The Original Bar Band Genius

The Legacy of Steve Hornak

    Additional Reporting by
    icon Apr 04, 2024
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Bay City musician Steve Hornak’s double-barrel proficiency on guitar and vocals in the 1970s and ’80s  was peerless, and his charismatic stage presence demanded attention, inspiring those around him to step their game up. Today, it is his sage presence on the local scene that continues to make an impact with a new generation of talent.

He may not be in the finals for an award at this year’s 38th Annual Review Music Awards, but Steve Hornak resides in his own category as an elder statesman of live music. On most nights, he can be found at either Bemo’s or Scotty’s Sandbar, surveying the crop of local talent, alternately blurting out blunt encouragement mid-performance or offering helpful tips on tone and technique afterwards. 

If a touring act is coming through town, the Horn will likely be there, too, soaking in the vibe. Cantankerous curmudgeon and astute musical encyclopedia, the Horn is the total package. Luckily, his goofy charm, clever wit, and good heart redeem him. 

Like many of his septuagenarian contemporaries – Todd Rundgren, Alice Cooper, Mark Farner, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, among them – the Horn has modified his pace to account for the advancing years, but his style remains distinct.

In performance on the Bemo’s stage, the stoic craftsman leans against a barstool, black cowboy hat perched on his head, alternately massaging and throttling the neck of his sunburst Fender Stratocaster, amplifying the space between the notes in his rhythm and giving purpose to every noise that emanates from his instrument.

His remaining regular gig these days is playing drums (and yes, he’s one helluva drummer) for Waltz Krawlerz at the open mics at Bemo’s or Scotty’s. The day after his 71st birthday in March, he was back onstage with Venomous Lemon (aka The Lemons, his enduring side project with Andy Hahn, Terry Poirier, and Ben Alcorn). 

Those who only know Horn from these projects get to witness the occasional glimmer of brilliance, but the personal accounts of those who played with – or were influenced by – the Horn in his heyday offer deeper insight into the breadth of his influence.

“If you weren’t there during that time period, you don’t understand what a force of nature Hornak was,” says Joey Ortega, a former bandmate in Couture, The Bodeez, and Rhapsody. “Obviously we’re all older now, but Hornak was ferocious.”

Ortega, who left Michigan for Ohio in 1997, has had an active career in music. He’s played keyboards, drums, and guitar in various projects over the years. Before the pandemic, his Rolling Stones tribute band, Start Me Up, was playing shows internationally. He recently started playing out again with his latest project, Mick Bowie and the Rolling Spiders, specializing in a mashup of ’70s glam-era rock and roll. Ortega recalls when he first heard about the Horn back in 1976. 

“He had a band called Trigger that was a phenomenal four-piece,” he says. Ortega’s newly formed Couture started playing out the following year. “At some point our guitar player and our singer left the group and moved to Toledo. When Steve joined, we felt like we had won the lottery, with his playing and singing.” The group, formerly a quintet, slimmed down to a quartet. “Steve would bring these songs to the band before they became hits, like a week after they came out … eclectic stuff by The TubesGenesis, The Babys.” They were also writing their own material.

Couture landed an opening gig for Cheap Trick in Lansing in 1978, which led to the opportunity a few months later to play Summer Celebration ’78 at Central High School in support of Bob Seger and Van Halen. It was a heady highlight for the relatively new band.  

“Steve had the same sense of adventure [musically] that I did,” says Ortega, adding, “I really miss the friendships I had in Couture.”

In 1979, Couture became The Bodeez when lead singer Neil Copeland was added to the lineup. Originally a fan who followed the band, Copeland scored an audition and earned a place in the group. 

The ’80s brought a new decade, and a new band, Rhapsody. Along with Hornak, Ortega, and bassist James Colpean, who all played together in Couture and The Bodeez, Rhapsody included keyboardist Mike Thomas, guitarist Dean Perry, and drummer Brad Silverthorn. Ortega switched from drums to keyboards, giving the band two keyboardists.

“Everybody could sing in that band, but we still relied on Horn for the difficult stuff,” says Ortega. “Kiss on My List [by Hall & Oates], Hornak sang the shit outta that! Back then he was firing on all cylinders.”

Rhapsody represented as close to a supergroup as a bar band could get. They didn’t follow the “blueprint for booking” that determined most of their peers’ comparatively tame song selection. “We never tried to be a commercial dance band or bar band,” says Ortega. A recording exists of a show the band did at Reflections (now Deja Vu) on Bay Road back in 1981. Among the songs in their set: a proper version of Todd Rundgren’s prog rock opus “Utopia Theme”, a piece that requires two keyboards to faithfully execute.

Thomas, a Bay City resident who continues to perform with various local projects, also offered his recollections on playing with the Horn.

“When I first saw him play, he struck me as a guitar player who knew how to control his guitar,” says Thomas. “Horn and [Craig] Zeigler may have been in the same band. He was very energetic on stage. He was somebody you just watched.” Thomas first saw Hornak with the band Trigger, as well. “He got better each time I saw him play. He had really good tone and finesse.” Thomas says once he started sharing the stage with Hornak, his appreciation grew. “He was the perfect band musician. When he did his thing, he complimented everyone around him.” 

Thomas remembers Hornak being into obscure, challenging artists, such as the aforementioned Todd Rundgren as well as being a huge fan of Alan Holdsworth. “He worked at Rock-a-Rolla Records for awhile, so he had access to lots of music.

Thomas recalls Rhapsody being the most effortless project with which he’s been involved. “We were like the Saginaw all-stars,” says Thomas of the Rhapsody lineup. “It wasn’t a lot of work, and it usually was a lot of fun. We’d never rehearse the vocals, but we’d do these four-part harmonies, and it would just fall into place.

Rhapsody’s highlight during its too-brief two-year run was an opening slot for Humble Pie in Grand Rapids when Steve Marriott and Jerry Shirley were still in the band.

By the mid-1980s, the band split up. Ortega moved downstate and started playing with Valentine, and Hornak moved to Kalamazoo.

Flash forward to 2005. The Horn is moving back to Bay City and looking for a new music project. Around that time, Luann Ervin’s band The House Katz was losing guitarist Jerry Deitzel, who was moving downstate. Bassist Rob Beaudoen raved about a “legendary” guitarist who recently moved back to the area and could fill the role. Beaudoen owned Bemo’s at the time, and The House Katz were the house band. A couple years later, Lu and husband Rob Ervin would become the new owners at Bemo’s when they bought the bar from Beaudoen.

Luann tells the story that the marquee sign outside the bar had a static message that read, “1 25 BEER 3-6,” meaning beer was $1.25 between 3 and 6 in the afternoon. “Well, the dollar fell,” she explains, “Steve saw it and the 25 cent beer band was born.” The 25 Cent Beer Band would go on to win Best Country Band in the 2009 and 2010 Review Music Awards, eventually becoming Steve Armstrong and the 25 Cent Beer Band. Hornak continued with the band for a few years, effectively honing his ability to blend in with a variety of musical lineups. 

These days, the Horn is content to pick his spots with The Lemons, Waltz Krawlerz, Tommy Grant, and the annual Todd Rundgren tribute show. But you can still find him down at Bemo’s or Scotty’s on any random night, and if you’re lucky, you just may hear him lay down the beat or make his guitar sing for ya.

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