Tornado Revisited: Setting the Record Straight

One thing I didn’t expect to happen when writing posts about 50s music discovered by me in the mid 80s: to hear from any of the bands/artists’ family members. But not only has that happened, more so I’ve heard from a band member!

Incredibly, I’ve now had the immense pleasure of being in contact with ‘Wild’ Bill Lee Balsbaugh, piano player in The Jiants, having initially been contacted by Aaron Hedges, son of Jerry Hedges, the guitarist.

Not only can I set some of my own speculations—made in absence of any info—about the band straight, I can also correct a big inaccuracy found in the scant information that could be found online.


  • song: ‘Tornado’
  • released: 1959
  • by: The Jiants
  • from: Marion, Indiana, U.S.A.
  • previous post here

A local hit on release, the song soon slid into obscurity until the 80s when a European record label somehow managed to pluck it out of thin air to feature it on a compilation album that, even more so incredible, also featured a photo of The Jiants on its front cover.

‘Wild’ Bill:

Bill told me the band—being at the time: Jerry Hedges (guitar); Andy ‘Russell’ Anderson (vocals); ‘Wild’ Bill Lee Balsbaugh (piano); Ron Wolfe (drums)—formed in 1957 when high school juniors and sophomores. It played jazz and country covers as, to quote Bill, “that’s what our parents wanted us to play”.


The band started out playing tunes like ‘Caravan’, ‘Tenderly’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’.

In Bill’s own words: “That all changed when we heard Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. We morphed into a rock ‘n’ roll band with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, which we performed in our school’s talent show (we didn’t win).”

From there: “Jerry began to experiment with a Les Paul guitar syncing rhythm with a Kalamazoo tremolo amplifier. And that’s how the instrumental version of ‘Tornado’ was given birth. Singer Andy wrote some lyrics, and every place we played the crowd wanted to hear ‘Tornado’. Our local country label, Claudra, agreed to record us. The first pressing of 2,500 copies arrived in early 1960.”

It’s here that the misinformation out there is discovered:

My online research returned that the band had created its name by combining James Dean’s first initial, as he was also from Marion, with the name of the high school sports team, the Marion Giants.

It’s a nice idea, but the truth is a lot more rock ‘n’ roll than that: instead, when the label sent the records to the band, its members discovered the name had been misspelled with a J instead of G. To quote Bill: “We were pissed when the label misspelled GIANTS as JIANTS, but we just changed our name. Hell, no: we were NOT going to send the records back!”

Interesting that the label sent the press directly to the band; whether this was common practice back then, I’ve no idea, but if the band was left in a world of no internet to try and distribute itself, it’s perhaps lucky anyone outside of Indiana heard ‘Tornado’ at all.

Bill and Jerry graduated in the spring of 1958, both with college scholarships. Andy and Ron continued with a new piano player and guitar player. But this didn’t last long and the original line-up was soon back together and performing. This too, though, was soon over, only lasting until May of 1961. This time Andy and Ron quit the band to move to Florida to be with their girlfriends, while Bill and Jerry stayed together, re-becoming a jazz act with some college friends on sax and trumpet.

The original Jiants never played together again until a class reunion in the early 90s.  

Aaron Hedges:

Aaron told me that his dad’s career in music saw him eventually become bassist for Troy Shondell, who in the early 60s had success with song ‘This Time’ (covered in the 80s by Shakin’ Stevens). Though he soon quit music for good–before Aaron was born–to become a high school guidance counsellor; a job he did for 30 years at the school Aaron was to attend.

But Aaron couldn’t miss his dad’s previous involvement in music; when young, there were so many unsold ‘Tornado’ 45s in the house that he and friends would—sacre bleu!—use them as Frisbees.

Jerry Hedges passed in 2004, R.I.P.. 

It was then—to quote Aaron: “almost the day he died things started happening”—that Aaron and his mom started to discover ‘Tornado’ had a lot of fans over in Europe. Aaron said of the initial discovery, “I’ll never forget the first person who reached out to us and showed us a band in France actually covering it. I was blown away!!! I’ve been addicted ever since finding his record and song all over the place.”


I only found two photos of the Jiants online for the last post; one showed four members (above), the other five. Even though establishing that the fifth member, bassist Ray Umbarger, joined the band after ‘Tornado’ had been recorded (and saying so in the post), I included the photo and name, despite the post being about the song per se.


I’m glad I did, for Ray is certainly worthy of mention when it comes to the legacy of ‘Tornado’. Aaron told me that Ray’s daughter, Lisa Umbarger, was bassist in 90s alt rock/grunge band Toadies, (reunited and still going, albeit with a different line-up), during which time it recorded a super groovy cover of ‘Tornado’.

Aaron and Bill are currently working on releasing some previously unheard Jiants material, that, if I understand correctly, consists of one studio track and some live recordings. Aaron also made me aware of a radio interview with Tom Lounges featuring mom Linda, Bill and himself for the show Midwest Beat; a recording is available on YouTube (below), the story of how the name came to be also featured within.

My sincere thanks to Aaron for making the initial contact and Bill for finding the time in a hectic schedule to talk to me; it’s super appreciated and has been an absolute pleasure and honour!

Anyone wanting to know more about the future release can follow Aaron Hedges on Facebook (links to post of his band Crawpuppies covering ‘Tornado’). It will no doubt get a mention here too.

Footage of The Jiants performing at the above mentioned 90s high school reunion can also be found on Facebook (as wordpress won’t let me imbed it here like it’s meant to!).

This series:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

To receive notifications of future posts of poetry—be they happy, sarcastic or sad—music history and reviews, the odd bit of this and that plus the occasional stab at promoting my books, please enter an email address below.