Lawrence's Ebeling Brothers reunite after years spent abroad

There's no shortage of brother acts in the music biz.

Something about this familial bond helps to weather the bumpy rides that go hand in hand with the occupation. But even this union is put to the test when separated by distance ... especially if it's 8,000 miles.


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

The Ebeling Brothers, featuring Billy, left, and Tim Ebeling. Billy lives in Lawrence, while Tim is a permanent resident of New Zealand.

Lawrence natives Billy Ebeling and his brother Tim have maintained an ongoing musical collaboration for two decades, even though the latter has lived in New Zealand for most of that stretch. Considering Tim has not returned to Lawrence since 1994, it will be a rare privilege to see the pair headline a reunion gig at Stu's Midtown Tavern.

Despite the Ebelings' enduring artistic partnership, they both discovered music relatively late in life.

"It wasn't like 'The Partridge Family' where we all grew up playing," Billy recalls. "We split up -- because our parents split -- and when we got back together it was like, 'Oh, you play an instrument, too?'"

"I don't remember how it all worked out," Tim adds. "But (oldest brother) Terry had a guitar. And we all ended up at my mom's house. But I didn't know they were playing guitar, and I don't think they knew I was playing drums. Then bang, we got together and we had a band."

Initially, it was Billy who first departed Lawrence to find a career overseas.

"When I left I had an around-the-world ticket," Billy says of his 1985 excursion. "I took an acoustic guitar and would go to a city and set up and play."

First heading to England, the singer roamed to various remote spots of the globe, including Australia, China, Fiji and, eventually, New Zealand. By 1987, Tim had joined his brother in the city of Auckland, and the solo act became a duo. Billy handled vocals, guitar and harmonica, while Tim supplied kick, snare and symbols.

It was while busking in New Zealand that the blues-tinged Ebelings found their greatest success.

"When we left Lawrence to do this trip we recorded a bunch of original songs on tape, kind of haphazard," Tim remembers. "When we got to New Zealand, why we stayed is because we were selling so many tapes. We were making more than paid gigs. These musicians that lived in New Zealand were going, 'These guys are on to something!'"

By 1989, the Ebeling Brothers had turned this routine into a successful livelihood.

"We'd go out and do an hour show on the streets and sell 40 tapes at $10 a pop," Tim says. "Plus there were people kicking in money in the hat. So we kept reordering tapes ... After a year we'd sold something like 4,000 -- which is a big deal in a country of 3 million people.

"Somehow word got out at how many tapes we'd sold, so we got a call from EMI."

Miraculously, the international label's New Zealand branch decided to sign the two unknown American musicians to a recording deal. Not unexpectedly, the album went nowhere.

"I think we did one gig in a record store and that was about it," the 40-year-old Tim says. "EMI didn't really get behind it. We were better off selling the tapes and taking 100 percent of everything we made. But we still get the odd little royalty check."

A break in the action

Eventually, Billy and Tim decided to put their musical collaboration on hiatus.

"We'd been living together, traveling together, doing it all for about five or six years," Tim says. "We were sick of each other."

The drummer headed south to Queenstown, and the guitarist moved to Australia. In 1998, Billy returned to Lawrence and resuscitated his local career.

Still a full-time musician, the 43-year-old Billy currently averages 150 nights a year. Whether playing solo or with his Late For Dinner Band, the Lawrence High School graduate (and Kansas University dropout) has amassed 14 albums of mostly original material.

Tim got married and maintains a permanent resident status in New Zealand. After managing a restaurant for a number of years, he recently started his own business: Balboa Bagels.

Older sibling Terry lives not far from Tim, and the pair continue to play live occasionally. (Terry did not return to Lawrence as part of the gathering since he had just been back in June.)


Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo

The Ebeling Brothers will perform Saturday at Stu's Midtown Tavern as part of a reunion showcase.

For the Ebeling Brothers reunion shows one can expect a diverse evening of entertainment.

"There are some songs that we still do from our busking days. There is stuff I've written that we do in the Late for Dinner Band. And we'll play some covers," Billy says, citing artists such as The Meters, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ry Cooder and Clifton Chenier.

"Billy could easily do a night of his own stuff. But most of it sucks, so we probably wouldn't do the whole night," Tim jokes.

As for contrasting their musical styles, multi-instrumentalist Billy claims to be an "old-school, guitar-strumming brute." Whereas Tim is "a little hipper," involving himself in projects such as his own solo DJ/drum show.

"Being a drummer, I had to play a lot of different styles, because Billy wasn't always around," Tim explains. "So I was in a rock band for a while, a reggae band, funk, jazz. I always tried to be more versatile, just to keep working."

Wish you were here

Although the Ebelings functioned as street-corner ambassadors of American blues-roots music, their fondest memory performing together involves an entirely different type of show.

Past Event

The Ebeling Brothers

  • Saturday, May 17, 2003, 9 p.m.
  • Stu's Midtown Tavern, 925 Iowa, Lawrence
  • 21+ / $5


"We were playing on the street in Auckland (in the late '80s), and Pink Floyd was doing a concert that night," Billy says. "So what we'd do is get the crowd as big as we thought it was going to be, then one guy would break off and pass the hat and try and sell merchandise. So I'm talking to this guy, and he said, 'You want to do a gig tonight?'

"Of course, it was David Gilmour (Pink Floyd's guitarist), but I didn't know it. And I was trying to do it fast, because I didn't have time to talk because we were trying to make some 'real' money."

Gilmour invited the band to play the aftershow party. Even though the request was met by the Ebelings with some skepticism -- Tim hung up the phone when the manager called, believing it was a prank -- they realized their good fortune when they found backstage passes in their name waiting at the concert arena.

"They were really gracious," Tim recalls of the British supergroup, who ended up paying the brothers double what they'd contracted. "They saw us busking on the street and they thought it really swung, so they figured they'd hire us and get rid of the other band they'd booked for the party. We felt bad for the other band."

"No we didn't," Billy says, laughing.


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