When I was growing up and learning to play guitar I was fortunate to have a few of the real gurus of the instrument around me and to learn from, and probably wherever you are on this planet you can likely say the same thing. I guess music is just that way. We get the privilege to have these wonderful mentors around to inspire and teach. Mike Keller was someone special though; I saw him, I watched him play and I heard him for over four decades, but I never got the honor to really hang out with him and get to know the local legend that he truly was. Now I can brag and say that I did meet his dad once. He even showed me around his shop where he was building violins, but with Michael it would be many years before I would get to spend a little quality time with him at one of his concerts where he, Sherry Potter on Bass and vocals and Michael Lacey on drums were playing a Blues Festival. That was a day I will never forget! Mike Keller had such a unique style that made you think you were listening to a much larger band. The way he comped, or played his chords and his selective choices of riffs and runs in his beautiful solos. His was masterful on the instrument and didn't have to mask his playing with too much performance. Not to say he was stoic, he just didn't need to do much more than just be Michael, the one with a very special gift. I will always remember Mike Keller, his amazing playing and a subtle smile. He loved to play music and loved to be in the company of special people and he was indeed, very happy to take to the stage with the love of his life. He was really - one of the best!
Jimmie Mac Michel and Ethyl Keller
Pitman Michael Keller was
born into a musical family, in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho on Sept.16th, 1946.
Michael's namesake, his grandfather, P.M. Keller, a concert violinist, penned
'The Keller Waltz' in 1899. (It would later be known as the 'Kelleytown
Waltz').. Michael's mother and father, Ethyl and Jimmie Mac were both musicians
and in the 1950’s had had their own dance band. Jimmie Mac was a fiddle player
from Texas and a luthier. He would in his later, golden years, win three
trophies in Weezer Idaho's "Old Time Fiddling” contests...Michael always
said his dad had a real bluesy way of playing the fiddle and had learned a lot
of his style from black musicians as a young man working in Louisiana.
Michael's older brother, Jimmy released a 45 record on SRC records called, 'The
Name Is Love' with his band, The Playboys in the early 1960's.
Michael was three years
old when at his sister's wedding got up and spontaneously sang a complete
version of The Wedding Song. He was always singing and whistling as a
child...Ethyl noticed her son's musical talent and started teaching him to play
guitar. He was a quick learner, although he wasn't very interested in learning
to read or write music...he played strictly by ear.
He would often sneak into
his brother's room to play Jimmy's Les Paul. Very early on, Michael was drawn
to the jazz and blues records around the house and he would play along to the
songs over and over. As an adult he liked to say he learned from the 3 Kings,
Albert, Freddie and BB. He mentioned the name of Wes Montgomery any time he was
speaking about those he admired the most.
Friday nights at the
Keller's home in Centralia were always "jam" night...musicians would
start showing up from all over Lewis and Thurston Counties in Washington state.
As a child Michael and his younger brother, Larry were to sit quiet and out of
the way, if they were to stay up late to watch and listen. As they got older
they were allowed to join in. Michael on rhythm guitar or, as he was very tall
for his age, the stand up bass guitar...he would sometimes reminisce about the
many times Buck Owens and Don Rich would pop in for some of Ethyl's down-home
southern cooking and a little pickin' and grinnin'.
Motorcycles also played a big part in
Michael's life, as his father and brother both rode Harley Davidsons. In the
first grade he remembered his father dropping him off for school on one. At a
young age he began to ride and he would continue to ride all his life. It was
his way of finding peace, riding his motorcycle offered him solace in a life he
sometimes found very difficult.
At fourteen Michael would hang around
Sullivan's motorcycle shop in Centralia. When the owner's friend, Evel Knieval
walked in. He was persuaded to go for a ride with him. After finding the right
road and Michael hanging on for dear life, Mr. Knieval popped a wheelie and
they stayed that way on one wheel for almost a mile. It was the thrill of a
lifetime for him.
The Keller's lived in both Napavine and
Centralia when Michael was a young teen. The first band he was ever in was with
local friends from the area, called The Royals. It was the first of many bands
to come over his lifetime. His love of jazz, blues, early rock n roll, and a
deep appreciation of his family's roots in old country music as well as an
impeccable rhythmic timing, was beginning to produce a unique style in
Michael's guitar playing. He would then discover Eric Clapton and his idol,
Jimi Hendrix and later, Mark Knopfler.
Later in life he would laugh and tell
stories... thinking about the time Minnie Pearl complemented him on his
guitar playing and in the same breathe asking him to fetch her a glass of water...
and though not star-struck he’d talk about how he once was asked to stand-in
for a very late guitar player for Paul Revere and the Raiders...and the fun he
had being invited to jam all night with Steppenwolf at the Smith Tower in
Seattle... or trading licks with Robert Cray instead of tarring the roof on
Monte Vista Guitar shop in Tacoma.
Michael's other profession was carpentry and
for many years balanced a life of daytime labor, nighttime gigging, hill
climbing with his motorcycle or target shooting with his guns...In the 1970's
Michael accidentally chopped his finger off at work. After finding it in a pile
of sawdust, he put it in his watch pocket and three hours later it was
reattached. It would be a long hard recovery before he could press his finger
to the fretboard...slowly it became better and he was playing again. In 1988, a
second finger was sawed in half, right next to the first damaged finger. It was
fixed as well as possible and the long recuperation began again. It was during
this time that he met Sherry Potter, another musician. They would play music
and remain together the rest of his life.
Michael and Sherry were in love... she went
back to San Francisco to pack up her son and belongings for the move to
Centralia. They had decided to start a dance band together, she would play
bass and sing and he would play guitar and sing they had a drum machine they
would play live...but before Sherry could get back Michael was in a
terrible motorcycle accident, a pickup truck full of teenagers pulled out in
front of him without seeing him. Among the many injuries he sustained the leg
was the worst. It was barely hanging from the knee. It took 2 surgeries, lots
of hardware and almost 20 months on crutches before Michael would walk again.
They called the band Lighthouse and they
played sitting down in chairs, but the audience danced. It was on their third
gig together as a duo that they had to drive from Centralia to Ocean Park WA in
a ferocious rainstorm...water was over the roadways almost everywhere, but
Michael had grown up in the area and knew the road well. Just before Raymond, a
car passed them and just disappeared as it passed them in the torrential
downpour, they rounded a corner and Michael stopped the truck as they saw the
car sinking in the water in a deep rain swollen ravine. Two people were
screaming for help and with one leg in a cast, Michael and Sherry managed to
rescue four toddlers and the two adults just as the car sank down beneath the
water. The article about their daring rescue was featured in 3 of the local
newspapers. A few months later Sherry decided she wanted to add Michael's last
name to Lighthouse and Michael wanted her last name added...he very reluctantly
agreed to Keller’s Lighthouse. (They used that name for the band from 1990
until 2010. When they decided to release the single, 'Holding Time Still’ in
2012 they used the name Potters Lighthouse.)
After the time it took to recuperate enough
to walk and to play standing up and they added different drummers..Sometime an
occasional keyboard player or brass, they were able to play bars, clubs,
weddings, dance parties, birthday parties and 2 prerecorded shows that played
for a few years (always in the middle of the night) on Olympia's and Seattle's
PBS TV. Stations. They were house band many different places... They played
B.A.S.H. and toy run events, a couple of rock and blues festivals. In 1996 they
won a battle of the bands in Seattle for an opening spot for The Guess Who
(Edgar Winter, Elvin Bishop and Starship) at Mystical Mountain Music Festival.
Also they played the First Annual Sturgis West Music Festival and opened for
the New Blues Bros. Revue.
In 2002, they moved to Eastern WA and played
almost every weekend for years. In 2009 they headlined at the Okanogan State Fair.
Michael's health was giving him trouble and they decided to go to the Big
Island of Hawaii for a while to work on their first album...They both enjoyed
slack key guitar playing and the music of the islands, but Michael was ill
several times during the 8 months they stayed. So, returning to Washington
State for surgery they decided to stay in WA until Michael was well again. He
returned from Hawaii in time for a memorial held for his friend, Gary Edmonds,
who he always referred to as his musical mentor. Michael got up on stage and
played a short set with Sherry, a former drummer of theirs, Arbie James and
Mike Mcquig. It would be the last time Michael would play in public.
Michael and Sherry moved to Santa Fe near
her family and they started work on their album, A Rhapsody of Love...Michael's
health wasn't the best but the altitude of Santa Fe helped him and they took
long walks and relaxed as much as possible. On Nov. 13th 2012 they released
their single on the Internet worldwide, on their 'mondigmusicpublishing' record
Michael was very excited about the new
single and looked forward to finishing the album. On Dec 30th 2012 he was
taking his beloved rat terrier, Pearl for a walk in the neighborhood they lived
in. One of the sidewalks had some thick ice on it covered by light snow.
Michael fell hard, twisting his shoulder and arm. He heard a crack at the back
of his head, a sharp pain in his back and something inside hurting.... by the
time a good Samaritan came by and an ambulance called he was covered in vomit
and in incredible pain...that was the last time he walked.
released him after a week and he came home and got worse every day...back to
the hospital after seeing his doctor and released again, without finding what
had internally ruptured. He was released to a nursing home and then sent back
to the hospital, then released to Sherry who at this point sent him back to the
hospital... from the day Michael fell, he could not hold down any food and had
a hard time even keeping water down and lost 20 lbs those three months...On
Good Friday, March 29th, 2013 Michael’s already compromised liver was
overwhelmed with whatever had ruptured inside him and he passed away in
Sherry's arms at noon on their 25th anniversary...Sherry made a montage of
Michael's photos and added the Holding Time Still audio to make a video that is
now on Youtube...Although she had a very small ceremony on the Pecos River in
New Mexico on his birthday, she planned a musical memorial service
in Michael's hometown of Centralia Washington on Oct. 26th, 2013
Michael will be missed by many. When people
heard him play they could feel his joy. He was a talented, strong, intelligent
man and touched many with his humor and story telling. His music and joy will
live on down through the corridors of time, with the light that he was.
Story and photos by Sherry Potter
all rights reserved(c.)2013
The Memorial Jam Session for Mike will be held at the
Oakview Grange in Centralia, WA from 4-8 pm
Saturday October 26th
Map:Google map is incorrect and their indicator red " A " is at someone's house (lol! ) but you will see " Pearl " Street running North from the City. On the left hand side is a building with a red roof just before making the curve in the road. That is
the Grange Hall.