tate.

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Butch Wax and the Hollywoods, circa 2000.


“It just so happened that oldies music was trending back at that time,” Gene said, “with shows like Happy Days and the movie American Graffiti. We started playing in a lot of places and having so much fun. And we continue to do that now, 37 years later.”
Current members of the Butch Wax band are Liz Henderson, Tandra Williams, Richie Daniels, Mike Lutz, Sonny McGraw, Rob Miller, Doc Simpson, and Gene. Of course, band members have changed over the years, “It’s a substantial commitment, and over time situations change – family things, job transfers, health issues. But we’ve always had great people in the band,” Gene said. “They are all professionals. We’re musicians, but we’re also friends. Everybody does their part, and that has contributed significantly to our success.”

Early on, Gene said the management of the details sort of fell to him. “I remember being in bands where we stood around in between songs and said, ‘What do you want to play next?’” He said, “We don’t do that. I have a set list and click, click, click, down the list we go. Of course, the older I get, the larger the print on the list!” Gene plans the playlist with the goal to get the crowd moving and keep them engaged, and he changes things around frequently, so it stays fresh.

About seven years ago, when Gene knew he was going to retire, he wanted to put something else together. Butch Wax is a large band. It takes a large venue and costs more money. So along with Liz Henderson and Richie Daniels, (both from Butch Wax) he started The Garden Party Band. The Garden Party plays smaller venues, like wineries, city concerts in the park, private parties, etc. They play some of the oldies, but also incorporate California Classic Rock, Country Rock, and a little Classic Country, including selections from The Eagles, Rick Nelson, Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Rivers, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis, Brooks & Dunn, Chuck Berry, Patsy Cline and more.


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The Garden Party Band (L-R): Richie Daniels, Liz Henderson, Gene Ackmann.


For both bands, Gene is particular about what the band members wear on stage. “I don’t want to come out looking like we all just came in from cutting the grass,” he said. Before each performance, Gene emails the band with the colors the guys are wearing, the time to be there, etc. “Especially when you have ten people (eight band members plus two technicians in Butch Wax) someone has to take charge.”

In the early 90s, Butch Wax and the Hollywoods had their photo taken inside the Hardees restaurant on Mexico Road at Mid Rivers Mall Drive. The restaurant had a retro 1950s décor, and a photo of the band hung inside for several years. Mark Kersten, a long-time drummer with Butch Wax, rescued the photo several years later when the décor changed, and recently gave it to Gene as a keepsake.


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Gene with the photo that hung in the Hardees in
St. Peters - circa 1993/94.


Through the years, Gene has met hundreds of well-known people in the music and entertainment industry, and has become friends with many of them. One of those friends is Sirius XM Radio DJ Pat St. John. At the beginning of every Butch Wax show, first you’ll hear “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles, then the voice of Pat St. John saying, “Hey everybody, this is Pat St. John from Sirius XM Radio in sunny San Diego. If you’re ready to dance, get ready because here comes Butch Wax and the Hollywoods.” Then the band members all come out together in their stage clothes as the intro song plays.

The same sort of thing happens after every break. “There is one particular song that plays during each break. When the band hears that song, they know they have 2½ minutes before the voice of Pat St. John comes back and says, ‘Once again, please welcome Butch Wax and the Hollywoods!’ and we file back on stage together again. It’s all very professional, and keeps everyone on track.”

When Gene was playing with Billy Peek in St. Louis, he had the opportunity to meet several St. Louis music icons, including Chuck Berry, of course, but also Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson. Johnnie is considered one of the best blues and boogie-woogie piano players in the world. He played and recorded with such musical greats as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and more. Johnnie and Chuck Berry together wrote most of Berry’s top hits, and Johnnie was the inspiration behind the song, Johnny B. Goode. On all those songs, you’ll hear Johnnie’s unmistakable groove and pounding right-hand triplets. Johnnie and Chuck helped invent Rock and Roll and shape the way it would be played for generations to come.

Gene said, “Johnnie was an incredibly kind, humble, unassuming man, and we became close friends. Johnnie used to call me up, like after being on The David Letterman Show or something, and say, ‘Hey, I’ll be back in town later tonight. How about we go fishing tomorrow?’ So we’d spend the next day out here in the country fishing at my lake.”

Gene met many people in the industry through Johnnie, and Johnnie played with Butch Wax on their CDs and on stage on several occasions, including all of the Rams home games for four years, and the Cardinal Home Opener games for five years.
Johnnie also performed with Butch Wax when they recorded the Ram's theme song, “Gotta Go to Work”. Gene wrote the song, Dick Steltenpohl wrote the intro and horn lines, and Butch Wax recorded it and played it at all the rallies leading up to the Superbowl, plus at the Superbowl victory parade. “The town was electric that day. There were over 200,000 people there, singing along with something I helped create. It was a moment I’ll never forget!” Gene said. “We later did the same thing for the baseball Cardinals and the hockey Blues, writing and recording ‘Pennant Fever’ and ‘Let’s Go Blues.’”

In early 2003, Johnny Rivers came to St. Louis to be part of some recordings that Gene and Johnnie Johnson were doing together. Butch Wax did a show at the Casa Loma Ballroom that weekend, and both men joined the band onstage. Gene said, “How cool it was to be onstage with Johnnie Johnson on piano and Johnny Rivers on guitar performing classics like ‘Memphis’, ‘Maybelline’ and ‘Midnight Special’. It was a night we’ll never forget!”

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Gene with Johnnie Johnson.

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Gene Ackmann with some of the photos and memorabilia
he has collected over the years.


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Frames highlighting Bill Medley, The Four Tops, The Beach Boys and The Rascals.


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Rick Nelson and the Eagles.

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Johnny Rivers.

There have been some other memorable moments as well. Gene said, “One night, a woman was dancing and collapsed with a heart attack. One of the ladies in our band, Carol Rowley, was a nurse and gave her CPR. Later, I got a call from the TV show “Rescue 911” saying they wanted to feature that incident on their show. I thought it was a prank call at first, but it wasn’t. So we recreated the scene – wearing the same outfits, singing the same song and all that. The cool thing was that the woman who suffered the heart attack was there and got to meet Carol and others who helped save her. It was a touching reunion. (Google “Rescue 911 Fancy Dancer” to watch the segment.)

One of the most touching memories came in 2018. Bill Asher, one of the victims in the Branson duck boat accident, was a friend of Gene’s and a huge fan of Butch Wax & the Hollywoods. Bill built a custom-made clock for Gene and gave it to him at a park concert on July 4 that year. He told Gene, “I won’t see you next week because we’re either going to Branson or Nashville – probably Nashville.” A few days later, Bill emailed that their plans had changed and they were going to Branson. Gene replied to the email, ending with the words “Safe travels.”

“I still have that email,” he said.

Gene gave the eulogy at Bill’s funeral. A few weeks later, Bill Asher’s brother, Lynn, approached Gene and asked him and the other band members to sign a Butch Wax T-shirt. Bill was wearing the shirt when they recovered his body, and Lynn wanted to frame the shirt along with a copy of the eulogy. The band played two of Bill’s favorite songs that day, “Just my Imagination” and “Old Time Rock and Roll”. In between the two songs, all the band members left the stage, went out into the crowd and hugged Lynn, his wife Carol, Bill’s daughter Jennifer, and other family members. “It was very emotional,” Gene said.

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The clock that Bill Asher made for Gene.


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The Bill Asher Family at Civic Park in O'Fallon, MO, 2018.


Later, Gene wrote a song in tribute to Bill Asher. “It is not a teary-eyed ballad,” Gene explained. Bill was a veteran, he loved to dance, and he used to DJ for veterans’ events free of charge. The song is called “DJ to the Stars,” and it captures things about Bill, like he was a true-blue rock and roller, he loved music, and he loved dancing. It has an upbeat tempo. One of the verses goes like this. 

Down on the Admiral, dancing to Bob Kuban,
Sunday afternoons, with his gal out groovin’
The life of the party, always having fun
You’ll always be forever young.
Dance, dance, dance, DJ to the Stars

Gene said, “The song just came together one afternoon while I was noodling around on the guitar and watching ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’” The band recorded the song on one of their CDs, and they play it out occasionally. Gene still keeps in touch with Bill’s family.

Another memory: Last December, Gene and his girlfriend, Danette Bader, went to Nashville for the Vince Gill and Amy Grant Christmas Show. “The show was fantastic, and we had a great time,” Gene said. “I had read about a little restaurant where Vince liked to go for breakfast. I told Danette, ‘I want to check out that restaurant so we can say we ate breakfast at the same place, and maybe we’ll get lucky, and Vince will walk in.’”

When they arrived, Gene asked about Vince and was told, “Oh Yeah, he comes in here all the time.” Gene said, “So we were sitting there in this little booth, and next thing you know, the waitress comes by and says, ‘Hey, did you see who just walked in? That’s Vince Gill over there.’” She encouraged us to go talk to him. I told him who I was and that we were huge fans. Vince said, ‘You’re from St. Louis, huh? Do you know Dave Hinson?’ I said, ‘Yes, I used to play music with Dave,’ and Vince said, ‘I buy guitars from him.’ We had a nice conversation and got our photo taken with him.”

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Gene and Danette with Vince Gill in Nashville, 2021.

Over the years, Butch Wax & The Hollywoods has shared the stage with Johnny Rivers, Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, Lou Rawls, Darius Rucker, Michael McDonald, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Blake Shelton, The Guess Who, Theo Peoples, Billy Peek, The Rascals, The Association, The Lettermen, The Kentucky Headhunters, The Grassroots, Tammy Wynette, Frankie Avalon, and many others. They’ve done recordings with Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Rivers, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby and more.
Personally, Gene has met many of his favorite music icons, The Eagles, Rick Nelson, The Beach Boys and others. His basement walls are filled with photos and memorabilia from those meetings and other highlights from his music career. He’s in the process of organizing all that into a book that he hopes to publish within the next year.

What else might you not know about Gene Ackmann? He’s a big fan of classic television shows, especially "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Little House on the Prairie." Gene loves to go to the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Marshfield, Missouri, where he’s met cast members from Little House and other classic TV shows. In 2021, Gene and Danette played small roles in a movie, “Mayberry Man,” set in Mount Airy, NC, where the actor Andy Griffith was born and "The Andy Griffith Show" was inspired. And for his “real job,” Gene worked in sales. He was hired by Blue Bunny Ice Cream to introduce their products to the St. Louis market. (Did you ever eat a free Blue Bunny Ice Cream sandwich at a Butch Wax concert? You have Gene to thank for that!)

You can enjoy Butch Wax and the Hollywoods and The Garden Party Band at several local venues in the coming months. Find schedules at butchwaxandthehollywoods.com and gardenpartystl.com, but for the latest updates, follow Gene Ackmann’s Facebook page.

Plan now to come out, enjoy the music, bring your friends and make some memories!

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People from the crowd, singing with The Garden Party on May 22
(L-R) Richie Daniels, Sheila Lowry, Rick Boedeker,
Stephanie Beckham, and Liz Henderson. 

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A Garden Party tradition: Ladies from the crowd
singing "We re Family" with the staff at the Quarry Wine Garden.

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Gene Ackmann holding a vintage jar of Butch Hair Wax, the band’s namesake.