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Examiner
  • Van Horn grad ready to play against Parkinson's

  • Drew Dimmel says he has watched the best parade in the world pass by the last 62 years – his life.

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  • Drew Dimmel says he has watched the best parade in the world pass by the last 62 years – his life.
    One parade float includes Drew’s days with The Classmen, a ’60s and ’70s evolving-lineup band with his younger brother, Doug, who gained regional popularity with hits like “Julie” and “Graduation Goodbye.” In their heyday, The Classmen opened for big names Ike and Tina Turner, The Guess Who, Chicago and The Mamas and The Papas.
    Another showcases his three-decade career as a voice-over artist for KMBC and with other contracts.
    A more recent ride in the parade displays Drew’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative illness that he had for nearly five years before receiving a diagnosis. Because of its effects on his voice, Drew retired in early 2009, though he says he’s been one of the lucky ones with the disease.
    A week from tonight, the parade will come full circle as Drew’s band The Classmen will perform at the Independence Events Center as part of KC Reunion Jam II. Members of The Classmen, along with other musicians of that period, will reunite a week from tonight at the Independence Events Center. KC Reunion Jam II aims to raise $50,000 for clinical trials at the Leawood, Kan.-based Parkinson Foundation of the Heartland, where Drew is a board of directors member.     
    A 1966 Van Horn High School graduate who lived in Independence until 25 years ago, Drew says he is still very much an Independence boy at heart.
     
    He sits comfortably inside his Overland Park, Kan., home Wednesday afternoon, his 62-year-old athletic frame dressed in a white polo shirt, blue jeans and flip flops. Gray highlights occasionally catch the light on his otherwise full head of dark hair.
    His signature deep bass voice often breaks into song as he recalls years of anecdotes.
    One leg crosses the other, and besides the brief shakings in his right arm during a two-hour conversation, Drew Dimmel appears as an otherwise healthy man.
    Today is a good day, he says.
    His love for music developed at church and through family gatherings. As early as age 6, Drew says he found himself attracted to vocal harmonies and the physics of how different voices could mix. Drew remembers running downstairs to tell his mother that he knew the harmony to “The Church in the Wildwood,” hearing the music in his head. Drew started piano lessons at age 5, but he calls himself “a terrible student” who wanted to play melodies instead of properly learning to read music.
    By his freshman year of high school, The Classmen were in their infancy.
    Drew and Sugar Creek resident Joe Loring had played their guitars together since elementary school and harmonized songs from the likes of The Everly Brothers. By age 14, they formed a small band that played at students’ parties across Independence.
    Page 2 of 4 - “The acceptance was par for the course,” Drew recalls. “The kids liked it.”
    When it came time to perform at a talent show in Drew’s freshman year, the group’s drummer attended another high school. Drew’s mother suggested, “Why don’t you let Doug play drums for you?” calling on Drew’s 11-year-old brother, placing the ultimatum that if Doug wasn’t included, Drew was out of the band.
    “Well, I was against it. At the age of 14, an 11-year-old kid is just awful young,” Drew says, “and he’s your brother, so he’s at least a world away from you. So, I just said, ‘C’mon, Doug. Keep a beat for us.’ ”
    Drew laughs in recollection of the talent that emerged from his little brother who, in old black-and-white photos, was visibly short for his age, looking more like an 8- or 9-year-old.
    “My brother had excellent time from the time he was born,” Drew says. “We taught him nothing; he knew it right from the start. He was the key to a lot of our success.”
    Joe Loring eventually left the band, and David Cowden stepped in as the lead guitarist and first tenor singer. Denny Garner wrote a majority of The Classmen’s songs, also playing piano, saxophone, rhythm guitar and singing second tenor. Doug also sang first tenor, and Drew sang bass, arranged music and played piano and bass.
    Among his scrapbooks from The Classmen days, Drew still has the marigold-colored KUDL Boss 30 Survey in Kansas City for one week in 1967. Among the hits of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” is The Classmen’s “Julie.” The group toured Europe and armed forces bases in Germany and Japan, eventually releasing four Top 40 records in major markets – “Julie,” “Graduation Goodbye,” “Poor Poor Johnny” and “Michel Angelo.”  
    “I think we were a good regional band. I always considered us a dance band, and when we started doing show stuff, I couldn’t believe it,” Drew says. “I don’t think I ever thought we’d get that far. I was lucky that I got so many great people to work with and arrange for.”  
    David Cowden and Denny Garner eventually exited the band because of military service, so Drew’s wife, Jane, and Doug’s wife, Elizabeth, stepped in as tenor singers.
    Drew graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, earning a degree in conducting. The Classmen parted ways in the late 1970s, and so began Drew’s career in voice work.
    It started modestly with him speaking a pre-recorded list of announcements for a local advertising awards banquet. Soon after, Hallmark Cards called upon Drew, though he admits he didn’t know the industry’s buzzwords at first.
    Page 3 of 4 - And then AT&T called. More accounts followed. While in rehearsals for a Blue Cross Blue Shield spot, KMBC called for an announcer.
    “I almost said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy. I didn’t know what I was doing the first two times,’” Drew says.
    It was the beginning of a 30-year career, and the work steadily continued. Drew kept a radio show on KUDL 98.1 FM and worked side-by-side KMBC Chief Meteorologist Bryan Busby. He reviewed movies for KMBC. His voice became commonplace in overhead announcements at Kansas City International Airport and more than 100 airports across the United States.
     
    In 1996, the symptoms began.
    He’d taken on a new account: Fox News Channel. Drew worked hard in getting his voice to resonate the powerful “Fox News now. We report, you decide.”
    His right hand – Drew’s dominant hand – began periodically trembling. Jane called her husband out on it, and Drew dismissed it as “just being expressive.”
    It progressed. Drew had trouble sleeping and experienced bouts of depression. A year later, Jane again asked her husband about why he hadn’t stopped shaking, and he replied, “I can’t help it.”
    His voice, the lifeblood of his career, weakened and strained.  
    “I thought I was losing my mind. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown,” says Drew, who visited four neurologists before finally receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in November 2001. “I was relieved; I thought I was going crazy. It brought predictability back to what seemed like a life that was just kind of spinning off in all directions for no apparent reason.”
    His work continued, but in early 2009, Drew made the decision to retire as his low days increased from once to several times a month, if not once weekly. His depression has subsided, Drew says, since he now understands the illness and how it may interrupt his daily life.  
    “It’s like having the flu, only you don’t have the flu,” Drew says. “You know that foggy feeling you get when you’re running a temperature? It’s like you’re watching you go through your day.
    “With voicework, you’re the product – if I didn’t show up physically, the announcer couldn’t show up. I had far too much respect for the men and women I worked with for 30 years – they really don’t have time for me to find my voice.”   
    He keeps a good sense of humor, especially when it comes to taking the stage again in one week. After all, Drew says, “they call it shake, rattle and roll for a reason.”
    KC Reunion Jam II certainly will serve as a family affair for the Dimmels. Lawrence, Kan., resident Tommy Dimmel, Drew’s 26-year-old son, will open for The Classmen as the drummer with The Brody Buster Band. Drew’s and Doug’s wives will sing with the group, along with their sister, Suzanne Dimmel; Drew’s and Jane’s 29-year-old son, Michael; and other musicians.
    Page 4 of 4 - “It’s an honor that I would be lucky and old enough to play and that my dad can still play and that we can both do the same unique art form on stage,” Tommy says. “I think it’s a unique opportunity for a father and a son.”
    Saying that everyone has their own gifts in life, Tommy says his father’s attitude has slowed his progression of Parkinson’s disease.
    “One of his gifts is just being magnanimous, being able to remain firm regardless of extraneous circumstances,” Tommy says. “He’s good at holding his head up high no matter how rotten the circumstances are.”
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