December 8, 2021

The Starmer Brothers: A slice of Cortland’s musical history

Photo provided by Ron Starmer

From left, Rick, Steve, Mike and Ron Starmer.

Rick Starmer puts the Starmer Brothers first professional gig at 1978.

“It was at the Third Rail. It was amazing. It was like the first time we all got together and performed. The place was packed. I forget what the occasion was. I think it may have been a benefit.”

The Starmer Brothers are Rick, Michael, Ron, all of Cortland and Steve of Maryland. The men grew up on Madison Street. They have an “honorary brother” in guitarist Marc Ryan, who grew up on William Street.

They’ve played music most of their lives and are still active players in their own bands. And they’re a window to Cortland’s musical past.

“It’s not really a band,” said Rick Starmer, the pianist, singer and songwriter. “It’s when we get together and perform out.”

Katie Keyser Living and leisure editor

“We have only played probably 10 times in my whole life time,” said Mike Starmer, a drummer, singer and the youngest of the four. He and Rick play in the area as the Starmer Brothers Duo, playing originals and Van Morrison, Doors, Steely Dan and Crosby, Stills and Nash covers.

Ron, singer, slide guitarist, dobro and harmonica player, occasionally joins the two but is part of Tanglewood, a band put together by Mel Drake, with Connie Karpinski Starmer, Paul Semeraro, Frankie Diganci and Glenn Clarke.

Steve, singer and bass player, and the oldest, has a band called Skatt-Daddy, playing blues, rhythm and blues and soul music.

All four have amazing musical credits: Steve Starmer helped form the Rods, a Cortland rock band. “I did the first two albums with them,” he said.

Ron was an opening act for Elf, a rock ‘n’ roll band full of Cortland men that had five albums in the ‘70s and ’80s and included Ronnie James Dio, Cortland’s famous metal man.

Mike and Rick played together from the ’70s on, were in a group called The Numbers with Stevie Southworth, longtime musician and a host of other groups individually and later played together in New York City for 10 years.

It’s Steve’s fault

Photo by Steve Starmer

“Steve started this whole mess,” said Michael Starmer. “He was 13 years older than me. When I was 3 or 4 years old, they would play in the house, whatever band he was in. That, mixed in with Beatles albums, with Rolling Stone albums, with Bird albums — I didn’t stand a chance of being normal.”

Rick remembers a block dance down the street at Suggett Park when he was a young boy. The bandstand was set up in front of the basketball court.

“Hearing that music echo in the neighborhood, running in the house, ‘Can I go? Can I go?’”

His parents said they’d take Rick and Mike. “Ron and Steve were already there. They were older,” Rick said.

“Madison Street was packed with all kinds of people I never saw before: young and old.”

The excitement was off the charts. “I believe the band was Cindells, who had David Feinstein and Gary Hall. The crowd was so huge. People were dancing … It was so exciting. That was when I was bit by the idea: I wanted to be a musician,” Rick said. “My older brother, Steve was already in a band, Rasputin and the Mad Monks. They rehearsed in our basement on 67 Madison St.”

“Both my younger brother, Michael, and I wanted to be drummers. That Christmas, my father bought us a drum set we would share.”

“Soon it was apparent my brother, five years younger than me, was better than me. He was so good, he was sitting in at 10 with older musicians and really playing well,” Rick Starmer said.

At 18, Rick gave up drumming and started playing piano.

“We always had a piano around the house we all banged on. I figured out songs on the radio, plunk, plunk stuff, totally by ear. I started playing piano professionally at 18 years old, took lessons, went to Syracuse University Crouse College. I was a quick study. I loved music.”

Every once in a while

Photo provided by Ron Stamer

Ron said he picked up guitar and harmonica in high school and really admired the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, The Roof Top Singers.

As for the Starmer Brothers, “it was something we would do every once in a while,” Mike Starmer said. “First of all, I also am 13 years younger than my brother Steve. So I had to wait until we decided we were going to do music together. I was probably 18 when we got together and played as brothers musically,” Michael said.

“The sound that we make together, it’s quite unique,” Mike Starmer said. “Steve comes from a real hard rock place. My brother Ron comes from a real acoustic place. Rick has a jazz honky tonk thing going … I kind of lay down the beat. It’s a neat sound.”

Rick said he sees the world through sound, colors of sound. His brother Mike is the only drummer he knows who’s also a top vocalist with an impeccable ear. He’s a record producer as well. Ron: His harmonica and guitar are wonderful. And his voice has a singular style, Rick said.

“Steve is a solid personality, which you often find in a great bass player. You can count on him. He’s also unlike a lot of bass players for his extraordinary melodies. And he’s a great singer,” Rick said.

Steve, Ron and Mike all said their 2011 Dio Day performance at the J.M. McDonald Sports Complex was a memorable moment.

When they got together, Steve thought some of the songs are lacking.

“I decided we would bring in our daughters. I had my two daughters, Mike had two daughters, Rick had a daughter and Ron had a daughter in law.”

The women became the back-up singers.

“That was really exciting … We also got two horn players to play that show.” Charlie Bertini played trumpet and Jim Reagan played saxophone.

The honorary Starmer

“Every time we play, we use Marc Ryan, he plays guitar for us,” Steve said.

“Marc Ryan is an honorary Starmer brother. We have had ceremonies and everything,” Rick added. “He still is.”

“We have always had a strong chemistry,” said Ryan. “We just instantly knew where each other was traveling musically.”

“When we played the song, The Letter, by Joe Cocker, we had the horns,” Steve Starmer said. “We had the girls singing. Then we did an Elf song, Carolina County Ball. Rick’s daughter, Kayla, played the bass and I sang.”

“There’s not too many feelings that were better than that in life,” said Rick.

Steve Starmer said Cortland was key.

“It was the beginning. It was almost like a little Liverpool invasion. We had so many great musicians coming out of Cortland, for such a small place. Everyone knows everyone. You have Dio and his guys. Dave Feinstein is part of the group. I played with Dave in the Rods. I played with Dick Bottoff, who played with Ronnie James Dio. I played with Mickey Lee Soule and Bobby Comstock in neighboring Ithaca,” Steve Starmer said.

“It’s just a music scene that I have never seen anywhere. I am in a bigger area now. We don’t have the camaraderie … I look on Facebook. I still see the music scene in Cortland as something special. I compare it to where I am now. There’s no comparison. Cortland is a special place,” said Steve Starmer.

‘All my heroes were my neighbors’

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mike Starmer called Cortland a melting pot.

“It started with Ronnie Dio. Ronnie, he was influenced from the ‘50s, and then the Beatles came out. Ronnie Dio — these guys were traipsing off to New York when we were just little kids. ‘Wow, they make records. They actually print records on real labels.”

“That feeds a frenzy,” said Mike. “You take a small town with a number of musicians that had something they were working toward. All my heroes were my neighbors: Ronnie, Mickey Lee Soule, Gary Driscoll, he was a great drummer, Craig Gruber,” he said of the musicians with Elf. “Mark Nauseef was always around our house. He got his foot in the door and played with a number of great people.”

Once, Nauseef brought over a stack of 20 albums, all that he recorded on. Thin Lizzy and a number of jazz players were a part of his credits, Mike Starmer said.

“He took percussion to a level that was hard for us to understand,” Mike Starmer said. “It gave an expectation. It wasn’t just a bunch of guys playing together, playing music. You had friends who were already out and playing at a high level. That’s what you wanted to do … You wanted to go out, make records, tour. A lot of us did it. Some of us didn’t. It made for a lot of good music, especially in a small town.”

“The Cortland music scene is not really a place,” Ron Starmer said. “It’s a state of mind.”