“We were born to Rock, We were born to Roll,
“I knew it in my heart,
“I knew it in my soul.”
Original lyrics from the original song “We Were Born to Rock” by Layton “King” Zbornik, who died earlier this week at the age of 78. His close friend and vocalist in his most recent band, “The Sounds,” said he had suffered a series of strokes.
A member of both the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Albia Wall of Fame, Zbornik crafted an incredible career in the late 1950s rock and roll music scene as a performer, in the 1960s as one of the nation’s top Rock DJ’s, in the 1970s as a radio manager, in the 1980s and 1990s as an outstanding high school English teacher and at the end of his life back on the road as a singer, songwriter and music historian.
Layton “King” Zbornik,” (his stage name was Jerry Martin) was born and raised in Albia, he was a teenage rock band lead man whose original song “Janet” is considered the first rock record to be produced in the state of of Iowa. He was in the second class (1998) to be inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Albia knew him as Layton Zbornik Jr., grandson of a pool hall owner and chronic poor performer in the classroom. While still in high school, he formed his first rock band and knew he wanted to be in the world of rock and roll.
Taking on the stage name of Jerry Martin, in the spring of 1957, Zbornik and his band would enter the Fredlo Studios in Davenport, to record what has been documented as Iowa’s first rock and roll record. The session was produced on the Fredlo label, Fredlo #5901 “Janet/Lovely One,” later just “Janet.”
Today this record is widely respected and has appeared on many rock record LP compilations worldwide.
Because of the success of his first recording session, Zbornik would find himself a top draw on the Midwest rock and roll circuit including working many shows with Frankie Avalon for most of 1958 and 1959.
With his newfound success, he also released three records for the “R” label out of Kansas City under the name Jerry Martin. These sessions were done at the famed Chess Studios in Chicago and the Sam Phillips studio in Memphis, Tenn.
By 1962, tired of the road and the rock and roll lifestyle, Jerry Martin stage personas were put on the shelf as Zbornik, barely out of his teens, married his wife Marla, changed his name to “King” Zbornik and started the next phase of his musical life, entering the world of Rock and Roll radio.
Zbornik made radio disc jockey stops in South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. In 1965 he became the nation’s top radio DJ and in 1966 appeared on American Bandstand with Dick Clark, introduced as being the best rock radio DJ the U.S. had to offer at that time.
The hit television show “WKRP in Cincinnati” was loosely based on his time in Cincinnati.
In 1976 Zbornik moved back to Albia and helped start the fledgling KLBA Radio station in Albia and KLER in Chariton. After a managerial stint, both he and Marla went back to William Penn University and earned their teaching degrees.
He famously bragged that he took his 1.85 cumulative grade point average from Albia High School and graduated with honors from Penn. He was inducted into the Albia Wall of Fame in 2007, something that never ceased to surprise Zbornik.
At the age of 49, Zbornik and his wife moved to Rudd in North Central Iowa where he taught English at Nora Springs/Rock Falls High School. He had a 15-year teaching career and created NSRF Peacemakers, one of the top high school conflict resolution teams in the nation. He also wrote the book “Power to the Young People.” Most of his students didn’t even realize that “Mr. Z” was Iowa’s first rocker until he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and fans came out of the closet to demand he return to the stage.
Zbornik formed up a rock and roll band, “Jerry Martin and the Sounds,” that included his son, Layton III on bass guitar and traveled throughout the state for years. A year after being named to the Albia Wall of Fame, he brought his band to the Albia Sesquicentennial during the all-school reunion weekend, July 11, 2008, and performed to a wiggle room only crowd from the bandstand on the square.
During his resurgence as a rock and roll performer he cut two CDs and was featured with The Sounds on the Iowa Public Television special “Born to Rock.” He then became a featured Iowa artist with the Iowa Humanities Board and spoke to students throughout the state on the history of rock and roll.
“I remember helping set up the concert and purchasing his CD ‘Legacy’ for the Sesquicentennial,” said Albia Newspaper Publisher Dave Paxton. “He was just a terrific human being. Super humble and easy to work with. Nothing like the stereotypical rock star.”
During that concert, he brought Albia native, Larry Shroyer, to the stage and introduced him as the original guitarist in his high school band that recorded Iowa’s first rock and roll hit, “Janet.”
“The Legacy CD was as much Albia history as anything,” said Paxton. “On the back he lists credits to Larry and Alvin Shroyer, high school classmates who played guitar and bass with him, on “Gee I Miss You,’ and ‘Treat Me Fine,’ both original scores by Zbornik that the Shroyers and Darryl Shaw on drums played on.”
There are also six big rock and roll hits he covered at a live concert in the Albia High School B Gym in the early 1980s that Jeff and Vince Hess, Matt Jurgenson, Mark Murphy, Mark Robinson, Keith VanEgdom, Jack Graham, Karlin Schelker and Doug DeBruin were a part of as ACHS music students at the time.
In the first verse of “Born to Rock,” Zbornik writes, “They all said rock and roll would last a whole couple of years…But our Mommy’s and Daddy’s all began to live in fear.”
The song he wrote tells the history of rock and roll from an Albia High School teenage perspective with an old man’s sense of history.
The day the music died? Maybe in an Albia sense, it was Monday when Layton Zbornik passed.