On Saturday, February 13, Covid-19 added Joe Beesmer — beloved husband, guitar hero and band leader — to its gruesome toll. Joe tested positive to the virus at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, while recovering from a quadruple heart surgery. A life-long resident of West Hurley, he was 64 years old.
The early days
Joining a county full of extended family, Joe was born on Christmas Eve, 1957: the only child of Roger and Lois Beesmer. Starting to play music at 12, Joe received his first guitar as a Christmas/birthday present at 13. His father’s “most severe punishment” found that guitar locked it in the trunk of the family car.
Local jazz legend Mike DeMicco befriended Joe at ten. The two proceeded to learn the same blues licks off the same records. They even threw together a rough ’n ready band in junior high. Joe, at 15, was first invited on stage by local guitar hero Jimmy Eppard. By then, Mike and Joe had heard young blues players Josh Colow, Alex Cantine, the rapidly climbing Jimmy Weider and the area’s reigning local player John Runge. Meanwhile, all-pro imports like John Hall, Buzzy Feiten and (Joe’s favorite) Kal David, reigned at the Joyous Lake and the Espresso Café. Joe soaked it up and poured it back with all his might in his high school band “Zeus.”
But none of this explains how, within the next decade, Joe convinced so many local stars to join him in his own cover band, known from the very start solely as “Uncle Funk.”
Sure, he eventually got his degree in business at Albany State to satisfy his parents. But that was never where Joe’s ambition lay. Instead, he worked with his father as an upholsterer five days a week and the rest of the time he worked on his playing and singing. Tirelessly.
Eventually, John Hall’s rhythm section, Eric Parker and John Troy, decided Joe would be perfect for a cover band trio. Here’s Eric, remembering: “One night Joe’s hero, the great Kal David, sat in with our band, ‘The Burnouts.’ After Kal played Joe leaned over the drums and yelled, ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to play all night!’ But after the show I told him, “Listen, Joe. Because I can hear you searching and finding the notes you really need to hear, what you played is better than perfect. Because with that effort comes a great sense of emotional passion.”
But how did this, “local kid,” become the ring-leader of something so much bigger than himself? Original member of Uncle Funk, Howie Brown, explains:
“I moved to Woodstock in ’81 and I didn’t know anybody. One night I was just blown away by “The Yankees,” with Anne Lang, Tommy Nicholson and Wells Kelly. They were all good friends with Joe and wanted to start a band called “BLT,” short for: Beesmer, Lang and Tom. I auditioned, we clicked and that’s how I befriended Joe. Eventually, we decided to put together our own band. That’s how Uncle Funk got started.”
The original members were Tony Parker on drums, the late great Rob Leon on bass, Tommy Belmont on keyboards, Howie played sax and Joe was up front, singing and playing his Strat like his life depended on it — which, in a sense, it did.
“But,” recalls Howie, “we were kinda’ on the B circuit. We couldn’t get the good nights at the Lake, so we were playing Tinker Street [Café.] Then people started noticing us and more players began sitting in. Though we didn’t know Tony Levin, he started hanging out. Then one night he comes up and says, ‘Listen, if you ever need a bass player and I’m in town, let me know.’ Next thing you know we’re playing with Tony Levin, then Jerry Marotta. We had Tico Torres from Bon Jovi and the keyboard player from Bon Jovi, Butterfield used to step up regularly. It’s quite a list!”
Next, Jerry Marotta does us a solid: texting Ann and Tommy Nicholson who call in from Tennessee.
“Sure, I remember when we met Joe,” Tommy begins. “It was through Wells Kelly. We were in the Johnny Average Band. Joe would always come to hear us and he would always want to sit in.”
“It wasn’t an ego thing,” Ann adds. “It was that he would do whatever he had to do to participate in the music — because that’s how much he loved the music. Besides, he knew his stuff — the blues, in particular. What drew so many great players to Joe’s cover band? Well, for one, there was a real need to keep playing when you weren’t on tour or were out of the studio… to keep your chops together.”
Tommy: “That really was the catalyst. Instead of everybody sitting around.
Ann: “We got to do what we loved to do best! Which was –”
Together: “To make music!”
Tommy: “And what really typified Uncle Funk was that if Jerry Marotta was out on tour with the Indigo Girls, then Randy Ciarlante would sit in on drums. Bobby Masano was the other guitar player for a while, but if Bobby wasn’t around, then Jimmy Weider would sit in. If Tony Levin wasn’t around then Frank Campbell would do the gig.”
Bingo! So it was a collective. All for one and one for all.
A decade or so after Tom and Ann split, Tony’s brother Pete Levin arrives in town. He sits in on keyboards and bang! Pete’s in Uncle Funk. Ditto with Todd Rundgren’s road warrior guitarist Jesse Gress, who Joe invites as often as possible to the stage. Next thing you know Tony Levin invites Jesse to tour and record with him. It’s synergy. And our Everyman, Joe Beesmer, is at the center of it.
One night, Tony and Jerry are hosting their old friend and Peter Gabriel alum Sid McGuinness, who – naturally — Joe is honored to have sit in. Next thing you know Jesse joins them. So, as Jesse remembers, there are three guitarists on stage and Joe signals for all the guitar solos to go to his guest stars. “As long as Joe could sing those classic songs he loved so much, he was happy. And always the most generous of bandleaders.
Joe and Tina
But in the new century, Woodstock’s club scene had all but collapsed. Levon’s Midnight Ramble was now the big ticket item. Also, New World and the Bearsville Theater emerged as hold-outs. Joe Beesmer — both in and out of Uncle Funk — made the adjustment. He played for one of Rick Danko’s bands, did guest appearances at Levon’s barn. Uncle Funk had enough pull to play innumerable private parties. Plus the band was always performed for “A Positive” a charity for musicians in need, for Gizmo, Tom Wolf and innumerable other friends in crisis. Of course, Joe did the lights and sound at Christmas on the Green every year — after all, it was a giant birthday party. Destiny, however, awaited a different gig.
It happened with Keegan’s Ale House opening in Kingston. Uncle Funk was highly popular here and sure enough the band was raucously celebrating Keegan’s first-year anniversary. Joe was joking with Tommy Keegan between sets when Tina Rotella, whose photography adorned the main room, joined in. “You two know each other, right?” Tommy asked. No, they didn’t. But over the next four years the two got know each other very well, indeed. Deciding to keep it on the small side, Joe and Tina’s wedding party at Grant Avery Park hosted a mere a hundred guests in 2009. But how many were Beesmers!?
Joe took a sales job at MarkerTek with his pal Ray Martin around 2002, but his central passion would become Tina and, of course, Uncle Funk — through which Joe Beesmer became a rock and roll ambassador and a homegrown, hometown hero, known and loved by thousands.
Never seeking “big time” fame, always working harder to honor the classics, Joe’s career spanned the glory years of American Rock, itself. Though genetic health issues crept up on him quick and cruel, his stoicism under such punishment demands we keep our eyes, instead, on Joe’s remarkable achievement. Among outpourings of love, nostalgia, admiration and condolences for Tina on social media, innumerable gems glow like this posting from Mike DeMicco: “I can’t believe I’m writing this…Joe, wherever you are now, I hope you get back that ’68 Gold Top Les Paul Deluxe…One thing I can say for sure is that “Old School” Woodstock’s heart is hurting. RIP my dear friend.
Joe is survived by his wife Tina Rotella Beesmer along with many aunts, uncles and cousins.
A celebration of Joe’s life will be held at a later date. Instead of flowers, please make donations to www.kidney.org/donation or Diabetes Research: www.diabetesaction.org. Funeral arrangements: Joseph V. Leahy, Kingston.