The Wheezetones (formerly Johnny & the Wheezetones) had its beginnings at the East High 20-year reunion. Following an impromptu jam with other fellow musicians from the class of ’71, founding members John Ballew, Paul Burner and Doug Dickeson stepped up to the microphones and, without any preparation or practice, sang “Amie” by Pure Prairie League. The blend of the three voices made a lasting impression on Ballew, who a year later booked a Foundation Garden concert before the group had actually taken form or practiced. During several months of intense practices in Dickeson’s basement, the three realized that they had something special as they created strong three-part harmonies and acoustic arrangements of their favorite songs by Crosby Still & Nash, The Beatles, The Eagles and groups as wide-ranging as Vanilla Fudge, Commander Cody and Grand Funk Railroad. Lacking a name before their first performance, Burner came up with “Johnny & The Wheezetones” in recognition of the fact that he and Ballew have asthma.
All of the original members had played in Lincoln bands in the 60’s and 70’s but had never played together. Dickeson had continued playing in several popular bands well into the 80’s while Ballew and Burner had developed solo acts after their band days. All three brought diverse musical influences to the band: Ballew is a die-hard Beach Boys/Beatles fan and Burner loved Peter Paul & Mary, Dan Fogelberg and Motown. Dickeson was (and still is to this day) a Jimi Hendrix disciple, along with artists ranging from Bach to The Alan Parsons Project.
What started out as a one-shot performance in September of 1992 ended up turning into a popular 3-piece acoustic group that played at locations ranging from pastures and local bars, to London, England and Breckenridge, CO. They even played on a cruise ship for several hundred British insurance executives. They have been the opening act for Little River Band, Brewer & Shipley and Firefall. Along the way the three original members decided a drummer was necessary and since Bob Creager had played with Ballew in their college band they didn’t have to look far. Bob has one of the most elaborate electronic drum kits known to man. Shortly thereafter they decided that swapping bass-playing duties made no sense and Keith Cornelius was brought in on bass and vocals. Keith had one of the most varied and extensive musical backgrounds of anyone in the Midwest and had played in many bands, including the backup band for 60’s singer Bobby Vee. The group recorded their first CD in 1996 and released the second one (“Live and Under Cover”) in 2002. For their 20thAnniversary concert at the Rococo Theatre in Lincoln they released what they consider to be their best live CD with some great arrangements of lesser-known songs like Springsteen’s“Rosalita” and the Allman Brothers’ “Revival”.
In 2009 the band expanded further by adding Ted Larson on saxophone and keyboards. Ted is a well-known and highly respected musician in Lincoln and Omaha music circles and his inclusion expanded and changed the musical direction of the band somewhat. Ted seamlessly worked both keyboards and sax into existing arrangements and made them sparkle and there was new material to be learned. Suddenly the band could play the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin It to the Streets”, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen and “Smoke From a Distant Fire” by the Sanford Townsend Band. In 2011 they were voted Lincoln’s favorite cover band in a Lincoln Journal Star contest, beating out 63 other groups.
Sadly, Keith Cornelius passed away in 2015. He is missed and thought of often during practices and on stage. One of his signature red jackets hangs in the band’s practice room at Bob Creager’s home. Following Keith’s death, the band re-grouped and was lucky to have Ted’s bandmate in the popular funk band Soul Dawg, Kevin Moore, join The Wheezetones on bass and vocals. Kevin can sing any part, play anything on bass and is adept at arranging new material.
After Reeling in the Years for over a quarter of a century, the band announced in January 2019 it would be retiring from regular public performances after their annual NYE celebration with Soul Dawg. They were concerned that a Wheezetone fan might break a hip dancing or one of them might get injured loading equipment. All kidding aside, these guys have had a lot of fun playing the music they love and grew up with. They are and always will be eternally grateful that year after year thousands of people showed up to dance and sing along. It’s been a good ride.