Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Let Me Tell You About The Triumphs


If you read last week’s blog, “I Saw Old People!,” you know we attended a Lamar Consolidated High School All 60s Class Reunion and had the pleasure of listening to the music of The Triumphs and a special appearance by BJ Thomas, who used to sing with the band back in the early days. If you are about my age and  from my part of the world, the Texas Gulf Coast, you know who I am talking about. If not, read on to learn about the quintessential circuit band of that era.

TRIUMPHS Photo 1960 001

1960-Tim Griffith, Denny Zatyka, BJ Thomas, Teddy Mensik, Don Drachenberg, Tom Griffith.


2009-left to right, front row-Tim Griffith, Gary Koeppen, Don Drachenberg, Tom Griffith; middle row-Jim Criswell, Steve Wendtland, Walt Wendtland; back row- Ron Petersen, Doug Griffith. This is the band as we know them today.

In the summer of 1959 the Griffith brothers’ dad came home with an electric guitar and amplifier a man had offered him as collateral on a loan. The man never returned to reclaim the guitar, so Mr. Griffith gave it to Tim, who started messing around with it, learning to play. One thing led to another and before long friends Denver Zatyka and Teddy Mensik joined in, and they decided to start a band.

By December of 1959, the band added members Don Drachenberg and BJ Thomas, and  now had a name, The Triumphs, thanks to Denny and Teddy, inspired by the car of that name and the fact that car names for groups were popular back then. Their first public performance was in January of 1960 at the Teen Canteen in Richmond, and they actually got paid for their next performance in February at a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dance, a whopping $5 apiece!

Don Drachenberg shared with me that Denny Zatyka’s dad, Felix, who  owned the Lone Star beer distributorship in Rosenberg, was always very generous with the boys, allowing them to practice in the warehouse, which worked out really well. They had a clean concrete floor to set up the equipment, plenty of electrical outlets, fans, and plenty of room to make as much noise as they needed without bothering neighbors like they would have in someone’s garage. Having the beer franchise made Mr. Zatyka a very comfortable living, which meant he had money to spend on the boys when they needed something in the early days, like a station wagon to drive to their gigs, gas money, and other incidentals along the way. As BJ fondly joked at the concert, having a beer warehouse in Fort Bend County was like having a license to print money, and Mr. Zatyka was happy to share with the band when they needed something.

By 1962 Tom Griffith and Gary Koeppen had joined the band, and they were making a name for themselves playing for dances in places like Riverside Hall in East Bernard, Pecan Grove in Wharton, Swiss Alp Dance Hall between La Grange and  Schulenburg. They had recorded some songs that did well in the Houston area, I Know It’s WrongLazy Man, and I’ve Got A Feeling, the last two making it to the top 10 of Houston’s top 40 list. In 1964 Fred Carney joined the band to play keyboards, and in 1965 they recorded an area favorite, Garner State Park, written by friend Mark Sharon specifically for them, reaching number.1 in Houston and number 5 in the national charts.

The band’s success with these songs and the popularity of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, which was a national number 1 hit in 1966, was the catalyst that convinced BJ to leave the band in March of 1966 and go solo, eventually earning  five Grammies and building a solid fan base.

TRIUMPHS Photo 19671967-Tim Griffith, Ron Petersen, Don Drachenberg, Fred Carney, Tom Griffith, Gary Koeppen, Teddy Mensik.

After BJ left, there were other changes in the band. Denny Zatyka left to honor his father’s wishes that he continue the family business. Ron Petersen joined in 1967 followed by the youngest Griffith brother, Doug, in the mid-70s. Fred Carney, Sam Boswell, Steve Haygood,  Albert Gonzales, Bill Pace, Jon Perry, Mike Taylor took their turns with the band for a while as well.

TRIUMPHS Photo 19761976-Tim Griffith, Steve Haygood, Tom Griffith, Bill Pace, Don Drachenberg, Doug Griffith, Albert Gonzales.

TRIUMPHS Photo 19781978- Tim Griffith, Jon Perry, Don Drachenberg, Doug Griffith, Tom Griffith, Sam Boswell, Mike Taylor.

By 1980 the band had enjoyed 20 years of success working the Gulf Coast circuit and covering the hits of their musical influences like Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Wilson PIckett, and others from that era.  But they had also watched the world embrace disco, they missed spending time with their families, and they were tired working weekends and holidays. It just seemed like time to pack it in. So they did.

But, as Don said, once a musician, always a musician, and by 1992 the principal players were ready to give it another go, with the addition of  brothers Steve and Walt Wendtland, and Jim Criswell, but losing original drummer Teddy Mensik who was ready for a break. This time they played to their strength, good solid rock and roll, 60s hits from their heyday, popular 50s and 70s classic songs, and an occasional hit from the 80s.


Walt and Steve Wendtland both graduated from Lamar, and it just so happens that their dad, Dr. Walt Wendtland, was the band director at Lamar for many years and was my band director. I can’t help but believe that he was pleased that his sons went on to make music, and I think it is neat that they both chose to be a part of the Triumphs’ legacy.

Fans still follow the Triumphs and pack the house. The Summer Reunion Tour of 1992 became the start of a revival for the band, and now they enjoy an average of 18 bookings a year. Expanding from the original five members to nine over the years (most of them still having ties with Lamar) and adding instruments has given the band the versatility to expand their playlist, including big band hits such as In The Mood, which they do quite well and is fun for them and the fans. Many fans have a long history following the band and the band enjoys seeing those familiar faces over the years and talking to people who still enjoy the music.


While the Triumphs were enjoying their own brand of fame, BJ, meanwhile, was making a name for himself as well. After I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry came hits such as Eyes of a New York Woman, Hooked on a Feeling, Rock and Roll Lullaby, and I Just Can”t Help Believing. He has enjoyed success not only in rock and roll and pop, but also on the country charts as well as some Christian music. He earned his fourth gold record for Hey Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song, which holds the distinction of being the longest titled number 1 hit on the Hot 100, just so you know for your next trivia game. That song happens to be one of my personal favorites and was a real crowd-pleaser at the Lamar reunion when he invited the crowd to sing along, and boy, did we!

DON AND B.J.Don and BJ at the Fort Bend Country Fair in 2008.

IMG_8817BJ at the Lamar All 60s reunion August 11, 2012.

The Triumphs and BJ have teamed up more than once since the old days and plans are afoot to do it more in the future. Even though he left the band, they are all still friends. When that all happened people wondered why the Triumphs didn’t go with him. To some it looked sort of like the high school quarterback who gets recruited while the line who defended him gets to stay home and take regular jobs.  According to Don, they were all happy for his success and were equally happy to stay right where they were, doing their own thing. I suggest that their relationship was a two-way street, each helping the other find their place in the musical world. And we, the fans, benefit on both sides.


Being a circuit band was what has made it fun for the Triumphs all these years. Don said they tried, very briefly, their hand at the club scene, a situation where a club hires a different band to play each night of the week on a regular basis. They didn’t like the smoky stale smell of the bars, the drunks, the attitude in general. That lasted about three weeks, and they gave it up. Playing favorite dance halls, county fairs, reunions, weddings, birthdays, and  festivals was much more fun and personable for the guys, and actually made them more money than the club scene. But the money was not the issue; it was enjoying the music and the people that kept them in the game.



So if you need a band for a special event or want to enjoy some great music that is good for listening or dancing, google the Original Triumphs, check out their upcoming performances,  and knock yourself out!


Thank you to Doug Griffith and Ron Petersen for helping with this article. 

A very special thanks to Don Drachenberg, who was so generous with his time to answer my phone calls, emails, and to share pictures with me.



Elaine Travis said...

I used to ride the school bus with BJ and Jerry Thomas in Rosenberg, TX when we were all in Lamar CISD. They both teased me unmercifully about a nice Mouton Coat that I had...telling me it was a Baboon coat. They both tried to pull hair from it... making me cry, all during winter (about 1959 or so). I was in the Acapalla choir with BJ. His girlfriend then was Anita Boring. Our choir director was Joe Scarcella, who failed BJ in his senior year because he was roudy on a trip to the Buccaneer Music Festival in Corpus Christi, TX. It never bothered BJ and he continued to make beautiful music with Teddy, Don, Denny, Tim, and all of the great guys in the bank.

My girlfriends used to go to the towns around the area, East Bernard, Moulton, Hilje, Sealy, and the Battle of the Bands (versus Roy Head and the Traits). Tales I could share!!!

I now live in Fairhope, Alabama, and BJ will be headlining a concert on September 21, 2013, at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. We already have 4th Row Tickets.

I last saw BJ at our Lamar CISD High School Reunion in August 2012. His voice was just a great as it was back in the 60's despite his old "bad" habits. I have a BJ Thomas and the Triumps that I bought at the reunion...I will have it on for his September concert!

We are really looking forward to hearing and seeing BJ at the Hollywood Casino. We often stay at the Hotel and hope we can get a room that night.

Do you know how I can drop BJ a note or e-mail?


Elaine Ashley Travis
Lamar Class of 1961

Many thanks and I enjoyed your blog on BJ.

Alice Liles said...

So glad you enjoyed the article, Elaine, and your comment adds to the history of BJ! As to contacting him, all I can suggest is to contact one of the Triumphs and see if they have an address for him. Rock on!

Alice Liles said...

Elaine, I forgot to mention that you might like to also read "I Saw Old People!" posted on August 22, 2012, about that same Lamar reunion you mentioned. I was there, too.

Linda said...

I was just thinking about what happened to the Triumphs and thought I would google it.
My girlfriend, Ann Cullen Fleishman, would spend summers in Rosenberg, Texas in the sixties. She lived right next door to the Griffith boys in her grandmother and Aunt Ula's house. Naturally she met them when they were in the band and would tell me all about it when she came home. She was even going steady with one of them and wore his high school ring, soaked in English Leather, around her neck. I think his nick name was Todda. Does this ring a bell? Well of course she set me up to be a pen pal with one of the band members and we wrote back and forth for quite some time. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name. Sorry, I'm old now. Lol. It would be really fun to find out which band member it was. I am sure I have the letters and picture of him in the attic, but who knows where. Would love to hear back from you if you find something out. We both lived in Brooklyn, NY. That is where we were raised. So if you happen to find out, I would love to hear back. Thanks, Linda Reventlow. 💙

Alice Liles said...

Thanks for reading, Linda. Alas, I cannot shed any light on who would have had the nickname Todda. Perhaps you can find one of the letters and solve the mystery!