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Lincoln’s Wheezetones are one group’s alternative to a weekly poker night

Lincoln East High School’s class of 1971, we’re told, was known for its many talents — music perhaps being the most notable.

“There were some great musicians all around us,” said Paul Burner, who grew up in Eastridge with John Ballew and Doug Dickeson. 

They all played guitar, but it wasn’t until 1991, when an impromptu jam session at the Isles Pub in Havelock — one of the gatherings for their weekend-long 20-year high school reunion — put the three of them on stage together for the first time.

Ballew asked if they knew “Amie,” the song Pure Prairie League took to No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.

Somehow, the three longtime friends — remember, jamming for the first time ever — nailed the acoustical classic, including the three-part harmony, which Burner said “sounded like we’d been practicing for weeks.”

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“We had never sung together. We had never played together,” he said. “But we had been around each other growing up.”

They finished the song and looked at each other with utter astonishment, knowing they couldn’t have played it any better.

“It was magical,” Burner said.

A year later, The Wheezetones — Burner, Ballew and Dickeson — played their first show. Thirty years later, they’re still going strong.

And on Friday, their longevity will be rewarded when one of Lincoln’s most well-known bands, the city’s top cover band in 2011, is inducted into the Nebraska Performing Arts Hall of Fame.

“We are honored to be (mentioned) with a bunch of people who we consider to be a lot more important than we are,” said Burner, a retired graphic designer, husband and father. 

The Wheezetones, now six strong after adding a bass, drums, keyboards and a saxophone, are that band that came together not for the chance at fame and fortune, but for the opportunity for a bunch of guys who genuinely like each other to play the music they grew up loving.

Some guys get together for a weekly poker game. Others friendships have been maintained for years — decades — by playing fantasy football. With The Wheezetones, it was always about the music.

“It was a great outlet,” Burner said. “There is a lot of need in life to just balance out the stress in life and career with something like music. It just balances out so much. That avenue lends so much fun. It’s been great.”

Proof in point that the music is far more important than the public adulation comes in the fact that The Wheezetones have never played more than one show a month. 

“We would play a gig, take the next week off and then we would practice,” Burner said. “We got together to play music and learn new music. … We would play music, laugh and have a great time.”

Maybe that’s what kept the group — Burner, Ballew and Dickeson, along with Bob Creager (drums), Ted Larson (keyboards and sax) and Kevin Moore (bass), who replaced the late Keith Cornelius in 2015 — together all these years.


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“I think that is the secret to our longevity,” Burner said. “… We never burned ourselves out. It’s always been fun for us.”

All are family men with careers. Ballew and Creager are attorneys. Larson and Dickeson are educators, while Moore, who raised two daughters who are pursuing musical theater careers, including Kate, who recently made her Broadway debut in the production of “Into the Woods,” owns a hair salon in Lincoln.

There was a time — just before the COVID-mandated shutdown — when The Wheezetones considered retiring for good. But after a bit of soul searching, the group decided against calling it quits.

“If people keep coming, we’ll keep playing” Dickeson said in a 2018 Journal Star story.

And Lincoln continues to turn out to dance and hear them play — perhaps at Duggan’s Pub, which served as their home base for years. This is a band that played both Pershing Auditorium and Pinnacle Bank Arena, which puts them in rarified air.

“How great is that?” Burner asked. “We really enjoy playing together. We just don’t want to play as much.”

The Wheezetones now play just three or four shows a year, which suits the six of them — most of them nearing or already in their 70s — just fine. They may not be playing as much for the public, but they still get together just about every week to jam.

After all, that’s where their real fun happens, right?

“We try to do classic rock songs that not everybody else does or can do,” Ballew told the Journal Star in 2011. “All of us have tremendous passion for the music.”

So, back to Friday night and the induction ceremony, after which they’ll play a 90-minute show.

Fittingly, the first song will feature the three originals — Burner, Ballew and Dickeson — playing an acoustic number as an homage to their beginnings.

Try again. Instead, they’ll play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a song made famous by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

In a perfect world, “Amie” would have been the obvious choice. But perfection is a moving target — especially when Father Time is involved.

“It’s a little harder to sing the high notes these days,” Burner said. “‘Amie,’ is so freaking high. We would have liked to come out and play the song first — our first song of the night being the one that started it all — but we want to make sure we can hit those notes.

“That’s just not a song you can come out of the chute and play.”

Maybe not, but it still would be fun and even more nostalgic to hear — just one more time.

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