freddy powers
Freddy Powers (second from left) and the Powerhouse IV banjo band played Diamond Jim’s a number of times in the 1960s.

When the long-vacant stores in the former River Bluffs Center on Highway 13 were demolished this month to make way for the Lilia luxury apartments and Cascade condominiums, all traces of Lilydale’s once-famous Diamond Jim’s supper club were erased.

From 1961-80, Diamond Jim’s was the main tenant of the property. The private club was known for its Gilded Age decor and women swinging overhead in the music hall. It was named for Diamond Jim Brady, a late-19th century millionaire who was synonymous with excess. He had a $60 million diamond and gem collection, the first automobile in New York City and an appetite for extremely large meals.

Diamond Jim’s booked big-name entertainment of the type that appeared on the Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson shows. There were new headliners every week, with performers ranging from nostalgic acts, such as ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, to the bizarre, such as Detroit pitcher Dennis McLain who played the organ and told jokes.

The house bands reflected the Gilded Age’s fondness for Dixieland jazz and included performers who ended up in their respective state’s music halls of fame. One of the groups was Freddy Powers & the Powerhouse IV, a banjo band that played Diamond Jim’s several times in the mid-1960s.

Powers came from a musical family who often had surrounding Texas ranchers to their place for dances. Before he arrived in Minnesota, his band had already played the “NBC Today Show” and “Tonight Show.” He had impressed Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard during his gigs at casinos and nightclubs in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He recorded a Nelson song and Nelson played bass in his band for a time.

According to Diamond Jim’s employees, Powers was not an arrogant guy. Mike Kelleher, a retired bartender at the club, said Powers lived at the old Mendota Heights Motel, a postwar motor court already showing its age in the ’60s. Kelleher said Powers had learned barbering after he left the military and offered to cut his hair for free. He would cut hair during the day and play gigs at night.

Powers went on to have great success in the ’80s due to his friendships with Nelson and Haggard. In 1981, he helped Nelson produce his successful album “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” He also became a lakefront neighbor of Haggard’s in Shasta County, California, where they were musical pals for over seven years. Powers eventually wrote or collaborated on 10 top country hits for Haggard. Powers’ wife, Catherine, co-authored a book about that period called The Spree of ’83.

 

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In the 1990s, Powers appeared on the national country music show Austin City Limits five times and had a cable TV show showcasing other songwriters. In 2000, he recorded an album called the “Country Jazz Singer” that received critical acclaim.

Powers was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. He died in 2016 at age 84.

According to Diamond Jim’s employees, Powers was not an arrogant guy. Mike Kelleher, a retired bartender at the club, said Powers lived at the old Mendota Heights Motel, a postwar motor court already showing its age in the ’60s.

Swinging Ambassadors
The Swinging Ambassadors became the house band at Diamond Jim's in 1967, with all five members having gone to the University of Minnesota.

The Swinging Ambassadors, which replaced Powers’ group as the house band at Diamond Jim’s in 1967, also played Dixieland but was very different. All five members of that group had gone to the University of Minnesota and four of them were music students. The band featured Tim Aune on guitar and trombone; Ken Baltzer on drums and piano; Jerry Beth on sax, banjo, piano and bass; Rick Clausen on trumpet and sax; and Tom Muehlbauer on sax.

When they started at Diamond Jim’s, the band was required to play a variety of music. That included Dixieland jazz to go with the club’s turn-of-the-20th-century vibe, and dance and listening music to cater to an older demographic. They also had to accompany the headline acts, which included crooners and four-man groups like the Four Aces, Four Lads and Brothers Four.

Ken Baltzer, now in his mid-70s, described the Swinging Ambassadors. “In their shows, as well as their dance music, they doubled on 30 different instruments as well as singing and doing comedy routines,” he said. Their musical selections varied from Dixieland and big bands to ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s contemporary numbers.

“We had fans who would drive hundreds of miles to see us,” Baltzer said in a 2009 interview. “It got so we could almost guarantee the club a full house.”

Adding to the group’s fame was the fact that Diamond Jim’s was a unique gig. In the 1970s, the club was also the site of a 30-minute TV show on Channel 5 called “Live at Diamond Jim’s.” The show featured the Swinging Ambassadors and the headliner from that week. It later evolved into a live series called “Stairway to Stardom” that auditioned local acts as a feeder to a national NBC talent show.

The band’s tenure at Diamond Jim’s ended when the club closed in 1980. Afterward, the Swinging Ambassadors had many good years playing regionally. The band also worked nationally with short gigs across the country from Lake Tahoe to Cleveland to Winnipeg to Orlando.

Their last show was in 1999. The Swinging Ambassadors were inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2011. Since the induction, Jerry Beth has passed away.

River Bluffs Center
After sitting vacant for more than four years, River Bluffs Center in Lilydale was recently torn down to make way for the Lilia luxury apartments and Cascade condominiums.

—David Byrne

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