Bobby Aro, 1984

August 12, 1984

Bobby Aro sings a ballad at Elde’s Supper Club, located between Duluth and Esko, on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

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.”

Bobby Aro performs at Elde’s Supper Club on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

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.”

Couples dance to the music of Bobby Aro at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

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.”

Bobby Aro (right) gets help in broadcasting his “Old-Time Dance Party” from disc jockey Tim Michaels at radio station WDSM-AM 710 in June 1984. It was the last surviving polka radio program in the Northland at that time. (John Rott / News-Tribune & Herald)

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.”

Arvo Koponen and Elizabeth Palo of Cotton take a break from dancing to enjoy the performance of the Ranch-Aros at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth in August 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

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.”

Couples trot out a schottische to the music of Bobby Aro and his Ranch-Aros at Elde’s Supper Club near Duluth on Aug. 5, 1984. (Bob King / News-Tribune & Herald)

——

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 makes a selection for his WDSM-AM radio show from a stack of records he keeps close at hand on Oct. 2, 1989. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Bobby Aro at the microphone during a break in his WDSM-AM 710 radio show in October 1989. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

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.

Photos of Paul Wellstone in the Northland

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, marks the 10th anniversary of the plane crash near Eveleth that took the life of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife Sheila, and six others. Read the News Tribune’s coverage of the anniversary here.

Here’s a selection of News Tribune file photos from Wellstone’s many trips to the Northland, leading up to his election to the Senate in 1990 and in the years that followed:

Democrat Paul Wellstone ratchets up his U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz during a stop at the Duluth Labor Temple on June 9, 1989. (John Rott / News-Tribune)

—–

Senator-elect Paul Wellstone reacts to the approval of the crowd during a standing-room-only town hall meeting at the Marshall School cafeteria in Duluth on Dec. 5, 1990. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

—–

As Sen. Paul Wellstone jokes with locals at Maggie’s, a popular restaurant in Nashwauk, on April 5, 1991, owner Margaret Breuling looks on and smiles. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone greets people who gathered for the opening of his office in Virginia, Minn., on April 5, 1991. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., speaks at a rally at the Duluth Labor Temple on London Road on April 13, 1991. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone answers questions from the audience during a meeting about health-care issues on Feb. 13, 1992, at Duluth Central High School. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone addresses DFL delegates from across Minnesota on June 5, 1992, the first day of the state DFL convention at the DECC, Interpreting was Kim Olson of Minneapolis. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

—–

Marilyn Pribyl of Chaska and Terry Selle of Bloomington listen as Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., pauses to chat with them during a stop at Grandma’s Restaurant in Duluth on Jan. 15, 1994. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone addresses a gathering of people in low-income situations during a news conference Nov. 21, 1995, at Emerson School in Duluth. The event was held to bring attention to the plight of low-income people in need of housing assistance. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

—–

Aimee McIntyre (left) and Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., share a laugh during a rally for Wellstone at the Federal Building in Duluth on July 1, 1996. Supporters wore shirts with red targets and the words: “Proud to be a Republican Target.” (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to the crowd gathered at a rally at the DECC’s Pioneer Hall in Duluth on the morning of Oct. 23, 1996, as Vice President Al Gore applauds in the background. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

—–

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone answers a question from a student in the audience during the Democracy in Action forum April 9, 1999, at the College of St. Scholastica. More than 600 students from the three high schools in Duluth attended the forum, which gave them an opportunity to challenge and ask questions of elected officals. Listening to Wellstone on stage are state Sen. Sam Solon and Duluth Mayor Gary Doty. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to a crowd of about 100 gathered Sunday at the entrance of ME International in Duluth on Oct. 31, 1999. Wellstone voiced his support of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1028 strike that has been in effect since August. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone visits Denfeld High School in Duluth on Nov. 16, 2000. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

—–

Sen. Paul Wellstone meets with a full auditorium of Denfeld High School students on Nov. 16, 2000, at the school. Wellstone took questions and comments from students regarding the recent election and the issues surrounding it. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

—–

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone greets members of the Duluth Denfeld singing groups Solid Gold and Steppin’ Up on Nov. 16, 2000, during a visit to the school. Wellstone engaged the students in a town hall-style meeting, discussing the previous week’s presidential election. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

—–

Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton talk in Superior on March 9, 2001, with employees of Partridge River Inc., the company whose Hoyt Lakes plant was destroyed by fire earlier that month. The meeting took place at Partridge River’s Superior facility. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

—–

Share your memories and stories by posting a comment.