Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Tongue band favored U. P.

Escanaba native Jim "Smiley" Lewis,
right, was rhythm guitarist in
The Tongue band in 1968.


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 live

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."

Photo gallery
Tongue with Jim Lewis


Unknown said...

I have a 45 by a band called Tongue: Hotel Arbutis b/w Harp Thing, on Tektra Records. "Bluesy hard-rock/psych" fits... same band?

Hugo M.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hugo,
Yes, the Hotel Arbutis was a hotel in Eagle River Wisconsin where some of the band's members "got crazy". The lyrics were written by Mickie Larsen and the music was written as a jam by the whole band.

Watch for a second CD release coming in the next year. we are currently negotiating with the record company that did the first release and we have plenty of previously unreleased material.

I travel to Wisconsin from my home in La Quinta, Ca in August and can be found playing 2nd lead with Rick Clark's blues band, "Deep Water Reunion". They recently released a CD called "No Name, Small Town Blues".

Paul Rabbitt - Tongue lead guitar/vocals

Mark V said...

Yep, Iremember you guys well,
as I was a reguler at "Humpin Hannahs" on Locust in Milwaukee
in the early 70's always wondered what happened, so did a search on this rainy Sat.
Hope all is well Mark V

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul, et. al.

Sorry to hear about Mick. Good times in E.R at the Modernaire with Hop Seymer. Good picture of the renunion, missed it, now live in Texas. Brother Tom says, HI. John Dunphy said...

Can't sleep. Just listened to30 tracks of Siegel-Schwall and immediately though; "I wonder what ever happened to the Tongue Band. Now I know. A little current goings on in the Eagle River area. Last weekend was Joe Bucher's annual Blues Festival. This year he had his band the Top Raiders, The Usual Suspects, and a ZZ Top tribute band called Eliminator. For those that don't know that after the summer of '72 the people of Eagle River decided that everyone "getting crazy"(Tequila shots)and loud "Hippies" had gone on long enough, they tore down the Arbutus Inn (Hotel)and built a bank?!? in it's place. The "Mod" or Modernaire became an Exotic Dancer Bar and was torched a couple years ago. I spent 30 years after that summer of '72 living just down the road from Aspen, Co. and now have moved back to Land O Lakes, Wi. since '01. But the many, many good times with the Tongue Band will last forever. "Big Otto"

Anonymous said...

I was raised in Milwaukee and I remember a band called the Tongue Band that played a gig at the "Alternate Site" along the lake front. They opened up with Muleskinner blues and they had Joey who later went on to play with Bad Boy. Great afternoon.