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Keenan: Mr. Hartsoe's Opus: Book celebrates Dondero Pop

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

Peter Wurdock thought maybe 200 people would show up at his book launch party held a couple Saturdays ago at his alma mater, the former Dondero High School.

Wurdock's fifth book "Love Will Steer the Stars: The History of the Dondero Pop Concert" (Blue Boundary Books, 2015) chronicles the almost four-decade career of music director Rick Hartsoe.

From 1967 to 2006, Hartsoe cultivated talent and ignited kids passion for music by teaching the music they love: rock 'n' roll. Every March the Dondero Pop Concerts, held in the school's auditorium and performed by about three dozen kids who made up the A Capella choir and played instruments, always sold out the two-night and one-matinee shows.

As Wurdock writes: "The thrill of performing in front of hundreds of people in their high school was a dream come true for so many kids. .... Hartsoe's challenges gave us an opportunity to find our own voice, both on a stage and in our lives."

When 500 people showed up March 7 at what is now Royal Oak Middle School (Dondero High closed in 2006), many said it felt like a scene from "Back to the Future."

"For one night, it was Dondero again," Wurdock said. The alums, now with silver hair and bad knees, gathered on the same stage where they once rocked Jethro Tull and Pat Benatar all decked out in crushed velvet bell bottoms and Nehru jackets.

When Hartsoe positioned himself and outstretched his long arms in a huge arc, they sang the Dondero school anthem and more than one wiped away tears. Hartsoe was overjoyed.

"Not many people can say they really loved what they did for 39 years," he said, "but I sure did."

Author Peter Wurdock, left, with retired music director Rick Hartsoe, the driving force behind the Dondero Pop Concerts.

One of the many attendees, Royal Oak Mayor Jim Ellison went home and uploaded on his Facebook page a video of Hartsoe directing the alums on stage. By morning, the post had over 1,000 hits. Now it's approaching 2,000.

Hartsoe's success lay in part to his ability to break through to otherwise sullen, anti-establishment teenagers constantly being told to "Turn it down!" or banished to the garage and embrace their generation's music.

This was not easy; rock music is hardly your typical choir fare. Rock music scores are notoriously complicated and rarely conform to standard musical notation. Still, Hartsoe was determined have his choir and musicians sound exactly like the songs on the record.

"I called it replication," Hartsoe explained. "It was singing it as you hear it."

To that end, he departed from the traditional Soprano-Alto-Treble-Bass (SATB) format and divided the choir sections up to sometimes as many as 14 different levels. Dan Palmer (Class of '74) painstakingly wrote charts for both voices and instruments for the Dondero choir so they could be true to the original recording. Wurdock writes: "At first Dan used vinyl records to do this, dropping the needle, listening, writing down the notes and repeating the process until each part was on the master score."

But just because Hartsoe made coming to school cool, he was no pushover. To join the choir, students had to pass a 10-page test — each page was timed to determine how quickly they could sight read music.

"He was a real intimidating guy back then," remembers Wurdock (Class of '74), who played drums in the concerts. "He really pushed you. He didn't give away compliments for free, but he got results."

In 2006, the year Dondero closed, the "Alumni Solo Replay Concert" played for the last time. Thirty eight soloists representing four different generations — from the class of '74 to the class of 2004 — shared the stage. "It was such a blast," Wurdock said. "The only thing different was we had adult beverages."

The concert began at 6 p.m. and ended at 11 p.m. They played everything from The Blues Brothers and Janis Joplin to Chuck Berry and the Mamas and the Papas. The concert ended as it always did with the auditorium going black, a spotlight shown on the twirling glitter ball and the choir singing: "Aquarius."

These days, Hartsoe, now 74, travels the country with his wife in a '98 Coachman motor home with 280,000 miles on it. They spend a lot of time in national parks and thanks to Facebook, visit former students all across the country.

Wurdock, who lives in Royal Oak with his two adopted greyhounds, doesn't spend much time anymore playing drums. But with the renewed interest in the Dondero Pop concerts, he said he might be rethinking that.

"The 50th anniversary of the start of Pop Concerts is next year," he said. "A stupid part of me is thinking... let's do it all over again."