The beat goes on for Felton’s Voshell

Honey Voshell, of Felton, was inducted into the Delaware Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during a ceremony held Sept. 22 at Wilmington’s Baby Grand theater. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

FELTON — Honey Voshell knew pretty early in life what he wanted to do for a living.

As the drummer for The Country Cats, Mr. Voshell, then just 14 years old, already was a hit. Traveling throughout Delaware and into neighboring states in the early to mid-50s, he was making the hefty sum of $450 to $500 a week.

But still there were a few people who weren’t so sure about his path in life while he was still taking classes at the former Felton School.

“One day the principal called me into his office and said ‘I think you should get into something a little more stable,’” he recalled recently.

“Here I am driving my own car and wearing my own clothes that I bought with my own money, probably making three times what he was making. And I’m thinking ‘I’ll go with this and see where it takes me.’”

Music has taken him far, both in miles and in prestige, playing with some greats, and ultimately being named to the Delaware Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in September.

“The music business has been very good to me,” said the affable Mr. Voshell, who has taught music to a couple of generations of Delaware students and has played with his band The Honeycombs to local music fans for decades. He was inducted into the hall during a ceremony at Wilmington’s Baby Grand, along with Morty Marker and Jimmy Stayton, who played with Mr. Voshell in The Country Cats and The Rocka-Bye Band, considered Delaware’s first rock ‘n’ roll group.

“We came out about the same time as Elvis and Bill Hailey and The Comets. We played covers of the current-day music. There weren’t really any original local bands back then,” he said.

“But we did real good. We played all of the community centers and dance halls and fire halls. We played around here in the summer and then we had a booking agent for the winter who would have us playing in Maryland and Pennsylvania. We did very well financially.”

On the road

After that came his first incarnation of The Honeycombs, which lasted from 1958 from 1962. Mr. Marker joined him in the band and then also joined him when they got the call that Wanda Jackson, known as “The First Lady of Rockabilly,” was looking for some new musicians.

Honey Voshell played drums for the first incarnation of The Honeycombs from 1958 to 1962.

The two left for a USO tour, which started in Newfoundland. He still vividly recalls the flight to the gig.

“This was in January or February and there was about 20 feet of snow piled up on each side of the runway. I was not in favor of flying out. All I could think of was headlines in case something happened,” he said.

“Wanda was on the plane and she asked the pilot ‘Is this going to be safe?’ He said ‘We’ve never wrecked yet. We’ve skimmed a few moutaintops. But we’ve never wrecked.’ I didn’t think that was too funny.”

Mr. Voshell went on tour with Ms. Jackson for about three years. He later toured with such luminaries as Patsy Cline, Al Martino, Benny Goodman and the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras.

He didn’t know at the time but he also played with some other big names. While with The Honeycombs, he played with Joey Dee and The Starlighters at The Peppermint Lounge in New York City. Mr. Voshell said his group would play for a half hour and then The Starlighters would play for a half hour from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., culminating for an hour when both bands played together.

“Joey Dee was at the state fair a few years back and I went up to see him to see if he would remember me. He did and I went backstage,” he recalled.

“He said ‘I want to ask you something. Do you remember my bass player at the time? I said ‘I don’t have a clue.’ He says ‘It was Joe Pesci, the actor.’

“He then said ‘Now I’ll ask you another question. Do you remember the black fellow who was in the band?’ I said no. He said ‘He was Jimi Hendrix.’ I said ‘Really?’ He said ‘Here they are.’ And he pulled out a picture.”

Settling in

Another band brought him to Michigan where he met his wife Loey and the two married in 1963. He moved back to his native Felton and established The Music Pad in 1967, which he still runs today, offering instruments and music lessons.

“After about 13 or 14 years, I was ready to come off the road. I was done with one-nighters where you would have to sleep in the back of a car. You didn’t have time to take a shower and your dinner was a pack of Lance crackers and a can of Coke before you had to get back on the stage and play again.”

Running the business and teaching the future musicians of Delaware took precedence in the ensuing decades. But the itch to play never went away. In 1990, he reformed The Honeycombs with a bunch of new folks.

Honey Voshell has played drums alongside such musical greats as Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Benny Goodman and Jimi Hendrix. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I had a small jazz trio and we were playing the Rehoboth Country Club one night. I guess there were about 14 couples eating dinner. Then once they were done, they would come up to us and say ‘Good to see you. See you next time.’ And they left. Nobody hung around,” Mr. Voshell said.

“I was thinking I’ve worked pretty hard with this band. Why don’t people stay? I went out into the foyer and heard this music coming from upstairs. It was this rock band from Baltimore.

“I went up and saw the same people who were downstairs up there dancing and having a good time. I guess they didn’t want to go home and watch TV.”

“The very next day, a Sunday, I started calling some guys and getting them all together.”

Six months of rehearsing on Sundays took place where he took the top two songs of every year from 1955 to the current day and they learned how to play them.

“We took the cream of the crop and figured everybody knew those songs — and from the first job, we were a success.”

Mr. Voshell estimates that at the height of the band’s popularity, they were doing about 85 gigs a year.

“That was pretty good considering we were an eight-piece band back then,” he said.

Combined with great musicianship, Mr. Voshell thinks he knows why the band reached the popularity that it did.

“We did a lot of medleys. That was a big key. We would do disco, Motown, surf music. That way if you didn’t like one song, you didn’t have to listen to it for five minutes. There was a new song coming up fast,” he said.

These days, a leaner four-piece version of The Honeycombs still performs. But Mr. Voshell says they probably do about 20 gigs a year. They still play Dover’s Concerts on The Green series and they will play Dover’s Modern Maturity Center on New Year’s Eve.

But the slower schedule is fine with him.

“I used to go out and hustle jobs. But I don’t do that anymore. If someone calls, I give them a price and if they agree to it, we go out and do the job.”

Paying it forward

Teaching still remains strong with him. Along with giving private lessons, he also teaches World Percussion at William Henry and Central Middle schools once a week at each school along with classes at The Music School Delaware in Milford.

“I have percussion instruments from Africa, Ecuador and a bunch of Spanish instruments. I show them how to play them all,” he said.

Along with the drums, Mr. Voshell also offers lessons in the piano, guitar, bass and horns.

“I don’t play the dulcimer. But I don’t get much call for that,” he joked.

His entire family is musical. His wife played the clarinet before they were married. His son Paul plays drums for the popular local band Love Seed Mama Jump. His daughter Julie dances and teaches at Ballet Academy East in New York City and worked on the Broadway shows “Movin’ Out and Swing.”

The current version of The Honeycombs were started in 1990 by Honey Voshell, seated. The band has played continuously at various function all over the area.

Two other sons play the guitar, bass and saxophone.

Students have gone on to play professionally with the likes of Dave Matthews, the late Diahann Caroll, Chet Atkins and the Harry James Orchestra.

A big honor

Although he was the only one of the trio to make the Delaware Rock & Roll Hall of Fame event, he said he had a great time being honored, along with Delaware-born musicians such as Johnny Neel, Nik Everett and Mark Keneally and Rocket 88. He led a jam session as well.

“It was a fun night. As soon as I walked in there, I don’t know how many people came up to me and said ‘I’m so glad to see you.’ And of course, I’m thinking ‘Who is this I’m talking to?’’ I’ve talked to a lot of people over the last 45 or 50 years of doing this,” he said.

“In all these years, I’m lucky if I remember my own name half the time.”

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