Wednesday, May 21, 2008

U.P. acts recorded in Wisconsin

U. P. band Lexington Project included, from left,
Bill Morrison, Jim Heric, John Heric and Jim Lewis.
They recorded a single at a Rhinelander, Wis. studio
in the 1960s.


As they attempted to establish recording careers in the 1960s, many Upper Peninsula rock bands shunned lower Michigan and instead patronized Wisconsin studios.

The most popular destination was Sauk City, near Madison, where the Cuca label was based, although other Wisconsin venues drew the Lexington Project and Kinetic Energy.

Founded by Jim Kirchstein in 1959, Cuca (pronounced COO-cah) enjoyed early success with the original recording of "Muleskinner Blues" by the Fendermen.

Just two years later, the studio attracted its first U. P. client, the Vigilantes. The group made the trip to southern Wisconsin from their Copper Country base to record their first 45 rpm single.

Inside the modest facility, the Vigilantes utilized Cuca's second-hand equipment, including an old Ampex tape recorder and an antique RCA microphone. But, the band also made use of Kirchstein's experience as a trained engineer to record "Ramblin' On" and "Someday (Someone Will Come to Me)." The tracks were issued as Cuca 1042 in August, 1961.

Next, Cuca was discovered by another popular northern Michigan combo, perennial favorites the Rhythm Rockers, who called Alston home. In December, 1962, they waxed a track titled "Bad News" and the instrumental "Twilight," both written by guitarist and saxophone player Dick Patana. To customize the project, the Rhythm Rockers arranged with Kirchstein to have the record pressed on their own "Copper" label.

Kirchstein's operation was building a growing reputation, both in the Badger State and neighboring U. P.

When Iron Mountain resident Joe Giannunzio was ready to cut several original songs with his group, Joey Gee and the Blue Tones, he too chose Cuca. Giannunzio told me the Wisconsin facility was suggested to him by John Christanovich, also known as Johnny Paladin, drummer for the Muleskinners, another Cuca act.

With Christanovich's recommendation, Giannunzio and his band headed south in May, 1964, to record "Don't You Just Know It" and "Little Searcher" for Cuca's Sara subsidiary.

Three months later, Jim Brogan, lead singer for the Vigilantes, returned to Sauk City to record another single as Jimmy B and the Rockatones. His original compositions, "Dream Girl" and "Everything I Do" were paired on Cuca 6481.

Four different northern Michigan bands made the trip to Cuca to record during 1967. The Henchmen VI, hailing from Ontonagon, taped two originals by vocalist Scott Heinski. "All of the Day" and "Is Love Real?" appeared in March as Cuca 6731.

Ishpeming musician Lane Dawson made good use of his Wisconsin stay in April by cutting four country-flavored tracks, which appeared on a pair of consecutively- issued 45s: "Black Mountain Rag"/Welcome to My World" and "I Stopped and Listened"/"Truckin'." His band, the Dawson Boys, included drummer Jim DeCaire, founder of Da Yoopers.

Meanwhile, Gary Alan Kerkes traveled 345 miles from the eastern U. P. community of Sault Ste. Marie to Sauk City in June to lay down "Girl Talk" and "Summer Winds." The 7-inch disc, Cuca 6761, was credited to Rob Kirk and the Word.

Negaunee's Fastells waited until August to make their Wisconsin excursion which resulted in the 45 rpm single, "So Much"/"Take You Away," issued on Cuca's Night Owl imprint. The songs were written by guitarist Mark Pyykkonen and keyboardist Robert Barabe, respectively.

Just why did these U. P. acts decide to cast their fate with a tiny independent studio hundreds of miles from home? "I think Cuca might have been the nearest studio that had much of a reputation," explained musicologist Gary E. Myers, who has written extensively on the Wisconsin music scene of the 1950s and 1960s.

Still, other Wisconsin recording facilities also worked with U. P. bands. Kingsford-based Lexington Project, which included Escanaba native Jim "Smiley" Lewis on drums, recorded their sole single at a recording studio in Rhinelander, owned by Mike Kuehl.

Kuehl told me he recorded Lexington Project in 1967 or 1968 and called the session "quite ground-breaking at the time for my studio."

The band brought along two original tunes. Lewis and bassist John Heric Jr. had written "It Looks a Lot Like Rain," while Heric and guitarist Bill Morrison penned "She Looks Much Older."

"I had only a two-track studio at the time I recorded Lexington Project, but I modified the recorder so we could record a 'left track,' sync and record the 'right track,' so I could divide the band. Then I mixed them down," Kuehl said.

Just 500 copies of the disc, Sonic 4626, were pressed through RCA, Kuehl said. Recalling the Lexington Project's label which featured black printing on a yellow background, Kuehl said Sonic was for his "psychedelic releases."

While recording took place all around Wisconsin in the 1960s, much of it was done in the metropolitan Milwaukee area, where rock band The Robbs ruled the scene for most of the decade. When Kinetic Energy, also known as the Kinetics, made their run at national fame in 1968, the Robbs took the popular U. P. group under their collective wing, recalled Frank Gallis, lead singer for the Houghton-based band.

Vocalist and songwriter Dee Robb suggested Kinetic Energy record a shorter "hard rock" version of the classic "Susie Q" at a Brew City studio, convinced the recording would beat CCR's version to the top of the charts. While Robb reached legendary status as a music producer and engineer, his forecast for a hit wasn't realized.

It appeared to end an era when many U. P. bands looked to Wisconsin to launch their recording careers.

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