Charles City band Litterer gets Iowa Rock Hall of Fame nod

By James Grob,

Today they work in local real estate, sell insurance and teach pre-school kids.

But there was a time, not all that long ago, when “Litterer” rocked this city.

The Charles City-based hard rock music group paid its dues — from about 1980 to 1996 — by creating music, jamming and touring all over North America, and developing a loyal regional fan base over that time.

They cut a pair of albums, toured with some well-known rock superstars and came within inches of landing a record deal with a major label. Then they traded in their drumsticks and guitar picks for more typical lives in their home town.

For their years of service to rock ‘n’ roll, Litterer will now be inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Litterer topped the list of honorees when the Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Music Association announced the latest inductees on Tuesday.

Each of the band members was surprised to learn of the honor, and none have been contacted by anyone representing the Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame yet regarding their induction.

“I saw it on Facebook,” said Carleen Laue, the band’s keyboardist. “That was the first I heard about it.”

Other members said they’d been informed through calls and text messages from friends.

“I had no idea we were actually nominated until I saw a news clip,” said Brent Estlund, who played guitar with Litterer for the bulk of the band’s existence.

Established in 1997, the Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Music Association is an organization whose mission is to preserve the legacy of rock ‘n’ roll music in Iowa by honoring achievements, educating youth and inspiring artists. Inductees must have a minimum of 25 years of experience in the industry and have made a significant impact on Iowa’s rock ‘n’ roll music scene.

Litterer’s founding members are brothers Steve Litterer, guitar and backing vocals; Tom Litterer, bass and lead vocals; and Dave Litterer on drums. They began playing and touring professionally in the early 1980s.

“We were up in Canada, just playing lounge-type stuff, and we realized we wanted to expand our music, so that’s when Carleen joined in,” Steve said. “Then we started getting bigger concert venues, and playing with bigger names.”

Carleen (Litterer) Laue was their sister, and was just 15 years old when she joined the band. The group was gaining in popularity, and members wanted a bigger playlist.

“We were playing a gig with the band Night Ranger, and they had the double-lead guitars going, and we decided we needed another guitar player so we could do more songs with the double-lead stuff,” Dave said.

That’s when Estlund stepped in — the only member of Litterer who wasn’t a family member. Reportedly, when the band approached Estlund about joining them, his initial response was, “But my name isn’t Litterer.”

“Brett was a great guitar player back then,” said Steve. “He was helping us with guitar tech and stuff like that, initially.”

“My band opened up for their band a few times. I was just out of high school a couple years,” Estlund said.

The rest of the band members credited Estlund with taking the group to new musical levels and directions.

“It was a cool thing all the way around,” Steve said. “We were able to do so many neat things musically that we would have been held back on before.”

Shortly after Estlund officially joined the band, Litterer began working on its first album, “Rock This City,” which was completed in 1987. The band’s second album, “Romancing the Night,” was completed in 1995. Both were cut by Catamount Recording. Estlund described the original Catamount recording studio in Cedar Falls as located in “the basement of a Subway shop.”

The band recorded with Tom Tatman, who founded Catamount Recording with Rick Bisbey in 1979. Tatman and Catamount would eventually outgrow that basement studio and go on to produce, engineer and mix more than 300 albums, dozens of which have been on nationally-distributed labels.

“He’s world-renowned now,” Estlund said. “They’ve worked with a lot of major recording acts.”

Catamount is currently a multi-room studio in the Cedar Falls industrial park.

“We helped build that studio,” Steve said.

The first album, with all original music, increased the band’s profile and credibility, but it was the live shows which really helped Litterer earn a reputation and following. The word was out, and the band was rubbing shoulders with some of the bigger names in the industry.

“I appreciated it. I thought it was awesome,” Steve said. “You know, you look back, and I appreciate it even more now. We got to tour around and meet so many cool people, who still get ahold of us today. It was just amazing.”

“I remember when the guy from Megadeth came and saw us play,” Carleen said, referring to David Ellefson, bass-player for the metal band Megadeth, who once came to see Litterer play in South Dakota. “I appreciate how lucky we were. It was a great adventure for us.”

Just a few of the major artists Litterer played with include Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Dr. Hook, Night Ranger, Slaughter, 38 Special, Head East, Warrant, Ratt, The Grass Roots, the Guess Who and Autograph.

“We were scheduled once for a big concert with Joan Jett, but that was cancelled,” Steve said. “Something happened with her; she couldn’t perform.”

Another time, Litterer was scheduled for a show with Ram Jam at the Surf Ballroom in Mason City, and Ram Jam had to cancel.

“So they grabbed whoever they could that was passing through, and it happened to be Tommy James and the Shondells,” Steve said. “So that was kind of cool.”

The biggest indoor arena crowds band members could recall playing in front of included sold-out shows with Night Ranger and Kansas in the Mayo Civic Auditorium and at the LaCrosse Center, both of which hold over 7,000.

“We had a great road crew. We wouldn’t have been able to play all those shows without them,” Carleen said.

At the sold-out show with Kansas, Dave set up his drums and realized he had forgotten his cymbals.

“I remember going up and asking the drummer for Kansas if he would mind if I used his cymbals,” Dave said. “He said I could go ahead and take what I needed. I thought that was pretty cool of the guy.”

At the same show, Tom’s bass amp “blew up,” and the band approached then-Kansas guitar player Steve Morse — a hard rock legend — and asked if they could use one of Kansas’ amps.

“I remember that,” Tom said. “That was quite a night.”

When Litterer had finished playing the show, they were celebrating in the dressing room when the road manager for Kansas barged in and began yelling at them.

“Who in the hell gave you permission to use Kansas’ gear?” he asked.

“Steve Walsh,” came the reply — referring to Kansas’ founder, lead singer and songwriter — and the man who was signing everyone’s check.

“He was mad, but that shut him up,” said Tom. “He left us alone after that.”

How close did Litterer get to signing a record deal with a major label?

In the mid-1980s, music industry executive Jason Flom, then with Atlantic Records, flew into Mankato, Minnesota, to see a Litterer show.

“At that time, he told us it was between us and a band called White Lion,” Carleen said.

Flom ended up signing White Lion to a major record deal, and that group went on to have two Top 10 hits with Atlantic, and released a handful of albums.

“He told us we were equals,” Steve said. “But he said we had a strong midwestern following, and that he didn’t think he’d be doing us a favor by signing us, we were doing fine on our own.

“Of course, that hurt a little bit, but looking back, I don’t have any regrets. There are a lot of famous rock band members who are now kind of messed up. I don’t know if I want to be that guy.”

In about 1996, the rock ‘n’ roll circus was over for Litterer.

“We all kind of just stopped and started having families,” Carleen said.

“We settled down and had kids, and instead of going out on the road, we started going to ballet and dance classes, baseball and softball games,” Tom added.

They all live in the Charles City area.

‘We all just love Charles City,” Steve said.

Estlund lives in Nora Springs and still plays and performs regularly with a handful of different bands, when he’s not selling insurance. Carleen is a preschool teacher at St. John Christian preschool. The original Litterers — Tom, Steve and Dave — own and operate a local real estate business.

The hard-working rock band on the road is now just a memory, but a reunion show sometime isn’t necessarily out of the question.

“We haven’t talked about that yet,” Steve said. “I think we still could rip it up if we wanted to.”