The rock of Wisconsin

Wikipedia begins its item “Music of Wisconsin” thusly:

Wisconsin was settled largely by European immigrants in the late 19th century. This immigration led to the popularization of galopsschottischeswaltzes, and, especially, polkas.

So when I first sought to write a blog piece about rock musicians from Wisconsin, that seemed like a forlorn venture. Turned out it wasn’t, because when I first wrote about rock musicians from Wisconsin, so many of them that I hadn’t mentioned came up in the first few days that I had to write a second blog entry fixing the omissions of the first.

This list is about rock music, so it will not include, for instance, Milwaukee native and Ripon College graduate Al Jarreau, who in addition to having recorded a boatload of music for the jazz and adult contemporary/easy listening fan, also recorded the theme music for the ’80s TV series “Moonlighting.” Nor will it include Milwaukee native Eric Benet, who was for a while known more for his former wife, Halle Berry, than for his music, which includes four number one singles on the R&B charts, “Spend My Life with You” with Tamia, “Hurricane,” “Pretty Baby” and “You’re the Only One.” Nor will it include Wisconsin’s sizable contributions to big band music. Nor will it include Packer-related songs, which deserve their own blog. Nor will it include, for obvious reasons, either Liberace or Hildegard. Nor will it include the aforementioned greatest marching band in the universe.

(Some information here came from Susan Masino‘s Famous Wisconsin Musicians, available from Badger Books, and some came from the FolkLib Index.)

No discussion of Wisconsin-based rock can begin without the contributions of Les Paul, a pioneer not just in building an electric guitar in 1941, but in creating the recording processes of close miking, echo delay, overdubbing and multitracking. Paul’s website’s statement that “It’s safe to say that rock and roll as we know it would not exist without his invention” is for once not hyperbole.

Paul was a friend of the family of Milwaukee native Steve Miller.

Miller’s parents then moved to Texas and Miller went to a military school, where he met William “Boz” Scaggs, who later would be in the Steve Miller Band before embarking on a solo career.

The “If you grew up in Madison you remember …” Facebook page contains numerous (and possibly apocryphal, as in an appearance at a high school dance) memories of Cheap Trick.

Over in Sheboygan,  The Chordettes hit the big time in 1949 after winning on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” (Think “American Idol” well before TV.) The Chordettes, which are believed to be the first Wisconsin-based group to reach the Billboard pop charts, are best known for “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop,” among their 14 hit singles, and appeared on the first “American Bandstand” program. The Chordettes inspired high school girls of the ’50s, including singers in Boscobel:

Whether the Chordettes were a rock act depends on your definition. The second act from the Badger State on the Billboard charts definitely was, Waukesha’s Chico Holiday:

The third Wisconsin act to make the Billboard charts was the Fendermen (Jim Sundquist of Niagara and Phil Humphrey of Milwaukee), whose “Mule Skinner Blues” reached number three in 1960, the same year they appeared on ABC-TV’s “American Bandstand” and played in a concert with Johnny Cash in Minneapolis. (This depicts their 2005 meeting in Green Bay.)

Sundquist later recorded songs as Jimmy and the Radiants, Jimmy Sundquist and His Mule Skinners, and finally the Mule Skinners, while Humphrey recorded a song called “Greensleaves” as Phil Humphrey’s Fendermen. (Think the Irish folk song “Greensleeves” at double speed with saxophones, which sounds like a swarm of angry bumblebees.)

The first release of “Mule Skinner Blues” was on Cuca Records of Sauk City. I have the “Cuca Records Rock ’n’ Roll Story” CD, and it’s got quite a collection of Wisconsin and Midwestern acts, including Larry Phillipson, the Teen Tones, Dick Hiorns (a Wausau nightclub owner), Kenny King and the Be Bops, Bob Mattice & the Phaetons (whose “What’s All This” is a song about rock songs), and Vilas Craig, who sang one song and produced another.

Craig’s group, first called the Kollege Kings and later called the Vicounts, was said to be the first rock and roll band in southern Wisconsin. Note the piano player with the poor posture, who you might notice looks like a certain blog author you’re reading:

The Kollege Kings, described in the March 12, 1959 Richland Observer as “a local dance orchestra”: (from left) James Chitwood, on bass; Vilas Craig, singer and sax player; Karl Gillingham, on drums; Steve Prestegard (not the blog writer), on piano; and Gene “Fuzz” Mueller, on guitar.

(Said Vicounts, by the way, once were the backing band for Bobby Darin when he played a concert at Turner Hall in Madison. The piano player tells me Darin was very exacting and that playing for him wasn’t a particularly fun experience. The Vicounts’ piano player later was working for a Madison music store when the store got a request to deliver a Hammond organ to the brand new Dane County Coliseum for its first concert, Ray Charles. The piano player/organ installer — whose name, curiously, is the same as mine — set up the organ for Charles’ organist, and then was invited to watch the concert from the back stage. While watching the concert, he suddenly heard Charles express his thanks to the music store and the guy they sent out to set up the organ, and hey, why don’t you come out and play a song with us. Unfortunately, my father was so shocked by the unannounced invitation that he remembers nothing about the experience.)

Skip ahead a couple decades and you get an act of some regional notoriety, Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes:

The most notable Wisconsin-based act, of course, is the BoDeans:

A music act has certainly made it when one of its songs is the theme for a TV series. Only one original member remains; the BoDeans now have more former members than current members, which, if you think about it, is a sign of longevity.

Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay take pride in Pat MacDonald, whose one hit as Timbuk 3 was one of those archetypal ’80s songs:

Metro Milwaukee (specifically), Menomonee Falls) also produced Andy Hurley, drummer for Fall Out Boy:

Soul Asylum reached fame in the Twin Cities, but co-founder Dave Pirner is from Green Bay. (Green Bay to the Twin Cities … why does that sound familiar?) Soul Asylum has one gold single, “Runaway Train.”

Genesis hired Milwaukeean Daryl Stuermer as, in the words of drummer/lead singer Phil Collins, “permanent–temporary–part-time member” in 1977. Stuermer continued playing for Collins when Collins went solo. All Genesis has done is record 15 studio albums, six live albums, six compilation albums, two extended plays and 42 singles, one of which, “Invisible Touch,” reached number one in 1986. All Collins has done is release 10 albums and 56 singles, seven of which reached number one in the U.S., and contribute to the soundtracks of six movies. (As a trumpet player, my favorites would have to be Genesis’ “No Reply at All” and Collins’ “I Missed Again,” although I also appreciate the warped sound of Genesis’ “Mama” and the video of “Land of Confusion.”)

Genesis has an interesting history of which Stuermer is part. Collins came to the band four years after Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Tony Banks, guitarist Mike Rutherford and others began the group. The Gabriel-era Genesis was the favorite of rock music critics, while the band had more of a cult following than big sales. The Collins-era Genesis (Stuermer joined two years after Gabriel left) has occasionally suffered the slings and arrows of bad reviews (a Rolling Stone reviewer said of their first post-Gabriel album, “this contemptible opus is but the palest shadow of the group’s earlier accomplishments”) that they could, to quote someone who will show up later in this blog, cry all the way to the bank while reading those negative reviews. As Collins later put in Rolling Stone, “We know that people like us, because our records sell.”

Another group whose records sold is R.E.M., whose drummer, Bill Berry, lived in Wauwatosa as a child. Berry wrote R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and performed on the first 10 of the group’s 14 studio albums and number one singles “Orange Crush, “Stand,” “Losing My Religion,” “Drive,” “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” and “Bang and Blame.” Berry left the group two years after collapsing on stage from a brain aneurysm to become, of all things, a hay farmer in Georgia. Berry summed up the experience of being a successful rock musician in an MTV interview when R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “It’s a great chance to get back together and perform with R.E.M., which I always loved doing. This opportunity also does not require me to climb onto (a) bus or plane to do it again and again for several consecutive months.”

If you are from the 1980s, you have heard of Talking Heads (another ’80s reference, you say? Well, same as it ever was, I reply), one of the first and best known New Wave bands. Their keyboardist and guitarist was Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison. Talking Heads also was the subject of what movie critic Leonard Maltin calls one of the best rock movies of all time, “Stop Making Sense.” (Maltin gave the movie four stars, one-half star more than Roger Ebert.)

The Talking Heads were all over the radio and a jukebox near you in the 1980s, including “Burning Down the House” (their highest-charting single, number nine in 1983), “Psycho Killer” (actually recorded in 1977), “Take Me to the River,” “Life During Wartime” (about the war of, uh, 1979), “Road to Nowhere,” “And She Was,” “Nothing but Flowers,” “Wild Wild Life” and my personal favorite of theirs, “Once in a Lifetime” (the studio version and the “Stop Making Sense” version), part of National Public Radio’s list of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th century.
Harrison also recorded three solo albums with one released single each; the top-charting single was “Rev It Up” from his second album, “Casual Gods.”

There’s more. Tommy James lived in Monroe while his father owned a hotel there.

Bass player Howie Epstein of Milwaukee was a guitarist for Del Shannon and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, among other acts, before he died in 2003.

Reed Kailing of Milwaukee was a guitarist for The Grass Roots, Badfinger and Player. (The Grass Roots had a story like Waylon Jennings’ story about Buddy Holly’s ill-fated last plane ride: Because of a lost coin flip, Jim Croce got the last chartered plane at a Natchitoches, La., airport instead of the Grass Roots; the plane crashed into a pecan tree at the end of the runway, killing Croce and everyone else aboard.)

George Frayne, who lived in Winneconne, was in Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, which recorded a song about neither air nor space nor sea:

The next contribution to rock music from Wisconsin to reach national renown may be Bon Iver, whose front man, Justin Vernon, is from Eau Claire. For your first album to finish 29th in Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums of 2008 is a good start.

A husband-and-wife duo in the Christian rock genre who are getting secular radio airplay is Skillet, John and Korey Cooper, who are also Sconnies.

The Radio Rumpus Room has a long list of what it calls “Wisconsin ’60s garage and rock’n’roll bands,” including Lord Beverly Moss & The Mossmen, The Hinge, The Private Property of Digil and The Society of Appleton, The Centurys and The Zakons of Green Bay, The Faros of Neenah, Raylene and the Blue Angels and Seltaeb of Oshkosh, The Love Society of Plymouth, and a number of bands from unnamed Wisconsin locations, including the Fendermen.

Wisconsin is the location of some tragic irony as well. On Dec. 10, 1967, a plane carrying Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer Otis Redding and members of his backing band, The Bar-Kays, crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, with just one Bar-Kay surviving. Redding and his band were to play at The Factory in Madison that night. (Another Bar-Kay was on a commercial flight.) Redding had recorded “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” three days earlier, and it became his only number one hit and the first ever posthumous number-one hit.

Butch Vig of Viroqua and the group Garbage …

… produced the Nirvana album “Nevermind.”

To demonstrate that it’s a small world after all: According to the Wisconsinology blog, Vig was in a group called Firetown, along with Lomira’s Tom Lavarda. Lavarda started his musical career as the bass player for Vilas Craig and the Vicounts. Another member of Craig’s band was Keith Knudsen, who went on to the Doobie Brothers.

Further proof in the small world department can be found in the punk band Bad Religion, whose cofounder and vocalist Greg Graffin was born in Racine and lived in Madison while I was growing up there. (Which makes me wonder whether our paths ever crossed, since Graffin is seven months older than I am, similar to Chris Farley).

No discussion of ’80s rock is complete without discussion of hair bands, a group that, accurately or not (some argue their music went beyond heavy metal), includes Dokken, whose bassist, Jeff Pilson, grew up in Whitefish Bay. Pilson now plays bass for Foreigner.

C.J. Snare, lead singer (not drummer despite his perfect last name) of FireHouse, didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, but he lives in Milwaukee now:

Also found in the ’80s was the all-female group The Go-Gos, whose guitarist, Jane Wiedlin, reportedly splits her residence between Madison and Los Angeles. (And if you’d like to get married, we have just the minister for you.)

The Racine area is the home of a one-hit wonder, Chi Coltrane, whose “Thunder and Lightning” reached number 17 in 1972. Coltrane has released 11 albums and according to her Web site went on a European tour in 2009 and is working on her next album to be released in 2012.

I’m not sure if the Righteous Brothers belong in “pop” or “rock,” but they did record the ultimate rock and roll tribute, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” where you know they got a hell of a band, probably led by Les Paul on guitar. Unfortunately, Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, who lived the first four years of his life in Beaver Dam, is now in that band, having died in 2003.

Also in rock and roll heaven is Madison’s Joe Schermie, bass player for Three Dog Night, the most popular band in the land between 1969 and 1974 if you define that by their 21 consecutive Top 40 singles and their 12 consecutive gold albums. (Three Dog Night had seven members, three of whom alternated singing.) Three Dog Night’s number one singles were their first, “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” followed by “Joy to the World” and “Black and White.” Interestingly, Three Dog Night became popular by singing other songwriters’ songs, including Randy Newman, who wrote “Mama”;Hoyt Axton, who wrote “Joy”; Laura Nyro, who wrote “Eli’s Coming” (my favorite of hers and theirs); Russ Ballard, who wrote “Liar”; Harry Nilsson, who wrote “One”; John Hiatt, who wrote “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here”; Leo Sayer, who wrote “The Show Must Go On”; and Paul Williams, who wrote “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Out in the Country” and “Easy to be Hard.” Schermie was just 56 when he died in 2002.

Betty Everett was born in Mississippi, not Wisconsin, but she died in Beloit in 2001:

Clyde Stubblefield was James Brown’s drummer, and wrote what supposedly is the most sampled drum piece of all time:

It seems to me now that, between the various rock and pop offerings, enough Wisconsin product is available that a rock or oldies radio station could devote a day — perhaps May 29, the anniversary of our statehood — to playing songs with some kind of Wisconsin connection.


12 thoughts on “The rock of Wisconsin

  1. Tom LaVarda wasn’t from Lomira. Keith Knudsen, Tom LaVarda, Chris Michie met in college along with Bob Schmidtke and started a band called Mendelbaum….after Vilas.

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