photo by keith mosher
â€‹Glenda Diem and Mark Luckenbill are popular on the Rehoboth Beach music scene.
Terry Conroy was determined to play matchmaker, even though Glenda Diem was 41 years older than Mark Luckenbill and despite their lackluster response to an introduction. “They didn’t seem very interested,” she acknowledges. Yet, Conroy, a mutual friend, knew they’d be a perfect fit. “I persisted, and I finally got them to meet in person.” Her resolve paid off. Today, Diem and Luckenbill are making beautiful music together. Literally. Diem, a guitarist and singer with rock-’n’-roll roots, and Luckenbill, who graduated with a degree in vocal performance from the University of Maryland, perform in the Rehoboth Beach area. Although their backgrounds are disparate, their collaboration has given each a sense of purpose.
A science and math teacher for 34 years, Diem was back to sharing her knowledge at what was a dark time in her life. “I was just finishing radiation [for breast cancer], and I was somewhere between being wiped out and run over by a bus emotionally,” she says. “Playing with Mark took my focus off my life at the time and put it on helping him.”Luckenbill, who performs with Act 1 Productions, a Shoemakersville, Pa.-based traveling theater group, is learning about performing in restaurants and clubs versus a full-scale production. “It’s a good opportunity for me to gain new experiences,” he says. Both showed an interest in music at a young age, but they pursued it on different paths. The younger of two children, Luckenbill grew up near Reading, Pa. He hummed and sang so much as a baby that he started voice lessons at an early age. His parents also encouraged him to pursue theater and music in school. He attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Performing Arts and was an artist-in-residence at Lehigh University. At the University of Maryland, he studied voice, particularly operatic performance. A recipient of five scholarships, Luckenbill has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and he sang “God Bless America” before more than 40,000 people at a Philadelphia Phillies game. The savvy social media user has 6,000 followers on Instagram and performs weekly online.
Diem grew up in Piscataway, N.J., just outside New York. The oldest of four, she got a “baby guitar” when she was 7. “I thought I was playing then, but I wasn’t,” she recalls. When she was 9, she started taking lessons, and by time she was in junior high school, she was performing at school dances. In high school, her all-girl band, Girlie Action, auditioned for a gig in the Village Music Hall in New York and was hired that same day. “That opened up my career,” she says. It was the mid-to-late 1960s, and The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones all played the area. “It was an education,” Diem says. But not one she wanted to share with her parents. The lead singer in Girlie Action had her license, and she drove the band to the city, which was a half-hour drive from home. “My father said: ‘You go to more pajama parties than anyone I know,’” she recalls. One early Saturday morning, her father caught her sneaking in. She confessed. “I hope it’s lucrative,” said her father, who agreed not to tell her mother. It was. Diem earned enough to pay for her college tuition. She decided on college after her band mates got heavily into drugs and alcohol. “It wasn’t a good scene,” she says. “I decided to get a regular job.”
But even while attending the College of New Jersey, then Trenton State College, she played music on the side. Come summer, she was working in New York again. Two days after graduating, she got a job at a middle school, where she remained her entire teaching career. But music still hovered in the background. She helped start a jazz band, she worked on holiday music programs and she gave guitar lessons. She also played in bands that backed theater groups, known as “pit bands.” Although Diem grew up going to Seaside Heights in Jersey for vacation, she knew of Rehoboth. Neighbors in her childhood neighborhood owned a house there, and she often dropped her sister off at their home. When she retired, she moved to the beach, where, in 2009, she built a home in the Millsboro area. She played guitar occasionally at the Rehoboth Beach Yacht and Country Club and the Rehoboth Ale House.
Then, in summer 2013, she was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. She began a grueling series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. For months, she was too sick to play. Enter Terry Conroy, who lives on Rehoboth Bay, where Luckenbill’s parents have a second home. She heard Luckenbill sing and thought, “Oh, my God, the kid is so gifted.” Conroy had known Diem since she moved to the beach, and she was equally impressed with Diem’s prowess on the guitar. After repeated efforts to organize a meeting failed, Conroy finally got Luckenbill to come with her to Diem’s house. Once the introductions were done, Conroy waved goodbye. “I don’t know anything about music,” she explains. “I left it up to the two musical geniuses.” Any awkwardness dissipated as they talked about music. Diem began to play and Luckenbill sang. “Mark and I hit it off,” she says. “There was no generational gap at all.”
At the afternoon’s end, Diem told him: “OK, we are going to perform three songs tonight at open-mic night at Delaware Distilling Company.” Luckenbill agreed. “It was really crowded,” he says. “We had a great vibe and were really well received.” More gigs followed, particularly at Ambrosia Restaurant & Wine Bar in Rehoboth. No genre is off limits. “That’s what makes us so unique,” Luckenbill says. “We do new country, old standards, Sinatra, jazz, blues, classic rock and sometimes throw in an aria.” Since Luckenbill spends most of his time in Pennsylvania, they send songs to each other via email and practice on their own before getting together. There’s no doubt, Diem says, that their playing attracts audiences. And that makes her happy. “I don’t need to play for the income,” she says, “I play for the soul.” Adds Luckenbill: “Having fun is one of our top goals.”