Editor's note: Throughout the summer, Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes will write a weekly feature on local artists who perform various genres of music. This week's feature reviews the broad talents of Mifflin County's Billy Zeigler.
Billy Zeigler is perhaps the most recognizable name in Mifflin County music.
If you haven't seen him perform live, it's likely that you've at least heard his name. He began performing in 1966 and has been playing steadily ever since. He was raised during the heyday of rock and roll, and has adjusted his playing and setlists to include modern music as time progresses, and still pays tribute to timeless classics. He has performed in rock, country, psychedelic and funk bands, and has provided many memorable performances at a variety of venues throughout Pennsylvania. Like many musicians, he came from a humble background that developed into a history of folklore, good times and late nights. Zeigler's exposure to music came in the form of novelty records.
Photo submitted by BILLY?ZEIGLER
Billy Zeigler takes a break during a recent live performance.
Dusty W. Sipes
"The first thing that we listened to was Mitch Miller sing-a-long songs. You know the ones with the bouncing ball boinging on the words? You were supposed to sing along. But as soon as I heard the Beatles that was it. I had to have a guitar," Zeigler said.
Zeigler then took to asking his parents for one.
"I started playing in my living room. I was the only one who had a guitar at the time. My parents bought me one of those Sears guitars with the amp built into the case. I badgered my parents into getting me one. The only way you could get one around here was through a catalog store. My aunt lived in Wilmington, Delaware and we were down there one time and there was a Sears retail store and they had the different price line of guitars from $200 down. So I took the $79.99 single-coil pickup one. For an extra $20 I could have gotten the double coil one. That was my starter and I started taking lessons at Frank's Guitar Store in Lewistown. I later took lessons with Tommy Wareham in State College."
The 1960s is arguably the most important decade in music: folk, surf, garage, blue, psychedelic and Motown dominated the airways, and Zeigler welcome all of the styles and learned from them.
"Back then I was into British Invasion stuff. I really like The Animals, The (Rolling) Stones, Dave Clark Five was one I really liked. All that Mersey Beat stuff. Then the American groups started coming around like Jay and the Americans, Creedence Clearwater Revival, then all the psychedelic stuff came around and the first time I heard 'Purple Haze' and I was blown away. This led into the power trio movement I had to have all of that stuff like Cream and Hendrix."
Guitar tablature was not popularly taught in the 1960s, and instructors often taught lessons by teaching the notes on a page. The only way to learn the latest Moby Grape number was to sit down at a record player and "keep moving the needle back." Zeigler says that he doesn't know how many copies of his records he wore out.
With his new love of music, Zeigler's next logical step was to begin finding others to perform with.
"I had my guitar and my neighbor was the, so to speak, drummer who played on Hartley Chips cans. We had three of them and we'd lay loose change on top of one for the snare to give that 'shhhh' sound," Zeigler said.
The Bellevue Community Center used to host bands on Saturdays and Zeigler often found himself watching what he considered to be the best local band: the Mauraders.
"We would watch them and get all psyched-up. The guy had a Bassman and they played a bass through it, sang through it and had a Hammond Organ through it and it sounded great," Zeigler said.
Frequent attendance enabled Zeigler to get his band called The Galaxies (named after the Ford Galaxy the drummer's father owned) a shot at a live performance. Like many firsts in life, it could have gone better:
"We weren't much on singing, so we would do instrumentals. This was probably 66 or 67. We get all ramped up for this big gig and get about halfway through the first set, and I don't know if it was just nerves or whatever, but I suddenly felt an 'ugh' in my stomach and just threw up all over the place. That was the end of the first gig," Zeigler said.
Zeigler then moved on to perform bass with a group from Milroy called the Knightmayors. Shortly after that, he was given an opportunity to play with a group of musicians who were much older than he was, but gave him the opportunity to play in venues he wouldn't have been able to do otherwise.
"Penny and the Twilighters was the group, and I wasn't old enough to drive. I was probably 15, but it was my first taste of professional playing on a regular basis. Even though I was 15, I was playing at the VFW in Mount Union, the J&B Bar and Mifflintown Legion. We just rotated a schedule every week. We were playing stuff like Johnny Cash and Ferlin Husky," said Zeigler.
Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, Zeigler continued to play in a series of bands both locally and steadily in the State College scene. It was in 1974 he began playing with a group that has gone through a series of lineups and breakups: Foxxy. It was with this group Zeigler would later meet Stan Orndorf, a musician he has continue to play with in a series of groups up through the 2000s.
In 1984, the original incarnation of Foxxy called it quits. It was at this time Zeigler began playing with the most famous country band to emerge in Mifflin County: Crossover, originally called Country Crossover.
"It was 1985 and this new country music was different it sounded almost like rock. The songs were easy to play, and people loved it. We were able to get crowds everywhere," Zeigler said.
Crossover had the opportunity to open for the likes of Willie Nelson, Diamond Rio, Mark Chesnutt, Marty Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel, Ronnie McDowell and most famously, Garth Brooks.
Internal conflicts caused the group to dissolve in the 1990s.
In 2000, Foxxy changed the spelling to Foxie and began playing again. They were the weekend house band at the Saloon in State College. Consisting of Zeigler on guitar, Chad Caprio on lead guitar, Stan Orndorf on bass, Johnny X on keyboard and Gina Rindina on vocals, the band was known as one of the greatest party bands in downtown State College
Orndorf and Zeigler have also played in a stripped-down guitar and bass band called The Fools on Stools, and is currently playing with The Fools with Caprio on lead, Orndorf on bass and Kevin Thomas on drums.
Crossover has recently reunited with their most popular lineup and will be playing a series of shows over the summer. Crossover's next major event will be on Aug. 21 at Moose Family Center in Lewistown. The event is open to the public and is to raise money for toys for kids.
Zeigler performs every second Saturday at Brownie's Mountain Tavern, just over the Seven Mountains from Milroy on U.S. 322, and each Wednesday at Big Daddy's, in Lewistown.
The Fools, Fools on Stools and Crossover can all be found on Facebook.
Dusty W. Sipes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org