Don Van Palta

Biography by

This Dutch banjo player came to the United States following World War II and strummed his way right onto a hit television show where he backed up some of the biggest stars in the business. He is a leading…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

This Dutch banjo player came to the United States following World War II and strummed his way right onto a hit television show where he backed up some of the biggest stars in the business. He is a leading player in the field of plectrum banjo -- playing the instrument with a pick held between two fingers, rather than using fingerpicking styles -- and continues to teach many students in this style. He started playing music at the age of seven, picking an instrument that was just about the right size for someone his age: the ukulele. Upon settling in his adopted home of Sacramento, CA, he became inspired by Eddie Peabody, a fabulously popular banjoist in this style who had a successful career in Hollywood as well as on the road. He went into a pawn shop holding his uke, but came out with a tenor banjo. The deal certainly became a bargain for music listeners in 1960, when he headed south for San Diego and hooked up with the Mickie Finn Band. This was a Spike Jones-inspired outfit proliferating a blend of Dixieland and near rave-up versions of whatever songs might have been popular that week, definitely including moments of lunacy in the standard that had been set by Jones, and like he and his band the City Slickers, the Finn outfit was a natural for the hot television variety show concept. In 1966, The Mickie Finn Show began to run for several years on NBC, allowing regularly featured banjoist Van Palta the perfect right to list names such as Jimmy Durante, Merv Griffin, Glen Campbell, Bing Crosby, Liza Minnelli, Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters, George Gobel, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Jerry Van Dyke, and Bob Hope. The banjoist, who had become known as the Flying Dutchman, backed them all up, and more, during the Finn stint and on-stage at a variety of casino shows in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Reno. He also received invitations to perform on other variety shows hosted by the likes of Van Dyke and Mike Douglas. His blend of musical virtuosity and madcap comedy, which he was able to execute as a solo act as well as part of a cabaret or variety evening, won him comparisons with another master of this genre, Victor Borge. No material was out of the range of Van Palta, since he could technically figure out how to play anything. A medley of themes from Jesus Christ Superstar was one of his tour-de-force features, although some listeners may have wished this number had received the Finn over-the-edge treatment. Dixieland and ragtime styles remain areas of his expertise. In 1999, after more than two decades enjoying a touring schedule based around the top echelon cruise lines, Van Palta and his wife retired to Grand Junction, CO. A business based on her interest in alternative health care became their main support while he developed a local band featuring banjo, tuba, and tenor sax. He teaches via the Internet and video and also writes articles for an Internet banjo magazine. In 1999, he was inducted into the Guthrie, OK, Banjo Hall of Fame. The best examples of his playing on recordings are the cassettes and compact discs he produces and distributes himself. The classic collection Beethoven to Beatles on Banjo was combined with another album, The Dutchman Flies Again, to create the heavy duty The Flying Dutchman, equivalent to an eight-course meal of his plectrum plucking. A list of titles such as this would send most musicians into an extended anxiety attack were they to appear stacked up on their music stand. He whips through "Lara's Theme," just to warm up, of course. Then there are excerpts from the opera Carmen, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a nod to old Spike with "Chloe," the Beatles, ragtime, and finally "Moonlight Sonata," just in case the listener isn't already overwhelmed. Plays at Mickie Finn's is a well-produced live set, so far available only as a cassette. He also distributes his own instruction course, featuring a combination of videos and cassettes.