Delaware man all shook up over Elvis

Glenn Kemske dresses up as Elvis Presley along the side of the road, playing music for passing motorists. (Submitted photo/Tom Needles)

PIKE CREEK — It’s Aug. 17, 1997, the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and Glenn Kemske’s got a plan — which could be dangerous. He’s been playing Elvis’ music for 20 years at graduations, birthdays and church carnivals. He’s going to put on a few mini concerts to honor the King.

Mr. Kemske heads down the stairs into the family room of his Pike Creek home. There, carrying his acoustic guitar and decked out in full Elvis regalia: wig, glasses and leather jacket, he encounters his son, Eric, laying on the couch watching a Phillies’ game.

“Where you going, Dad,” Eric asks, almost afraid to hear the answer. “I’ve got some gigs to do today,” his dad answers. Eric responds with the three words that can stop an aspiring rock star in his tracks. “Does Mom know?” Ouch.

Mr. Kemske stops, spins around and pointing the classic Elvis forefinger and thumb at his son, answers, “No, and there’s no reason she has to.” Then Mr. Kemske swaggers out the door and is gone. Elvis has left the building.

His first stop is McGlynn’s Pub in Pike Creek to chart his game plan. The McGlynn’s manager immediately picks up the phone and calls owner Bob Ashby. “Hey boss, there’s a guy sitting at the bar dressed like Elvis. What do you want me to do?” When Mr. Ashby finds out it’s Mr. Kemske, he tells the manager. `I know the guy. He’s cool.”

If anyone was cool, it was Elvis.

Mr. Kemske’s next stop is the DelCastle Recreation Center where he serenades a group watching a men’s softball game. The set list includes “Suspicious Minds,” “Love me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” among others. Then it’s off to the corner of Limestone Road and Pike Creek Road, where passersby beep and wave.

“You couldn’t really hear me because I didn’t have an amp. But I think people appreciated the gesture,” he said. “They’re running errands on a blistering hot summer day and there’s a guy dressed like Elvis playing guitar on the side of the road in a leather jacket.”

Soon a car stopped. It was a neighbor and they invited him to play at their son’s graduation party later that day. “It was time to pull the plug on the concert until I remembered I was playing acoustically, “said Mr. Kemske with a laugh. The King was on the move again.

Meanwhile his wife, Bobbie (Albera) Kemske, was at a swim meet at their neighborhood pool. People started telling her that a guy dressed like Elvis was playing guitar on Limestone Road and it looked like her husband. It couldn’t be him, could it? But Bobbi knew better.

Ask people who know Glenn Kemske and they will tell you he has a crazy streak in him. Not a dangerous or psychotic crazy but a “let’s have some fun” crazy. When he finally made it to the pool later that day, Bobbi looked at him and mouthed, “WTF?”

“I know, it’s only rock n’ roll but I like it,” thought her husband.

It’s a family affair

For as long as he can remember, Glenn Kemske has wanted to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band. When he was a kid, his mom and dad, Bonnie and Dick Kemske, would throw the three boys, Glenn, Gregg and Gary, into the back of their station wagon, spray them down with Off and take in a double feature at the drive-in, usually a Disney classic and an Elvis movie. “Cinderella” meets “Kid Creole.”

“My parents were always into music”, remembered Mr. Kemske “Boots Randolph and Benny Goodman, jazz music, swing. There was always music playing in our house. They liked it all. My dad wanted to be a drummer.”

When he was 12, an uncle taught him how to read music and showed him a few chords. It was 1966, the height of Beatlemania, so naturally he saw himself as rock star in the making. He played in several garage bands who covered The Beatles, The Rascals and other rock music of the time.

But when he entered high school he put down his guitar down and picked up a football where he was a sure-handed receiver for the Dickinson Rams and an outfielder on the baseball team. But he kept his hand in music, acting as disc jockey at house parties, bringing his entire stereo system to the family rooms and basements of his friends.

When he arrived at the house earlier to set up, parents would open the front door to greet Mr. Kemske, an all-American kid by most accounts, dressed like Alice Cooper, with black eyeliner and fake blood trickling from his mouth. To the parents’ relief, he left the guillotine home.

After high school, he picked up his guitar and started playing with friends with an eye on eventually starting a band. He played in garages, school dances and cookouts. But love, marriage and kids put that plan on hold until this pirate was looking at 60. Then Mr. Kemske realized that family and music could co-exist. Music wasn’t his life. But it was the soundtrack to it.

Ballad of Glenn and Bobbie

Glenn and Bobbie were part of a large group of friends who hung out during high school and into their 20s and beyond. He went to Dickinson. She attended St. Mark’s. They had been dating other people but eventually found themselves unattached. At the end of most parties, they would usually be the last two standing, singing to each other and gazing. “She was a great dancer,” remembered Glenn. “She could really cut the rug. One night we danced all night at The Starboard in Dewey. After that I asked her out.” They have four children and eight grandchildren. The dancer and the guitar player celebrated 40-years of marriage in September.

“We were really good friends first,” remembered Bobbie. “He was always a nice guy and easy to talk to. I think we’ve always been committed to family. When the kids were young, I worked days and Glenn worked shift work, so he was the one taking the kids to school and packing lunches. He’s a great dad and now he’s a great grand- dad, helping out with the kids. He has a little crazy streak in him because music is his passion.”

They danced to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” at their wedding. Her favorite song he performs with his band is Wilson Pickett’s ‘Mustang Sally’.

It’s now or never

When he turned 60, Mr. Kemske decided to give music one more shot. John Foster, a boyhood friend, who played drums in previous bands, was in. He added his son-in-law, Kyle Drake, on lead guitar and Steve Jumps on bass. They were two 30-somethings who brought a younger vibe to the band.

“I think it was John Foster who came up with the name,“ said Mr. Kemske, of his friend since Little League.

”He said it was because our wives weren’t completely sold on us forming a band. It was unloved, unwanted, uninvited — The Unforgiven. When Mr. Kemske was in his 40s, he and his brothers were jamming in his garage. Mr. Foster showed up, sat down behind a drum set and started to play.

“I never knew he played drums,” said Mr. Kemske. “We started playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ and John was wailing away like Charlie Watts. We’ve been playing together ever sense.”

Mr. Foster, who got his nickname from a gangster character in the movie “Donnie Brasco,” said playing has been a blast. “I don’t know what I would do without the band,” he said. “We have fun. We don’t do it for the money. A lot of our shows are fundraisers.”

“We do it for the love of playing,” added Mr. Kemske. “We like to play music that brings people together. Which is pretty cool. Music unifies people. My life would have been incomplete without it. ”

The Unforgiven usually brings a strong following of 50-100 fans to their shows with family and friends — old and young. Mr. Kemske may also play some solo gigs doing Neal Young, Tom Petty and Beatles tunes.

They’ve played shows at Hammerheads at the Indian River Marina and the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, McGlynns’ Pub in Pike Creek, as well as some smaller venues. They are looking to book more dates at the beach and in the Wilmington area.

“The key is to play great songs and play them as well as you can,” Mr. Kemske said.

He’s also penned several songs that he works into the set. A few of his favorites are “All My Bums Is Friends,” a rocker with the same chord changes as the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Bought The Shoes That Are Walking Out On Me,” which has a country flavor.

His biggest rock ‘n’ roll fantasy is to be in the pit at a Springsteen concert dressed like Neil Young in white fedora, flannel shirt and sun glasses. “The Boss calls me up on stage to play on `Rockin’ In The Free World.’” You never know.”

“I never wanted to get old,” admitted Mr. Kemske. “Who does?” But in order to stay young at heart, a man needs to do young man things. On a family vacation in Dewey, he got the urge to play. He snuck out of his condo, jumped on a passing Jolly Trolley with guitar in hand and headed to an open-mic night in Rehoboth Beach. There he got up on stage, performed Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” walked out the door, jumped on another trolley and was back at the condo before his family was the wiser.

And, at a recent friend’s weekend in Dewey, Mr. Kemske got the urge to channel Elvis on the street corners of Dewey after the bars closed.

“Dewey is not too fond of music after hours,” said Mr. Kemske. “But I started playing on street corners dressed like the King. I was drawing good-sized crowds and people were enjoying themselves. After a few minutes, the cops would come and shut us down. Then I’d run to the next corner and start up again.”

This went on for an hour until they finally cornered him in a parking garage under the SouthWinds Hotel.

“They told me that the next time I played, they were going to arrest me. It was either go up to my room or go to jail.” He thought about his options, spun around, gave them the Elvis point — and with his guitar tucked under his arm, sprinted down Del. 1. He was on the run again, shouting “They’ll never take me alive” as the cops took up the chase.

When I’m 64

Mr. Kemske turned 64 in July, a musical milestone in a rock ‘n’ roll lifetime thanks to Paul McCartney. Mr. McCartney wrote the song when he was 16 but the Beatles didn’t record it until the “Sgt. Pepper” album. It was Paul’s desire to grow old with a yet-to-be-met soulmate. But don’t expect Bobbie to be knitting any sweaters or Glenn to be digging any weeds. Not with a busy retirement and 11 grandkids to dote on. But you can bet that if Glenn stays out till quarter to three, Bobbie will lock the door.

Now both retired, he after 41 years in the health care industry and Bobbie with 42 years as a finance manager, they are busy entertaining at their beach house in Bethany Beach and helping with the grandkids. And of course his band The Unforgiven.

“This is our last shot with the band,” said Mr. Kemske. “I don’t think I’d have enough energy to start one from scratch. You really have to admire bands that keep it up for years and years. Just the physical part, lugging equipment upstairs every day. It wears on you.”

Mr. Kemske proves that it’s possible to have a crazy streak and still be a contributing member of society. You can be an involved dad and granddad during the day and morph into a rock n’ roller by night. The Unforgiven may never sell out the Wells Fargo Center, and “I Bought The Shoes That Are Walking Out On Me” may never be a No. 1 hit. But Glenn Kemske is a rock ‘n’ roll star to the many people who love him.

On this particular day, Mr. Kemske has a busy schedule: Take Sophia, 7, to the doctor; babysit Alec, 4, later that afternoon and attend Sean’s T-ball game. Then band practice later that evening. Mr. Kemske enters his family room, slings a guitar over his right shoulder and a diaper bag over his left. Then he is gone.