Keith Zeller is a guitarist who plays in five different local bands: Five Finger Discount, Sisters & Company, The Memory Brothers, The Classic Rockers, and Lost Faculties. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Rock and Country Hall of Fame in Minnesota, and was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association (IRRMA) Hall of Fame.
What sparked your interest in music?
Sonny James gave me my first guitar lesson in 1959. My dad was a road manager for Sonny James and other big names. When Sonny James came to our house, I knew exactly three chords. He showed me how to get a chord in different places on the guitar. All the musicians I met stoked the fire in me to keep playing because they would show me something new on the guitar when they would stay with us. Sonny James even sent us a Christmas card every year after that.
Strangest thing you’ve ever seen an audience member do?
When I was playing in a bar in the early 60s, this biker guy came in, grabbed the microphone from us, and asked if anyone wanted to fight. Then the bar staff kicked him out, but he came back later and threw a grenade, which blew the wall down in the front of the bar. Later, I had to pick him out of a line up. Before I pointed him out, I asked, “Are you sure he can’t see us?”
If you could run sound for one artist no longer among the living, who would it be? Why?
Elvis Presley. I was a big Elvis fan before I even started playing guitar. In fact, I used to be a roller skating champion, and I actually skated to the Elvis song, “Hound Dog.” It would be nice to have Elvis back and do some sound for him.
Roller skating champion?
I skated six times a week and traveled all over, but I gave up skating completely once I started playing guitar. I went to Spirit Lake, Iowa, to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was the same place I got my first award for freestyle skating. During my acceptance speech, I told everyone that I hadn’t been back there since I got my award for skating. I was told that I was standing on the same floor that I skated on in 1955.
Top two artists at the moment?
Chet Atkins. His album was the first I ever owned. Dianna Krall. She is an excellent arranger who can tie it all together in her own style.
One book you think everyone should read?
“The Wrecking Crew” by Kent Hartman. It’s a book about the session musicians that played on many of the pop records in the 60s and 70s. They never really got the credit for the music they played.
If you had to outlaw one song from ever being played again, which would it be and why?
There are a lot of musicians who say they won’t play this or that, but if I know a song and someone asks for it, I am going to play it no matter if I like it or not. Why do something that they don’t want to hear? Play what pleases the people. Play what they want to hear.
What makes you stand out as a musician?
My versatility from playing for so many years. I play country, I play rock, and I am not really pegged into one hole. This is what has kept me working all this time.
What does music give to you?
It’s relaxing. If I am stressed, I will just pick up my guitar and things mellow out.
What motivates you to keep performing?
Playing with five different bands keeps me pretty busy, but I love what I do. As long as I continue to get hired, I will play. I will do it until I drop, which might not be too long from now!