Bill Portmann • A Farewell Appreciation

    icon May 28, 2023
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On Tuesday, May 23, many of us rumbled past the windmills of Tuscola into Caro, to say goodbye to a fine musician and jolly good friend.

Bill Portmann was born in 1954 and grew up downstate, working as a machinist before his job as the Saginaw Valley State University Campus Locksmith, held until his retirement.  Have bass will travel, he brought either a big upright bass or his electric bass guitar “Ruby” to play with many SVSU productions of both the Music and Theatre Departments, as well as high school and community theatre productions around Mid-Michigan.

Before his retirement he liked to play with colleagues, and after his retirement he returned to campus to do so.   Now, “Garage bands are the secret government of the university!” may or may not have been said by then-Endowed Chair in Philosophy Frank Dane, but in the first decade of this century SVSU faculty Paul Munn (Pablo Mundo), Eric Devos (Red Hawkins), Cliff Dorne, Fred Sunderman, Shaun Bangert and others all had bands or performed solo, none of whom taught in the Music Department.  Frank (as drummer) formed Cremains of the 10th House with poet/songwriter Melissa Seitz strumming guitar, and my pounding piano, to play at the April, 2007 Cardinal Sins Publication Party, for Melissa was then the student-run literary magazine’s faculty sponsor. 

Now, when I first saw Bill Portmann around campus, I thought the stout bearded man in a boiler suit looked foreboding and unfriendly.  When the Art Department moved into the Studio (a repurposed theatre) in 2008 I wanted a certain cabinet for Art 433 Community Murals’ paint supplies…but there was no key for its lock.  The Locksmith was called, Bill came by, removed the lock, said he’d be back at 4.  He then gave to me a little McGuyvere’d key—the only one like it in the universe—and the cabinet has proven useful.  Conversation turned to music, we invited him to join the Cremains of the 10th House, and the friendships blossomed like dandelions.

By 2009, Lori Kranz, Kirker Kranz (parents of Barbarossa Bro/Ragbird Loren) and jovial Bill Portmann had all joined, the band playing in the Studio Building lower lobby every Tuesday lunchtime, then gigs at a poetry-friendly coffee house in Bay City and Theodore Roethke Birthday Celebrations at Perry’s Schuch Hotel Saloon. 

Then-students SVSU staffers Brei Noble and Dani Schoeny—she now fronts the Road Dawgz—joined in time for 2010 gigs at the Schuch in Saginaw and the late, lamented Arlington in Bay City.    With multiple songwriters and singers, the band’s rambling shambling mix had its own amusing sound and vibe.  Bill sang “Tumble Dry Low”, and a duet with Brei on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves”.  His bubbling bass line nailed down the band-written song the ladies had initiated calling bad boyfriends “Carnival Clowns”.

Frank became a Dean at a southern college, and Melissa moved to Higgins Lake, which put an end to that version of the band.  Bill and I continued playing, with the Kranzes plus various members of their family floating in and out, plus stints that included visual artists Amanda E. French and Eric Schantz

To any student traversing the lobby on her way to Sculpture class, Bill would holler out “Hey, wanna sing?”, and sometimes they did.  Roethke’s Birthday at the Schuch was an annual event, and appearance at a 2016 Bay County for Bernie get-out-the-vote gig at White’s Bar on a bill that included Lavel Jackson, the Barbarossa Brothers and the Tosspints.

After that Bill was the rumbling motor of a tougher rock sound, as Education Professor-qua-guitar aficionado David Cline came in on guitar and Dennis Hughes—mastermind of our university’s Instructional Technology network—on drums.  Bill named us The Intermittent Wipers, and we gave the witty gentleman plenty of space to solo on Ruby, always sounding fresh and innovative yet rooted in classic bloozy rock. 

I continued to play the cigarette-burned blond “schoolmarm piano” that dated back to the university’s 1963 founding, and especially relished the gravitas of Bill’s baritone vocals on my “Pimpmobile Blues” and “Sins of the Supermodels”.  With Al Huntley sitting in on drums, this band played the day-long Sounds for Sanders voter registration festival that Bay County for Bernie organized at Bemo’s in January 2020…and then Covid sent us all our separate ways.

For the past five or so years Bill and Dave and Al also played, mostly covers, first with the late Milt Saltmarsh and then Carrie Chapman on lead vocals.  They gave a September 2022 concert in Dave’s driveway, where the standout songs were Dave’s originals “What in the World” and “Wet Pickle in a Paper Sack”, the latter peppered with Al’s deft drum solos.  Bill’s bass sounded great, but I was disappointed he sang only Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” that afternoon, fun but not as riveting and charismatic as he could be. 

I’m told they had played together a week before The Locksmith of Rock was found dead in his easy chair May 16, and the group’s last song that evening was Tears for Fears’ (now Gary Jules’) “Mad World”. 

Mad or not, it’s certainly a bit sadder without the cheerful and skillful bassman Bill Portmann.


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