Band members mark 5,000 showsOn this particular Saturday night, Billy D and the Crystals are on a flatbed in a shop south of Wahpeton, just one more show among 5,000 that two of the band’s original members have performed. It’s the 30th reunion of the Wahpeton High School class of 1979, and most of the attendees remember when the band that is onstage was performing during their high school days.
By: An AP Member Exchange Feature By Scott Sorum, Wahpeton Daily News, The Jamestown Sun
WAHPETON, N.D. — On this particular Saturday night, Billy D and the Crystals are on a flatbed in a shop south of Wahpeton, just one more show among 5,000 that two of the band’s original members have performed. It’s the 30th reunion of the Wahpeton High School class of 1979, and most of the attendees remember when the band that is onstage was performing during their high school days.
Jay Vagts has been the bass player and Jan Vagts the drummer since their father, Bob, started his boys in music back in 1967.
Jay was originally supposed to be the drummer, but when the family found out Jan took to the instrument easier than Jay did, Jay was handed a bass guitar and Bob’s boys were a band.
“Dad would set us up on stage, and then he would be way off on the side with his guitar,” Jay said.
“I played on the drums in the basement since dad already bought them,” Jan said. “I would play the drums while listening to Beatles records. We would set up flood lights in the basement and then get up on the pool table. That was our stage.”
The elder Vagts played piano, taught himself guitar and passed his knowledge to his three oldest boys in the basement of their farmhouse east of Breckenridge, Minn. Jeff, the oldest of the Vagts boys, played guitar and sang.
The band, called The 3 J’s at the time, played its very first show for Wahpeton Crazy Daze in July 1967.
The brothers, Jeff, Jay and Jan, were paid $1 apiece for the show and a professional music career was born.
The group has undergone many changes throughout the years, particularly on their name. They have been called Unknown, Crystal Sunshine and then finally, Billy D and the Crystals in 1989.
Jan keeps a scrapbook of the band that includes 37 members throughout 42 years. The group played shows as far away as Des Moines, Iowa, traveling through all sorts of weather.
“We were driving through Minot for a show and the thermometer on the bank said 114 degrees,” Jan said.
Jay recalled an electrical hookup that didn’t go right, “I blackened part of a wall at the Ramada in Grand Forks one night,” he said.
At the time, Jay and Jan were in the band with their youngest brother Joel, who played the keyboard. Todd Wagner played guitar and Bill Dablow, from whom the band took its new name, was the lead singer.
In 1992, Dablow left the group, but the other band members decided they liked the name so they remained Billy D and the Crystals.
The money needed to change all their promotional materials and the time needed to re-establish themselves with a new name played a part in the decision.
Their current lineup now includes lead singer Scott Jarvis, who joined after Dablow left the band. Jarvis played his first show with the group in the winter of 1991-92.
“I get people all the time that come up to me at shows and say ‘Hey, Bill,’” Jarvis said, referring to the assumption people have that as the lead singer, he must be ‘Billy D.’ “We tell people that we each take turns being Billy D. Jay and Jan asked Bill (Dablow) if we could keep the name, and he was gracious enough to let us use it.”
Matt Dauner has been playing lead guitar with them since 1997. He played with a few other bands before joining Billy D.
Mark Ferrell, who plays the keyboard, is joining the group for a third time since 1973.
“We’ve always been fortunate to have good people in the band,” Jay said. “And a lot of them have played with us for a long time.”
Of the more than 5,000 shows that the band has played, a lot of them were in their own backyard.
“Vagt’s Barn” was Bob Vagts’ idea to turn the upstairs of his barn into a dance hall with live music. Barn dances were a mainstay three miles east of Breckenridge in the 1970s and ’80s, and Billy D and the Crystals were frequent performers there. They played the last dance there when the barn officially closed in 1994.
“It’s funny, because Jay and I have been in this band so long and we still run into people who see us and say how much they miss the barn,” Jan said. “And how much fun they had at the barn.”
For this group of 50-somethings, there are no plans to hang up their instruments anytime soon.
Jay, who farms east of Breckenridge, said the only thing he does now is request three or four weeks off during sugar beet harvest.
“I used to be able to go right through, but it’s rough,” he said.
Jay and Jan say they have an unwritten rule.
“We don’t talk about it, but it’s health,” said Jan. “We’ll keep going as long as we have our health.”