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Spider John Koerner was a fixture in Minnesota music on so many levels.

He sat at the same corner stool nearly every day at Palmer's Bar in Minneapolis, where they kept an electric mug warmer for his coffee and brandy.

He played the same style of big-body 12-string acoustic guitar from the Newport Folk Festival to Minneapolis' Triangle Bar. And he sang many of the same old-school folk and blues songs at every gig for more than six decades — from Leadbelly and Memphis Minnie tunes to some of his own wry and weary originals.

Koerner's unchanging, unflappable presence in the Twin Cities music scene ended Saturday when the influential guitarist and singer of "blues, rags and hollers" died of cancer at age 85 at his home in Minneapolis, according to his son, Chris Kalmbach, who was with him along with other family members. Koerner had begun receiving hospice care several weeks ago.

"The music world lost a great artist, and we lost Grandpa John," Kalmbach said.

Koerner's mainstay presence goes back to Minneapolis' West Bank folk and blues scene of the early 1960s, when he mentored a young Bob Dylan and recorded albums that influenced John Lennon, David Bowie, Bonnie Raitt and Beck.

He made his biggest mark by teaming with guitarist Dave Ray and harpist Tony Glover to form the acoustic trio Koerner, Ray & Glover, one of the first white acts to help bring authentic blues music to the fore.

Even before that trio took flight in 1963, however, Koerner made another big mark on modern music by schooling a failing University of Minnesota student from the Iron Range.

"When he spoke, he was soft-spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter," Dylan wrote of Koerner in his autobiography, "Chronicles, Vol. 1″ ― one of many accounts of the pivotal era when the former Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing learned songs from pickers in Minneapolis in 1960-1961 before heading to New York City.

"Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together," Dylan continued in his book. "I learned a lot of songs off Koerner by singing harmony with him and he had folk records of performers I'd never heard."

Raitt, another future rock legend who learned from Twin Cities musicians, had been in touch with Koerner in recent weeks and got to say goodbye.

"We've been close friends since we met in '69, hung out in Cambridge in the early '70′s and in all the decades since," Raitt said via email on Saturday.

"From the first time I heard him on [Koerner, Ray & Glover's] 'Blues, Rags and Hollers,' I've been completely under his spell. He was funny, talented, mischievous, always curious — loved life, good music, watching stars and a high time with friends. Between his incredibly unique, funky, rhythmic guitar playing and singing, his great original songs and the hilarious, long-winding stories he'd weave into his sets, there was simply no one like him."

Spider John Koerner, left, performed with Tony Glover and Dave Ray at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Spider John Koerner, left, performed with Tony Glover and Dave Ray at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Koerner came to Minnesota in 1956 to study aeronautical engineering at the U. He never fully gave up his engineer interests — stories abound of him tinkering on self-made items like telescopes and a boat — but he was diverted into the Marine Corps and then focused on music as a career once Koerner, Ray & Glover started recording in 1963, first for a small folk label and then Elektra.

The same California label that bolstered the Doors and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (each a noted admirer of the Minnesota trio), Elektra issued "Blues, Rags & Hollers" in 1963 and the follow-up LP, "Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers," a year later.

They were the type of records that didn't sell too well, but seemingly every musician who was anybody at the time owned them and devoured them.

Lennon cited that first record as a personal favorite in a 1964 Melody Maker profile. Bowie praised it in a 2016 Vanity Fair story for "demolishing the puny vocalizations of 'folk' trios like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Whatsit, Koerner and company showed how it should be done. First time I had heard a 12-string guitar."

Koerner, Ray and Glover gained more stature through mid-1960s appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, where they performed alongside old blues heroes like Muddy Waters and Son House, and witnessed their old pal Dylan's infamous "going electric" set in 1965.

"They gave hope to white college kids everywhere," Rolling Stone magazine senior editor David Fricke said of the group's first album. "If three white kids from the Midwest could make a record that sounds that black and deep and soulful, that really was inspirational. It became a foundation for so much of what came after it."

Koerner himself seemed OK with the fact that he never got as famous as many of his admirers.

"I wouldn't want the kind of success that Bob Dylan has, in terms of my personal life," he told the Star Tribune in 2005. "He's got people picking through his garbage."

KR&G splintered off into solo and duo acts in the late 1960s. Koerner's 1969 record with late Twin Cities piano plunker Willie Murphy, "Running, Jumping, Standing Still," was the most successful LP of their post-trio era. Raitt covered one of its songs, "I Ain't Blue," on her debut album, which Murphy produced.

But Koerner seemingly couldn't stand still. He spent a year making a charmingly hippie-dippie black-and-white movie, "The Secret of Sleep." He then quit music altogether in 1972, moved to Copenhagen, married a Danish woman and focused on building telescopes and other inventions instead.

His recording and touring hiatus ended in the mid-1980s, when St. Paul-based folk label Red House Records released his first in a series of solo albums, coyly titled, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been."

Red House later reissued some of Koerner, Ray & Glover's Elektra recordings. At that point, Koerner's music career was cemented.

"Dave and Tony are true musicologists," Koerner said in a 2002 interview shortly before Ray's death. "I'm just a guy who got into this for fun, and because to this day I don't know what else I could do to make a living."

Koerner and Glover, who died in 2019, performed off and on as a duo after Ray's death, including a weekly gig back on the Minneapolis West Bank at the 400 Bar. Sporadic offers came in for Koerner to perform solo around the world, too.

Koerner performed with younger friends at his "1,000th Moon Celebration" in 2019 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, unofficially a retirement party.
Koerner performed with younger friends at his "1,000th Moon Celebration" in 2019 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, unofficially a retirement party.

Tim Campbell

In 2012, he returned after 43 years to the Newport Folk Festival, where his appearance was cheered by younger fans on that year's lineup, such as Conor Oberst and fellow Minnesotans Trampled by Turtles. Oberst at the time praised Koerner for "his authenticity, his sincerity, his significance."

Koerner performed less and less over the past decade. Among the few places to see him play were the locations he liked to visit for vacations, including Madeline Island in Lake Superior, Copenhagen and Boston.

In 2018, he unofficially declared that his performance at Palmfest outside Palmer's would likely be his last. "My hands won't always do what they used to," he said then. "Sometimes I say my muscle memory has Alzheimer's."

The West Bank music hub Cedar Cultural Center coaxed Koerner into playing two retirement-style celebrations in 2017 and 2019. Each featured younger musicians honoring him, including members of the Cactus Blossoms, David Huckfelt, Jack Klatt and the guy many see as the heir apparent of the West Bank folk and blues legacy, Charlie Parr, who was profiled by two weeks ago.

Koerner made his retirement official in the past year when he donated his 12-string Epiphone guitar to Palmer's, where it now hangs in a glass case — and where he continued to hang out in recent weeks even after starting hospice care.

He gave his 12-strong Gretsch guitar to Parr and asked the younger picker to keep playing it. Parr has done just that and said he will keep doing so.

"He changed my life, pure and simple, and I'm grateful — very grateful — that I had the opportunity to tell him that," Parr said Saturday.

When he received the guitar, Parr said: "The biggest and still most important lesson I took away from watching John play and listening to his records was that I could find my own voice on the guitar, and play those old songs in my own way. That's been worth everything to me."

Similar words about interpreting folk and blues music traditions were spoken by Koerner himself in 2005 as he broke from his usual humble statements about his legacy.

"In the early [1960s], when we were rediscovering all these old blues guys at festivals and whatnot, it always struck me seeing one of those guys playing the same way he played 40 years earlier," he said. "In a sense, that's sort of what I got to be: my own version of those guys. I don't expect a lot from that, but I'm very glad my work is appreciated and respected."

Besides his son Chris Kalmbach, Koerner is survived by son Matt, daughter Mia and several grandchildren.

Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream contributed to this report.