Lakes music icon, IRRMA founder John Senn passes away

Friday, July 19, 2019
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It will come as no surprise to the people who knew John Senn that he wanted memorials directed to the Iowa Rock 'N Roll Music Association. He passed away Thursday at Lakes Regional Healthcare in Spirit Lake at the age of 78.

A funeral service for the Lakes music icon was held Monday July 22, at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Spirit Lake. Burial followed at Lakeview Cemetery.

Senn was one of the original members of Dee Jay & The Runaways — the group responsible for putting Iowa on the mid '60s rock 'n' roll map with its hit recording of "Peter Rabbit." It charted on Billboard's Top 40 in 1965 and remained on the national charts for 14 weeks in late 1965 and early 1966.

All told, the record sold over 400,000 copies and charted No. 1 in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Seattle. It was also a big seller in countries such as Canada, Italy and Brazil.

Senn's legacy didn't end with his band's song about the famous rabbit. He spent much of his life encouraging a love of music in people of all ages. On June 13, the Iowa Rock 'N Roll Music Association dedicated its new museum in Arnolds Park to Senn.

Senn was co-owner and founder of the Iowa Great Lakes Recording Studio in Milford in the mid-'60s. Through that studio he came in contact and made friends with hundreds of musicians from throughout the Midwest and beyond. That relationship and the respect he had for all of those musicians and support staff was the foundation for his next venture. He and friend Tom Tourville founded IRRMA in 1997 as part of an effort to recognize ballrooms, radio stations, performers, support staff and other individuals.

"We spent so many years building the Iowa Rock 'N Roll Music Association together, we grew very close," Tourville said. "He was such a visionary in so many ways, we are all lucky to have had him in our lives."

Tourville said he felt very fortunate to call Senn his friend.

"If you'd have told me 22 years ago that we'd have this kind of a museum and what we'd accomplish and that we'd still be in business, I'd have probably have laughed at you way back," Senn said, prior to June's museum grand opening. "It's been a really satisfying venture, and I say that because of all the things that have taken place. It's the fun that people have had."

Lakes philanthropist and former Berkley's/Pure Fishing owner Tom Bedell said he considers himself fortunate to have been Senn's guitar student. The relationship flipped a bit when Bedell became Senn's supervisor at the international fishing equipment company in Spirit Lake.

"Johnny Senn never thinks a bad thought, never shares a bad thought, he avoids confrontation like it was the worst thing," Bedell said at the museum dedication. "He's a dreamer and a believer and a doer, and the only reason we're here is that Johnny Senn knows what music has meant in all of our lives."

Senn wanted younger generations to connect to the association and its museum as well. He felt any museum should have a focus on education. And, as a young musician, Senn felt he lived through the evolution of rock 'n' roll.

"I've long held that rock 'n' roll changed a lot of people," he said. "I don't think very many who became musicians would have been musicians had it not been for Elvis Presley or rock 'n' roll music, and I'm one of them."

The music association founder liked how the annual Iowa Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies brought bands back together. Some musicians come from foreign countries to rejoin bandmates for the Labor Day weekend induction ceremony in Arnolds Park. "Putting them back together has been such a satisfying and gratifying thing to see," Senn once said.

"John would get the board together to pick those inductees," Doris Welle, retired executive director of IRRMA said. "At each year's meeting, he would impress upon us his desire that all those being honored would enjoy meeting their counterparts and cherish the entire weekend experience. For over two decades that experience for those inductees has become something they never forget."

People came together once again to remember the kind and talented performer on Monday.

"The many talented musicians at the funeral made the music so special — just the way he would have wanted it," Welle said. "We all sent him on to heaven with enthusiasm mixed with profound grief. I, along with everyone else in that church, considered it a privilege to call him friend and promised to keep on rockin'."

But the music from Iowa's rock 'n' roll childhood just won't sound the same.

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