County-rocker made his name as 'Pork'
Voice 'like a cement mixer' but popular with the crowds, Armstrong was a favorite
Name a local music event and, chances are, a guy named Jerry Armstrong was there with his band.
Jerry 'Pork' Armstrong
Of course, a lot of people didn't know his real name. He was "Pork" - as in "Pork and the Havana Ducks" - a perennial favorite at Summerfest and the State Fair.
Armstrong was found dead of an apparent heart attack Saturday at his home in Harristown, Ill. He was 55.
Armstrong and the band played a total of 38 gigs in Wisconsin this summer, the last at Harley's 100th anniversary bash. With the band's mix of country-rock energy and irreverent lyrics, riders had no complaints about Pork and the Havana Ducks.
His band was one of the longest-running music groups at Milwaukee's Big Gig, playing Summerfest for at least 23 years.
"He was very, very proud of the fact he played all those years at Summerfest," said Mike Wojciechowski, a longtime fan who became a friend. "But when you've played the Schlitz area at Summerfest, you've been there for a while."
This summer, and in recent years, he played at both the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse and Briggs & Stratton Big Back Yard stages.
"He was such a good draw, they could put him on at noon or 7 p.m., and people would come," said John Mangold, his agent for 10 years.
At 300-plus pounds, with a grizzly beard, bib overalls and a baseball cap, Armstrong was an unlikely presence on stage. His voice was soulful, gruff and gravelly to the extreme.
"I would say he sounded like a cement mixer," Mangold said. "Think Charlie Daniels meets ZZ Top with country."
Nobody worked a crowd quite like Pork, said his friends and fans.
He talked. He cracked wise. He connected with people. The band was on stage, but Armstrong and his guitar were down with the people and it was always a party.
"You've got a lot of front men in show business, but he knew who his fans were," said Wojciechowski, vice president of sales and marketing for the Milwaukee Admirals.
"You had accountants, doctors, sportswriters, Harley riders," he said. "After half a set, people forgot about what was bothering them. He worked the crowd better than anyone I've ever seen. He'd bring them all together."
The band's songs - southern country-rock mixed with other flavors like R&B - were often raw, honest, with more than a little touch of hard times and the common man.
Band membership changed, but one song became a signature piece of Pork.
"We ain't leavin' til we're heavin' " was better known by its subtitle, "Pukin' in the Parkin' Lot."
"That was what everybody hollered for all night long until we played it," said Kevin "Krobar" Anderson, lead guitarist. "He wrote 70 percent of our songs."
Yet another favorite was about a father who, instead of going fishing, went to church with his family. His presence was noted after he rather loudly drew attention to himself during Sunday service.
The song, entitled "Daddy Cut the Big One," told the story of that day "at the Horn Lake, Miss., Missionary Baptist Church."
He brought the same rough-and-tumble spirit to other songs, too, like "Midnight Train to Georgia," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "A Little Help from My Friends."
And while Armstrong sang of the hard-drinking life, he was proud to have beaten his own battle with alcohol.
Armstrong also gave out nicknames. When Anderson arrived at his audition, fresh from a traffic accident and needing a crowbar to open the car trunk, "Krobar" was born.
Ron "Wild Child" Stockert's name was a bit of whimsy for the band's unflappable bass and keyboard player. Drummer Lee Wanek, the first member from Wisconsin, was dubbed "Badger Boy."
Armstrong's own nickname was inspired by his size.
"He was just always a big guy," Anderson said.
"When you're big, people either compare you to Burl Ives or Meatloaf," Armstrong said, laughing in a 1982 interview. "I prefer Meatloaf."
Armstrong grew up in Clinton, Ill., going to high school in nearby Havana. He left the football team - the Havana Ducks - to play in "The Orphans" garage band.
He started Pork and the Havana Ducks in 1975, quickly playing six or seven nights a week, Anderson said.
The band played a lot in Illinois, then began making a name for itself at Summerfest and other Wisconsin venues. Gigs included county fairs, community and church festivals, "Country Thunder" in Twin Lakes, Wis., and "Country Jam" in Eau Claire.
Pork became a regular at State Fair, playing, with a poetic appropriateness, at the Saz's Ribs stage there.
"He played for me every year - 11 nights - for 13 years," said owner Steve Sazama.
Sazama quickly discovered one measure of Pork's popularity. Beer sales doubled.
"But it was more than business," Sazama said. "It was a friendship."
The band's plans are uncertain, but musicians and fans hope it will survive.
Survivors include wife Tracy; son Harley; and brother Tom.
Services were held this week. Memorials are suggested to Alcoholics Anonymous.