Music: Founders recall early days of the RAMI Awards

April 27, 2011

* 20th Annual RAMI Awards Ceremony set for April 29 at Tebala Shrine Temple

By Jim Hagerty
Online Editor

With the 20th Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) Awards only two days away, memories of how the event has evolved are still fresh for those who sparked the inaugural event in 1992.

From Best Drummer to Album of the Year, awards have been given to hundreds of local musicians over the years. Co-founder and Editor & Publisher of The Rock River Times Frank Schier remembers the first event when he, the late Gary Wilmer and Bruce Hammond wrangled the idea of honoring who’s who in Rockford music.

In 1990, I was just a reporter for The North End Times, and I knew Bruce and Gary from when I managed Harper’s Weekly (where Swilligan’s is now at Church and Mulberry),” Schier said. “I used to hire Bruce occasionally or rent gear from him for sound or lights for the bands, and I advertised with Gary in Rockford Area Music (RAM) magazine to promote our jazz or classical, folk or rock acts we had seven nights a week. The music scene was ripe for affirmation.

After Harper’s closed, and I started grad school, I worked writing, selling and pasting up The North End Times,” Schier continued. “Quite a few people had talked about some Rockford local music awards like ones in Madison and Chicago at the time. We decided to meet for some adult beverages at The Barn, owned by our buddy Paul Tilbury in the North End. That’s where we came up with the basic structure, which was a battle-of-the-rock-bands format.

We ran the ballot for nominations in the paper I worked for, which would become The Rock River Times, and Gary Wilmer’s RAM magazine,” Schier said. “Steve Shortino owned Cubby’s East and West (the old Harper’s), and had a new place, Hurricane Harry’s, out on Kilburn Avenue. He gave us the room and some promo, and that’s where the first awards were held. Cheap Trick was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award there, too. Every year after that, the awards just kept growing.

When Gary died of cancer in 1994, we established a scholarship for graduating high school seniors’ continuing music education in his name,” Schier said. “I left the committee in 2001, and Dan Eisman and Cindy Maschke came on board, and they and Bruce have brought the RAMIs to a great new level with various benefits and events throughout the year. What they’ve done with the awards ceremony is very creative. I’m very proud of them, and I’m sure Gary is very pleased.”

As with the awards ceremony, other aspects of the RAMI organization have also blossomed since the ’90s. The RAMI Youth Charity Jam has grown into one of the most popular musical events in the Rock River Valley. With about 500 to 600 spectators at each event, the jam allows teen bands to work with professional lighting and stage technicians and raise money for the Gary S. Wilmer Memorial Scholarship Fund. Each year, participating acts perform at such events as the Rockford Fourth of July celebration, Cherry Valley Days and On the Waterfront.

Another significant change since the early days has been the shift in how winners are chosen. Throughout the ceremony’s history, winners were selected by the public, which made for somewhat of a citywide popularity contest. Today, while popularity still counts, members of the RAMI Association have a louder voice in who goes home the best in their category. The shift has allowed the RAMI Committee to create a system where winners are selected by their peers. Members of RAMI are now the only participants involved in selecting winners.

For a lot of years, we had the idea of having that kind of system,” Hammond said. “And, as we started to grow, we were able to create an electorate that means a lot more.”

The public still votes in three categories: Favorite Band, Favorite Radio Station and Favorite Live Music Venue.

In 1996, the Gary S. Wilmer Memorial Trust was established to honor the memory and continue the legacy of Wilmer by awarding scholarships to students who wish to pursue an education in music.

While Wilmer was known for his musical advocacy in life, in death, Hammond said, he’s still active in the cause. Now a key element to the organization, the Gary S. Wilmer Memorial Scholarship has allowed the committee to expand the organization.

The scholarship has kept us focused,” Hammond said. “When Gary died, we, all of the sudden, had people wanting to contribute all this money. There was benefits and other events, and we’ve been able to give about $40,000 in scholarships.”

As for legacies, Hammond said he can’t remember imagining how successful the idea of honoring local musicians would be.

When Frank (Schier), Gary and I started kicking this around—even before the first RAMIs—we said, ‘It will either grow or die,’” Hammond said. “It’s like anything. I remember when On the Waterfront was just a small Labor Day party; and look at what it has done. We are still getting there, but I guess we’ve grown a ton since we started.”

The 20th RAMI Awards are at at 7 p.m., Friday, April 29, at Tebala Shrine Temple, 7910 Newburg Road. This year, a mixture of veteran award winners will share the stage with a new guard. Hall of Famers The Hillworms and Men of Our Times will perform along with 2011 RAMI Youth Charity Jam Winner Daybreak and The Poets Dance. Missing Links, Too Deep, Rockfish, Somo Mojo, Clutch Cargo and Matter of Fact will also perform.

A cocktail/social hour will precede the awards ceremony starting at 5:30 p.m. Admission to the cocktail/social hour and awards ceremony is $10 per person for members of the RAMI Musicians Organization, $15 per person for nonmembers.

To reserve a table or purchase tickets to the cocktail/social hour and awards ceremony, go to www.ramiawards.com, or for more information, call (815) 546-3021.

From the April 27-May 3, 2011 issue

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