By Marion Filler
Their name may be accidental. But their song choice for Morristown Onstage is anything but.
Willie and the All Night Chipmunks will perform Boom Boom by blues icon John Lee Hooker at the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Feb. 27, 2019.
The competition pits 15 top amateur acts against each other. More than 50 acts auditioned for this 12th edition of the show, which aims to top last year’s record of $143,000 raised for the Morris School District. The contest is open to performers who live, work or study in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains, and to graduates of Morristown High School.
An open mic emcee jokingly suggested the band moniker, a play on lead singer Wilson Geoff Wooding’s first name.
The song was a favorite of Ken Oettinger, who was overheard playing harmonica on his Morris Township deck by Wooding, his neighbor. They connected with bass guitarist James Mazalewski and drummer Glenn Ashley. Looking for a more Americana sound, they recruited fiddler Mark Hesselink via craigslist to round out the ensemble.
For about a year, Willie and the All Night Chipmunks played open mics at Hennessy’s Pub, Hoover’s Tavern and The Stanhope House. They also did a fundraiser for Temple B’nai Or.
When Oettinger heard Morristown Onstage was looking for something different, and that there were few harmonica acts over the years, the idea of doing Boom Boom took hold.
“I knew this song from two sources,” says Oettinger, citing a John Lee Hooker album he purchased in the late ’70s, and the 1980 soundtrack of the Blues Brother movie, in which Hooker performed with the Muddy Waters Band and harmonica player Big Walter Horton. “I loved the song.”
Oettinger, who taught himself to play harmonica in college to win a bet, actually met Big Walter at a club in Boston and bought him a beer.
“I was at the club because I knew he’d be there and I was already fully immersed in trying to learn the instrument. I was thrilled. Big Walter Horton is considered to be one of the four geniuses of modern blues harmonica.”
Big Walter inspired Oettinger to keep learning.
“I play the Hohner Special Number 20, and as long as I know what key, I figure out what to play and I play by ear,” says Oettinger.
Much to his surprise, he discovered Wooding already knew Boom Boom.
The choice was clinched by Joey Oettinger, a senior at Morristown High School, who had been urging his father to audition.
“It’s the last year to see his father on the stage, so here we are,” Ken Oettinger says.
Fifteen top amateur acts from Greater Morristown will compete for cash and glory in the 12th annual Morristown Onstage, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $29-$79. Proceeds benefit the Morris Educational Foundation. Call 973-539-8008.