Joe Fisher was a first generation American, born in 1893, the oldest of five children born
to Frank Josef Fiser (pronounced “Fee-share”) Mr. Fiser was born at Bohdanec Kraj Caslov, Kutna
Hora Bohemia on July 15, 1869. Mr. Fiser came to the United States when he was 17
to join his two sisters who were already there. He moved after graduating from
Prague’s Cooks and Bakers School), and Mary Ann (Fatka, of Dubuque) Fisher.
The family name was Americanized to “Fisher” probably sometime after arrival.
He spoke and read only Czeck until starting school at five years of age..
Joe was an Iowa farm boy of 18, in 1911, when he went to Chicago to play clarinet
with the John Phillip Sousa Band at Mr. Sousa’s invitation.
It seems that Joe had been playing the concertina since
he was just nine years old (just into the new century back then, around 1902 or 1903).
When came an occasion when a neighbor of the family
had relatives visiting from Chicago who liked to dance. They sent for Joe's dad,
who played the cornet; Joe went along with his dad and took his concertina with
The first dance the Joe Fisher Orchestra played was between Clarence and Oxford
Junction in 1916.
It continued to be his habit to play for local dances, after a day’s farming.
His daughter recalls she always enjoyed his tale of his beloved Morgan mare, Beauty, who
was raised by him from a foal and became so helpful that, at a
job’s end he could get in his buggy, tie up the reins,
say “Home, Beauty” and safely go to sleep. When the buggy stopped moving and
he woke up he would be in his own dooryard! And well-rested to better able to face the next day’s work!
It was at one of the dances a lady by the name of Dora Christophersen caught his attention.
They married. The orchestra grew larger, no longer a one-man entertainment:
the family, now with all six children, was living in a small house in Clarence IA when
he contracted spinal meningitis, (seemingly with no ill effects afterwards—he had also
survived a ruptured appendix as a boy with no apparent disability), in the summer
For about ten years, Joe was burning the candle at both ends with the dual roles
he played. During the day, he was a mail carrier on a rural route, while at night
played his concertina for local dances.
At the Depression, he returned to Chicago and entered the Chicago School of Music. He traded jobs with another post office clerk and for a
time was working in the Chicago post office during the day, while studying the
trumpet after work.
His wife and family moved to nearby Mt. Vernon where she opened a cafe. We lived
upstairs and benefited from the educational opportunities in Mt Vernon. While Joe
was in school in Chicago, he studied trumpet—and was asked to tour as soloist,
but preferred to return to his family. This appears to have been around the early 1930s.
That restaurant came as the result of looking around for a place to stay. They purchased
what was then the City Cafe that was located in the building that was occupied
later by the Busenbark Tavern. But Mr. Fisher seems to have made quite a commute
as he kept his job in the Chicago post office. But he later resigned that job
in 1930 and began the regular operation of his orchestra in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.
Then, the Orchestra became its finest, had
a bus to drive to jobs, and enjoyed great popularity: there were years of no nights
off—even Christmas. (One artful dance hall owner checked the year ahead and
signed him up to ”every whatever night in the month”, all year—which took in Christmas
Eve and New Year’s!)
The orchestra did day-jobs, too: Kinderfests “Big day” Street Bands (even was
supposed to perform at a Chicago noontime World’s Fair appearance but communication was lacking
and the players weren’t together for the occasion) Spillville asked them to
come play at an Antonin Dvorak celebration.
For eight years, the band had programs broadcast weekly from station WSUI out of
Iowa City, Iowa. They were also frequently heard over the air on KTNT, WOC, KWC and WMT. In fact, the band
was first heard over the air in about 1924, when radio was still considered
a novelty concept.
The band's personal appearances took them as far east as East Chicago (Indiana), as far west
as Columbus, Nebraska, as far north as Minneapolis, Minnesota and as far south as Keokuk, Iowa.
The band traveled over 50,000 miles a year. The average trip was usually an 80-mile drive.
They played once or twice a month in the surrounding counties of Mount Vernon, Dubuque,
Clinton, Davenport, Marhsalltown and Waterloo.
For many years, the band was booked every two weeks at the Forum Roof
in Waterloo, Iowa. Joe's favorite job location was the Surf Ball Room in Clear Lake,
where Buddy Holly gave his last performance.
During World War II, many musical acts had to disband for a time as the musicians
were drafted or enlisted into military service.
The Joe Fisher Orchestra
also had to deal with this. An undated article in a local Iowa newspaper
indicates that the band was to break up after 27 years of entertaining audiences.
Their last engagement was to be in Andover, Iowa, a town about 14 miles north of
Clinton, Iowa on a Sunday evening.
But the fellows in the band enjoyed the experience immensely. Three of them
had given Joe their applications to rejoin the band after the war if he
would start it up again.
Robert Fisher, was the drummer. He was called in for training in the air
service and was based in San Antonio, Texas, subject to call on 24 hour notice.
Albert Fisher, considered the anchor man of the orchestra, was to complete his
training as a pilot training instructor.
He was working at Cedar Rapids Airways and was to be a
pre-flight instructor of beginning pilots at the Cornell airport in Cedar Rapids.
had started with the band when he was in high school. He played the bass horn, clarinet,
alto saxophone, doing most of the vocal work and did the band arrangements as well. He
would play clarinet for the band when the arrangement called for three clarinets.
Joe was quoted as stating that losing Albert was like "...losing three men."
The article mentioned other members of the orchestra at the time it disbanded.
Henry Fedderson, was from Clarence, Iowa and had been with Joe's band 21 years.
DeWayne Reckenthaler of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, John Ketlesen of Center Junction, Iowa;
Francis Mead, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The band was already booked through two-thirds of the year, but Joe noted, he
didn't have enough men to carry on.
Joe had a particular type of musician in mind that would be a part of his orchestra
he noted in an interview. "A man to ply in my orchestra must not only be a musician, but
a gentleman. I have never had a boozer in the band."
After disbanding (sons Howard and Robert both became B-24 pilots—Howard serving
with Jimmy Stewart’s Group out of England: Robert flying a B-24 on Photo
Reconnaissance (he had been Dad’s drummer) out of New Guinea. Howard did not
play in his father's band, but he did play the trumpet with another local band before
entering the military service. Howard was awarded the Silver Star, DFC with Oak Leaf Cluster
and the Purple Heart during his service.
Both returned from duty. Albert whose sinus barred him from the military service
but did became a Pre-Flight Instructor out of the Cedar Rapids airport. He died when
his plane caught fire on a trip in July of 1946.
The bus was fitted out, a pre-Motor Home—and Joe and Dora went to Texas with
it where he worked as a caulker in the Brownsville area, and became a shrimp fleet
ship’s navigator! (the ship captain couldn’t navigate, Dad could, and, fishing had
always been a passion to him)
While in Brownsville he had his concertina yet and played for Padre Island beach
parties—and did piano tuning on the side. Then, his final illness struck and
they went back to Iowa where he died, grateful for the outpouring of music
on the radio after FDR’s death.
Like many bands or artists, Joe's had a theme song - La Golondrina.
Family interment at Mt. Vernon cemetery.
He died in Clarence, Iowa in May of 1945 at the age of 52.
Timeline & Trivia Notes
Group Members with the band in 1940 and on the recordings:
- Joe Fisher, lead, concertina
- Howard Mason, banjo and vocals
- Robert Fisher, drummer
- Henry Fedderson, saxophone, clarinet
- Francis (Jazzy) Mead, piano, possibly violin
- Albert Fisher, bass horn, clarinet, vocals
- Ralph Vavra, trombone
- Jim Dye, trumpet
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank the family
of Joe Fisher for graciously providing us with biographical history,
pictures, articles and anecdotes to help us document Joe's career,
including Kate Rogers and Peg Tennant, granddaughters of Joe Fisher, Marian (Fisher) Tillett,
daughter of Joe Fisher.