August 12, 1984
Bobby Aro: Old-time music like they love it
By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune & Herald
Old-time music has a friend in Bobby Aro.
He recorded his biggest personal hit, for instance, in his sauna. The song was “Highway No. 7.” Aro claims it has sold a million copies in the 26 years since he wrote and recorded it in the soundproof building in his backyard.
He has the last surviving polka radio program in the Twin Ports, “Bobby Aro’s Old-Time Dance Party” at 5 p.m. Saturdays on WDSM-AM 710. He also helps out host Pentti Mahonen with “The Finnish American Program” at 9:45 a.m. Sundays on WEVE-AM 1300 in Eveleth. And he’s a country music deejay on Virginia’s WHLB-AM 1400 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturdays.
He’s probably best known as a live performer. He and his band the Ranch-Aros play regularly throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They perform Sunday nights at Elde’s Supper Club at 9949 W. Old Highway 61.
Not surprisingly, this region’s Finnish-Americans and loves of old-time dance music love him. He sprinkles Finnish in the midst of English-language songs, in a hybrid he calls “Finn-glish.”
“I play this kind of junk because I like it,” he said during a break at Elde’s last Sunday night. “I don’t get into the ‘thickness’ of it.” Meaning, the self-consciously “ethnic” aspects of it. “The lines between people, like blacks and whites, are dissolving. That’s the way I’ve always felt music should be too. Besides, we play a little of everything. Whatever gets people dancing.”
He’s a lively performer for his age, which he says with a sidelong glance is “50-ish.” At Elde’s, he opened with “Tiny Bubbles” and sung part of it in Hawaiian (one of six languages he uses in the act, including Slovenian, Polish, German and Finnish).
His vocal style is Dean Martin-like in the way he slurs his diction slightly and sidles up next to a note before hitting it properly. His range is surprising; he hit high notes in the vintage rocker “Chantilly Lace” easily and clearly, before swooping down in a gravelly growl for the “Oh baby that’s a-what I like!” line. People jitterbugged and twisted to that one.
The diversity of the material was surprising, even for a performer who could be called a “variety” music act. “Cheryl Moana Marie.” “Cab Driver.” “Okie From Muskogee.” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” complete with an “ee yi ee yi yo!” call and response with the audience. “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” with the final “have you ever been blue” refrain changed to “did you vote for Ben Boo?” He cackled then, the high “Heh! Heh! Heh!” that serves as his laugh. A bit of scat singing to “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.” A spritely schottische here. A couple polkas there. A waltz arrangement of “Que Sera Sera.” To stop one song he shouted “Hi-yo Silver, away!”
He’s a master of the medley.
“This one’s for Patty Chmielewski,” he said, “wherever she may be.” He leaped into “I’ve Got A Polish Girlfriend.” Then: “This one’s for your governor,” and segued into “Moja Dekla.” Then: “This one’s for Rudy Miskulin, wherever he may be,” and it was into “Ya Sam Majko.”
The crowd at Elde’s was full of loyal “regulars” that come from as far away as Two Harbors and Nashwauk. It’s a convivial atmosphere, made even more pleasant by the free appetizers served during Aro’s break. This night, it was corn on the cob. And owners Earl and Darlene Elde make sure pots of coffee appear on tables before closing time.
“We’ve come here every night since Bobby started here,” said Helen Olsen of Barnum. “It’s the best exercise we can get.”
“If you can’t dance to Bobby’s music, you can’t dance,” said her husband Harold. “Besides, if you don’t come here you got nothing else to talk about all week.”
“There’s lots of romances that have blossomed here,” said Mary Johnson of Hibbing. “See that woman in the red blouse? She just found herself a boyfriend here two weeks ago and now they’re dancing together.”
Aro was trying a Julio Iglesias-like accent on “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.”
“Sure I try the new stuff.” he said later. “You have to keep current. We play dances, clubs, weddings – anybody that’s got $5 keeps you going. That, and because I don’t know nothing else.”
He was born in Leonidas, a village outside Eveleth. His earliest musical memories are of his grandfather playing violin and coronet and leading a band that a steel company had organized for its workers. The boy learned violin at an early age. Later came guitar, keyboards and drums. He left to attend radio school in Chicago and worked in Texas shortly after World War II.
“That’s where I got onto country music,” he said. “They were big on that Western Swing. I’m still a country music deejay, really. I’ve been preaching that stuff since it was called hillbilly music. You know how it changed into what it is today? Eddie Arnold and Ray Price made it palatable to everybody. Now you know what it’s come to? They’ve gone too far. People like Dolly (Parton) and Kenny Rogers – that’s not even country music. I don’t ever play that. I play the old stuff and people love it. But then, if a guy’s banging on a garbage can, I don’t knock him. Music is a tough way to make a living.”
He worked in radio, early television and nightclubs in Chicago before returning to northern Minnesota to work for the old Arrowhead Radio Network. He’s spent the last three decades at several Iron Range radio stations and makes his home in Zim. Today the Ranch-Aros are made up of his sons Casey of Zim on guitar and Mike of Eveleth on drums.
“I introduce them as my brothers because we’re all looking at the same girls,” Aro said. “Uh heh! Heh! Heh!”
His proudest professional moment came three years ago, when he did a concert in Finland. Unknown to him, he was something of a cult figure in that country because of his four “Finn-glish” albums. They love his numbers like “Kapakka in the Kaupunki,” “Suomalainen Gals” and “Donald Maki Song.” The latter is a remake of “Old MacDonald.”
“This won’t buy me a cup of coffee here, but I’ve got front pages of newspapers and magazines from over there with my name all over them. They were askin’ for songs of mine that I didn’t even remember, so I had them sing it to me. What a feeling, hey?”
Yet he doesn’t plan to return.
“I’ve got a winning streak going,” he said. “I don’t want to go back and ruin it.”
For the future, he’ll continue his radio and live performing. Maybe lead a few tour groups to Nashville, as he has in the past.
“I clipped a little thing out of the paper once,” he said. “It was in the gossip column, you know, where stars are doing this and that. Rod Steiger said, ‘The truth of success is longevity.’ I like that one. I had it in my wallet for a long time.”
Here are a couple of YouTube videos with music by Bobby Aro:
Bobby Aro suffered a heart attack during a performance in Mountain Iron in December 1988; he underwent triple-bypass surgery and returned to the stage and radio several months later. Here are a couple photos that ran with a story in the News-Tribune in October 1989:
Bobby Aro died on Jan. 19, 1996 at age 69.
WDSE-TV, PBS Channel 8 in Duluth, created a documentary on Bobby Aro that will be airing on Sunday, June 1 at 7 p.m., and again on Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m.
Do you remember watching or listening to Bobby Aro? Share your memories by posting a comment.