Escanaba native Jim "Smiley" Lewis,
right, was rhythm guitarist in
The Tongue band in 1968.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Although it was based in the college town of Menomonie, Wis., the Tongue band owed a debt to the Upper Peninsula.
The band frequently toured the U. P. over a ten-year period and even featured Escanaba resident Jim "Smiley" Lewis as a member for a time.
Founded in 1967 at the University of Wisconsin-Stout by singer/ guitarist Paul Rabbitt and bass player Bob "Hippie" Collins, the group was originally known as the Tennis Shoe Tongue Band.
Lewis, a well-known local musician who died in 2005, joined the group in 1968, intrigued by their shared interest in the blues. "He played rhythm guitar and sang vocals for about a year before moving on," Rabbitt told me last summer.
At the time, Rabbitt, who lives in California, was unaware that Lewis had passed away. "This is the first I have heard of the death of my brother Jim Lewis. I am saddened," he stated.
Lewis had moved to Wisconsin to join the Tennis Shoe Tongue Band, which quickly became student body favorites for its blues-based hard rock sound and ferocious live shows which the group took on the road around the midwest.
"Those were free and easy days for the Tongue and Escanaba was a big part of the early life of the band," Rabbitt remembered. The band worked extensively with Escanaba promoter Gene Smiltneck for Michigan gigs as well as booking jobs with former Escanaba residents Bill Stein and Bob Streit.
Rabbitt recalled playing teen dances here which were sponsored by Smiltneck through Bands Unlimited at the Teamsters Hall located at 1st Ave. So. and 9th St. "We would often travel for weeks in the area. We would slip over to Iron Mountain for gigs and dip down to Eagle River, Wis.," Rabbitt added.
"The Tongue was lucky as our audiences accepted our original material even though we did not have top 40 radio airplay," Rabbitt said.
Tongue LP cover
By 1970, the band, which included Rabbitt, Collins, keyboardist Mick Larson and drummer Dick Weber, released an LP recorded at Scott Sound Studios in Eau Claire, Wis. "Keep On Truckin' With Tongue," spotlighted the group's own material and included a few cover tunes for good measure.
The title track was the Tongue's take on a traditional song arranged and recorded by British folk singer Donovan Leitch in 1965. The group took this bare-bones tune, added the Tongue formula, and turned it into a show favorite. With lyrics such as "Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' them blues away" and "you've got great big legs and pretty little feet," fans were quick to sing and dance along.
Despite the fact the Grateful Dead also recorded another tune called "Keep On Truckin'," the Tongue paid tribute to their psychedelic heroes from San Francisco by recording "Morning Dew," from the Dead's first album. Although strongly associated with singer Jerry Garcia, "Morning Dew" was actually written by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson in 1962.
Showing their sense of humor, the Tongue even added a brief "hillbilly" version of a novelty song made famous by Arthur Godfrey and the Too Fat Trio in 1948 called "Slap Her Down Again, Paw." While no band in these politically correct times would likely include this song (about a girl dating against the wishes of her family) on an album, the song first appeared when attitudes were different than today.
Other tracks on the album were composed by Rabbitt or co-written with Collins or Larson, while one was a group composition.
The LP and a 45 rpm single of "Keep On Truckin'," issued on the band's own Hemisphere label, focused attention on the Tongue. "We traveled throughout the 20 states in the middle of the U. S. with regular stops in Oklahoma, Colorado and California," Rabbitt noted.
Tongue toured extensively with another Wisconsin band, Soup, and opened shows for many headliners on the midwest concert circuit. Tongue toured with the Cleveland-based rock band James Gang, featuring Joe Walsh, and played with Chuck Berry, Cheap Trick, Michigan's own Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper.
In 1972, Rabbitt and Larson moved the band to Milwaukee where they were joined by bassist Rick Clark and drummer Ted Mueller.
Tongue returned to Escanaba even as the 1970s wore on. They performed at the Nite Hawk bar when it was owned by Gene Smiltneck, one of their booking agents in the early days.
Rabbitt and Collins even tell the story of the Tongue appearing in Crystal Falls, where they were confused with another group. Fans in the isolated U. P. town mistook Tongue for the British power trio Cream, which included famed rockers Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
After gigging around the midwest for a decade, the Tongue called it quits in 1976.
Interest in the band was renewed when their album was issued on compact disc and re-released on LP in 2000 by the European label Gear Fab Records. Three bonus tracks were included.
Then, on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2001, the group reunited for a homecoming concert at the University of Wisconsin- Stout campus, sponsored by the Alumni Association. Following their first gig in 25 years, members of Tongue went their separate ways but remained active musically.
Tongue reunited: from left, Bob Collins, Dick Weber,
Mick Larson and Paul Rabbitt.
Unfortunately, the band lost a member when Mick Larson passed away on Aug. 13, 2004.
Additional concerts seem unlikely, but fans can still dust off their old records and "Keep On Truckin' With Tongue."
Tongue with Jim Lewis