Clem Brau is The Rosemount's music man
Clem Brau was only eight years old when he told his mother he would like to form a band. More than 80 years later, the Minnesota Music Hall of Famer is still entertaining his peers with his music.
Brau, 94, began playing the keyboard for fellow residents at The Rosemount after moving in with his wife of 63 years, Betty, in September. The Rosemount didn't have a piano when he moved in, but that changed in December, when the senior living community acquired a keyboard at Brau's request. Now when residents gather for coffee and snacks in the community room on Thursday afternoons, if they're lucky, they just might get to sing along to songs spanning the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, just a small sampling of the music Brau played over a career that has spanned nine decades.
"I just love to play music," Brau said. "The people are always happy. When you're at a dance crowd, all the people are happy. I love that."
The youngest of five children, Brau grew up in a musical household in the tiny town of Lucan in southwestern Minnesota. His father Joseph played the baritone horn, his mother Rosa played the pump organ, and all five kids took piano lessons. Brau said his mother held him to high standards.
"When I would practice before I played for people, if I missed a note, she knew right away," he said. "She came right in there (and said), 'That isn't right. You get it right...' And then I'd get some jellybeans if I played it right."
From there, his love of music grew. He taught himself how to play the trumpet, alto sax and clarinet from a book. By the time Brau was 14, he was playing with a local band called The Knights of Harmony twice a week for $2 a night.
One year later, his dream of forming his own band became a reality. Joining forces with his brothers Harold and Norbert and his sister Hildegarde, as well as a hired drummer, he formed the Clem Brau Orchestra. Brau wrote and arranged all the music and played trumpet, clarinet and saxophone. They rehearsed in his mother's dining room.
"Can you imagine the noise that she had to put up with?" he asked.
By age 17, the Clem Brau Orchestra was playing six nights a week at the Nightingale Club in New Ulm. His high school principal gave him dispensation to sleep in every morning, report to school late, and still graduate with his class.
The band folded when Clem's brother Harold and the band's drummer were drafted into service in 1942. Clem was drafted in 1943. He joined the United States Air Force Band and, as the youngest member of the Hammer Field Bombasies, played for servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen while movie stars such as Jane Wyman served coffee and lunch. The shows were broadcast on the radio coast-to-coast, and he got to meet big name band leaders such as Stan Kenton and Les Brown.
In 1944, he was shipped to New Guinea, where he provided musical accompaniment for the likes of Kay Kyser, Danny Kaye and Red Skelton during USO shows. Brau was honorably discharged after World War II drew to a close.
"I got home in '46 and my brother says, 'I'm getting married, so we better get the band going again,' so I wrote music for a whole year," Brau said. "I went to all the different dances and listened to all the different big bands. Most of them were 10- to 12-piece, and I said, 'We can do this with eight men,'" Brau said. "And we did."
Brau said he prided himself on his ability to rewrite 12-piece band arrangements so he could take them on the road with a six to eight-person band. In 1947, he took his band on the road, performing under two different names: The Clem Brau Orchestra, which played modern, swing music, and The Jolly Lumberjacks, an old-time polka and waltz band.
Over the next 40 years, the two bands played just about every barn dance, dance hall and ballroom within a 250-mile radius of Brau's home in Redwood Falls, Minn. He said many people never even realized it was the same band.
"A lot of people didn't know the difference. We played Storm Lake, Iowa, one night and on Wednesday night we played modern and Thursday night we played old time, and the people that were there on the Thursday night said, 'You should have seen the band that was here last night,'" Brau said.
Other than their deployments during World War II, Brau and his band were on the road from 1937 until New Year's Eve of 1985. They performed almost every night throughout the five-state area, and no matter how far away they were or how late they finished their set, they always drove home to their families afterward. The band frequently played stretches of 100 days in a row. Brau said his older brother Norb booked shows by telling club owners, 'If you don't like the band, you don't have to pay a thing.'
"And we never lost a date," he said.
One of Brau's most memorable and historic shows was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the night after Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) were killed in a plane crash after playing that very same stage. It became known as the day the music died.
"The crowd was very sad and we were very sad," Brau said.
Brau also remembers playing Minneapolis' Flame Night Club, owned by a notorious gangster known as Kid Cann.
"Peggy Lee was singing at the front in the bar and we were playing in the back," he said. "Can you believe that?"
Even after he retired in 1985, Brau played another 17 years at VFW and Legion halls on the weekends while spending his winters in Arizona. He also played the organ at his church in Redwood Falls for 13 and a half years. After spending so many years performing for others, Brau was not ready to give it up just because The Rosemount didn't have a piano.
Brau said the music has been a part of him for so long, he sometimes can't sleep at night "...because I'm thinking of a tune and I'm figuring out the chords in my sleep," he said. "It makes you feel good inside. I feel good that my fingers still work."
Even at 94 years old, Brau clearly remembers the day he sat rocking on the porch at home with his mother when she asked her eight-year-old son, "What would you like to do, Clem?"
"I said, 'I'd like to have a band.' She said, 'Well, you can do it.' She'd always give me support all the way, you know. 'You can do it.' And I did."