Roger William Thiesen
1936 - 2010
Roger Thiesen, talented improvisational pianist and organist and sound and recording engineer, enjoyed a successful career as a keyboard performer and creative innovator in the area of sound reproduction. He worked primarily in Southern California for most of his career, playing in groups which performed a wide variety of music, including country and western, early rock and roll, ballads, and religious music.
Thiesen was born in Bakersfield, California, the son of Aaron and Hilda Biloff Thiesen, both of whom were children of parents who had been homesteaders in North Dakota. When his parents' families had lost their farms in the Great Depression, they had moved to California. In 1940, four years after Roger was born, his parents returned to North Dakota and bought a farm, on which they lived until 1949.
They later moved to the Walla Walla, Washington, area, where members of their larger family lived, having grown disillusioned with the quality of life in North Dakota. Roger found the transition difficult, having been taught by poorly qualified teachers in a small public school. He had artistic talents, though, which led to him painting backdrops while he was still in grade school.
By the time he entered Walla Walla College Academy, later Walla Walla Valley Academy, in 1951, Roger was doing backdrops for most of the academy and Walla Walla College, later University, programs. He also painted a mural of the Northern Lights, which included a polar bear, for the Alaskan Room, a banquet area in the new Kellogg Hall cafeteria at WWC.
Although he was enjoying his life in Walla Walla, his mother insisted he transfer to Upper Columbia Academy at the end of his first year at WWCA. He painted backdrops for programs at UCA and though he had no formal training in music, he learned to play the guitar in his dormitory room and assisted in the percussion section in the band until he graduated in 1955. During this time he began to learn how to do lettering while working for a local sign shop.
He then spent a year at the high school in Walla Walla, where he took additional classes before enrolling at WWC in 1957. He dropped out of college at the end of the first term and then worked with his father, helping him renovate rundown houses, which were then rented.
With some friends Roger formed a jazz band in which he played drums and rhythm guitar. He also played in other area groups, being in demand since he was the first person in the area to own an electric bass. While doing all of this playing, he developed an extensive playing repertoire of music of that era and from the 1930s and 1940s.
He was drafted into the army in December 1958 and was shipped to San Antonio, Texas, to be trained as a medic. He shared a portfolio of his work with the graphics department at the base and was reassigned to that area. In his two years there, he played his electric bass in three different groups, a country music group with the Forse brothers, a Mexican ensemble, and a nine-piece swing band. He particularly enjoyed playing in the Louis Reams' Sunny Ace swing group, which performed frequently.
He returned to Walla Walla in January 1961 and formed a small group that played in the area and at Seaside, Oregon, in the summer. The Forse brothers with whom he had played in San Antonio contacted him and invited him to join them in Los Angeles, California, to play piano, not electric bass, in a group.
This was the beginning of a long career in popular music for Thiesen in which his natural artistic and musical ability and developing facility on piano led to many opportunities. He also became known for his sense of humor and the comedy routines he developed with the group that played an important role in developing rapport with audiences.
Thiesen became interested in working with reverberation and enhancement of sound, innovations that rapidly became an important part of popular music at that time. He quickly acquired high-end recording and sound equipment and gained an understanding that led to several creative innovations in that area.
This experience led to his establishing a recording studio in Modesto in 1967, which produced recordings under the Kloc label, and to his serving as a consultant in that area. He experimented with electronic keyboards to create an orchestral sound on stage when his group performed in San Diego in 1970.
He attached solenoids to a vibraphone and glockenspiel that enabled him to play them from his piano keyboard. Other innovations allowed him to control the sustaining pedals and dampers on the vibraphone through knee switches under the piano keyboard. The net result of these controls was that the group could create the Floyd Cramer sound so popular in the 1960s.
He played in a number of venues in Southern California. One of the more successful ventures he was involved with was a place called The Funny Farm in Bakersfield. Thiesen later described that experience:
We found a large shell of a building in a good location. It was about 200 feet long and forty feet wide. We decided to decorate it in a décor that would match the name Funny Farm. I drew cartoon images of cowboys, women, and animals on the walls, and we created the feeling of an actual barnyard.
We found a tree with a long trunk and placed it in the room along with fake leaves and Christmas lights overhead. We used black lights for lighting effects and hung old kerosene-style lamps converted to electric. It had perfect acoustics and a state of the art sound system. Ten Altec A-7 theatre speakers playing in stereo allowed us to create different sound levels in the areas of the room.
It was highly successful, and we had a good run for about five years. Following this, I established a recording studio in Bakersfield in my home, where I did a lot of sound demos for musicians. I had enough sound gear to provide sound reinforcement for concerts and did that for schools, churches, and other groups. I did this until I returned to Walla Walla.
Thiesen returned to the Walla Walla area in the 1990s, when his parents became ill. He spent the rest of his life there doing some recording studio work in his home and playing as a pianist in retirement centers and for events in the area, where his repertoire of popular music from the 20th century made him a sought-after and popular performer.
Sources: Interviews with and materials provided by Roger Thiesen in 2008.