Jerry Haisler & The Melody 5 have been entertaining for decades with a blend of Czech and country music
DAVID STONE & GARY E. McKEE
Jerry Haisler has fronted The Melody 5 since 1971, but the band’s roots go back much further. And to get a full understanding of what this band — and its predecessors — have meant to Central Texas’ Czech culture, we must go back to 1923.
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Tomas and Terezia Sefcik were farmers in the small predominantly Czech community of Seaton, a tiny town about 8 miles east of Temple that consisted of a church, school, cotton gin and a blacksmith shop. The Sefcik’s decided the community needed a spot for farmers to gather after a hard day in the cotton fields, so they built just the place.
The new building was a two-story structure that housed a general store that sold lumber, hardware, basic food items and clothes. But, Seaton couldn’t be all work and no play, so the Sefciks added a dance hall upstairs and a community bar on the ground floor.
Over the year’s Tom Sefcik Hall would host dances, parties, concerts and even rock ’n’ roll shows. But it always primarily served as a home for the Czech bands and the polka and country dance music they played.
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One of the first bands to play at the new venue was Adela & The Music Masters. Adela, an accordion player, was one of two Sefcik children. They played Tom Sefcik and other nearby halls, and even ventured to National Hall all the way over in Cameron in 1943.
One of The Music Masters was Adela’s sister, Alice who first played drums but later made the switch to saxophone. Many Our Town Temple readers know of Alice, she ran Sefcik Hall for decades and died June 20 of this year.
After she became too frail to run the show, her son Kenny and his wife, Irene, took over.
Alice began booking bands at Sefcik Hall when she was 14, plus kept up with her school work and farm chores. After Tom and Terezia passed, she decided to keep the Hall open. It became a Bell County landmark and one of the most famous dancehalls in Texas.
For years, the Sefcik Hall bar was open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and there were upstairs dances with live music on Sunday afternoons.
While the majority of the talent that has played Sefcik over the years has been, there has been the occasional big-name guest. Johnny Rodriguez, Asleep at the Wheel, Brave Combo, Ray Baca and The Vrazels all have performed there
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Bob Haisler was born in Burleson County, but he lived most of his life just up the road from Sefcik Hall.
Bob was a musician, and after earning some cash playing around Central Texas with family members, he purchased his first piano-style accordion.
“Dad was born in 1912, and during his teen years all the way through the 1950s, he mostly played house dances,” said Jerry Haisler, Bob’s son. “He was often asked to play at dances, receptions and parties. It was his hobby.”
Over a career that spanned seven decades, Bob would wear out at least six accordions.
While in his teens, Bob and his brother, Ludwig “Slim” Haisler, formed a band along with Steve and Ervin Rusnak. They called themselves The Haisler Band.
Slim played the banjo, which was very popular in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s, and they blended that sound with traditional Czech music. After several years of playing house dances and Sefcik Hall, the band morphed into The Rhythm Kings. New musicians were added to the group to replace Slim, who left to form his own band, The Playboys.
The Rhythm Kings were popular, and gained exposure on radio shows on KTEM in Temple. The band folded when the US entered World War II and four members were drafted.
In 1943, however, LJ Motl filled the Czech-music void by creating the Motl Melodians, with Motl on a homemade steel guitar and Bob Haisler on the accordion. The five-member band toured Central Texas and made frequent stops at dancehalls in Lott, Red Circle and Shiloh.
The band capitalized on a country-music craze and played KTEM radio shows under the name The Sundown Ramblers. The Ramblers once played at a New Braunfels rodeo where the stage was built above the bull pen. How country is that?
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Bob reformed The Rhythm Kings in 1954 and later changed the name to The Melody Kings. A few years later, as The Melodians, the band backed Ray Price when he performed at Temple Municipal Auditorium, which was located inside City Hall.
After a hiatus of several years, the band reformed in 1961 with a new group of musicians, but Bob was unhappy with the direction of the band — they just didn’t seem to jell.
“Dad was just about ready to give up,” Jerry Haisler said this week. “He never stopped playing, just performing. Jamming at Sefcik became his new norm.”
Bob wasn’t alone during his Sefcik sit-down sessions. Soon he was joined by Alice Sefcik Sulak, LJ Motl, and Ladis and Louis Vrazel.
The Vrazel brothers had previously been in The Vrazel Playboys and were cousins of Anton and Alfred Vrazel. The Playboys were forerunners of The Vrazel Polka Band.
“Eventually, they allowed a new guy to sit in,” Jerry said with a chuckle. He, of course, was referring to himself. “They were just doing little jam sessions. Dad was a farmer and had farm responsibilities. The jams were just a hobby.”
But in 1966, a new band was on the horizon. Otis Beck approached Bob and Jerry about joining a band he called Otis Beck & The Melody 5. The lineup was Beck, Bob, Pop Arnold, Bill Barr, Jerry Haisler and Alice. Their first gig? You guessed it — Sefcik Hall.
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Otis Beck & The Melody 5 were regulars at the Seaton dancehall, and became regulars on the SPJST lodge circuit.
“Within about 60 miles of Temple, we would play at least 15 halls regularly,” Jerry said. “We played Sefcik and Star halls in Seaton, two halls in Elm Mott, Elk, Academy, Beyersville, Elgin, Taylor, West, Round Rock, Granger…there were others.”
The band even backed up the legendary Bob Wills at the Bluebonnet Club in Troy.
“In 1971, Otis decided he wanted to focus on country music rather than a mix of country and Czech, and he left the band to start another group,” Jerry said. “I took over as band leader and the group was renamed Jerry Haisler & The Melody 5.”
Bob’s rule of playing near home and not playing honky-tonks was mostly kept intact. While there were some personnel changes over the years, the Haislers, Alice and Dewey Wofford would perform together until 2004.
Like all bands, The Melody 5 has some great stories from the road. Their best story, however, occurred a stone’s-throw away from Temple in Academy.
The band was outside the dancehall, and a car pulled up with a small camper in tow. The middle-aged driver of the vehicle got out and started talking. The band didn’t understand a word he said — it was in Japanese. He had a fiddle with him, and through broken communication, he persuaded the band to let him join them on stage. They agreed.
The stranger flawlessly performed Fraulein and a few other country standards. His name didn’t mean anything to the band at the time, but Shoji Tabuchi would later play the Grand Ol’ Opry.
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Like most bands, musicians came and went from The Melody 5, but the four core members kept the music — and dances — going.
A 1981 issue of the Věstník, an SPJST publication based in Temple, stated: There are three widespread beliefs (1) that every Czech is a musician, (2)most Czechs would rather play music than eat, (3)a Czech babe left with any musical instrument soon would learn to play polkas and waltzes on that instrument.
The Věstník issue also states a belief that the melodic tones found in the Czech language have something to do with the Czechs great love and ear for music.
The publication described Jerry Haisler & The Melody 5 as typifying many of those beliefs.
Bob kept playing that squeezebox until several months before his death in 2004. At 92, he was probably the oldest working musician in Texas.
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Jerry, the youngest of five Haisler kids, grew up near Ratibor listening to Czech music on the radio and beside the stage watching “Dad” play accordion and interact with the other musicians.
Jerry made his own debut at age 10 on saxophone with his father’s band.
“I listened to records and reel-to-reel recordings, and then taught myself to play the guitar, accordion and fiddle,” he said. “I had a little help from Bob, Alice, Uncle Slim and other musicians who took me under their wing.”
Jerry grew up with musicians. In fact, those who weren’t familiar with the band often thought Alice was his mom. They played together for more than 50 years. Even after retirement, she was often persuaded to join Jerry and the band onstage to play sax or sing a Czech song or two.
At home, Jerry’s world was filled with KTEM’s Czech Melody Hour and similar programming on KMIL, KTAE and WACO.
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The Melody 5 is still a prominent Central Texas band, and Jerry Haisler is still leading the group. He plays lead guitar, accordion, tenor sax and also sings. Others in the current lineup are Bobby Haisler on bass, tuba and vocals, Billy Pitts on guitar and lead vocals, Brandi Clark on fiddle and vocals, Joe Morris on drums and vocals and Charles Mikeska on accordion, steel guitar, keyboard and vocals.