Wednesday, November 04, 2009

U. P. labels met local demand

Upper Peninsula-based independent record
labels, including Princeton, Peninsula, Spoke,
HerMi and Tevar, released 45 rpm singles during
the 1960s era.


Although they were minuscule compared to Capitol, Columbia or RCA, the Upper Peninsula sported a number of independent record labels labels in the 1960s.

The U. P. labels lacked the financing and national distribution of the majors, but they weren't promoting big names like the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley, either.

What the small labels did, however, was offer local acts an opportunity to get their songs recorded and manufactured.

Having a 45 rpm single with their name on it distinguished those bands from their "unrecorded" brethren who couldn't brag about having a record.

The labels bore such names as Princeton, Peninsula, Spoke, HerMi and Tevar.

In fact, the labels were founded to meet the demand from the many bands which surfaced during the musically-prolific decade.

The labels allowed regional bands to have product to sell at gigs, send to booking agents and give to radio stations.

Disc jockeys of the period had some latitude in determining play lists, so many did indeed play the seven-inch vinyl offerings of local bands.

The records were generally pressed in quantities of up to 1,000 copies, sometimes just a few hundred, making many titles quite hard to find today.

Based in Marquette, the Princeton label issued at least six singles, from such acts as the French Church, "Country" Tommy James, Renaissance Fair, Mike Koda and the Executives.

Marquette's French Church recorded the debut Princeton record, "Without Crying"/"Slapneck 1943."

Little is known about "Country" Tommy James, although he apparently worked as a one-man band, and was not the same artist who recorded "Hanky Panky."

Both Renaissance Fair and the Executives hailed from Sault Ste. Marie. Renaissance Fair taped original tunes for their two 45s, while the Executives recorded cover versions of "Cara Mia" and "My Special Angel."

Mike Koda, meanwhile, recorded a song called "Let's Hear a Word (For the Folks in the Cemetery)" and went on to form Brownsville Station, famous for "Smokin' in the Boys Room."

A discography of the label, owned by Fred L. Crook, is incomplete. But, based on the catalog number of known 45s, two or three additional discs may have appeared under the Princeton imprint.

Escanaba's Peninsula Records, meanwhile, issued 45 rpm singles by local bands the Riot Squad and Prophets of Doom.

Peninsula was owned by Leon Smiltneck, brother of promoter Gene Smiltneck, who founded Bands Unlimited to book bands in the upper Midwest.

Riot Squad was the first to have product appear on the label with their cover versions of "Come On, Let's Go" and "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey."

The Prophets of Doom, on the other hand, wanted to issue original songs on their 45, according to founding member Dave Watchorn, who played lead guitar and sang for the group.

In the year before Prophets of Doom got together Watchorn met Irene L. Davis, owner of Manistique's Spoke Records.

"I was with Dave Brooks in Manistique, 'bombin' the drag' when he remembered he had to make a stop to sign some papers. Irene had papers ready for him to apply for a copyright for one of his songs. I believe it was 'Baba Do Wah.' I asked him about her after we left and he said she was a music publisher."

Later, Watchorn told Gene Smiltneck the Prophets of Doom wanted to make a record using original songs. Smiltneck told them original songs would have to be copyrighted and a music publisher would have to be found.

"I think I blew Gene away when I told him we had two songs, one of which was copyrighted, another song almost ready, and the big one, that I knew a music publisher," Watchorn recalled.

Consequently, the Prophets of Doom recorded Watchorn's "I Told You" and Brooks' "Baba Do Wah."

Both tunes were published by "Five State Music," owned by Davis, and a New York-based music publisher, "Hankbee Music."

"Irene was a big help in getting my song copyrighted and published. There are a lot of legalities and contracts involved and she and Gene shared a lot of information," Watchorn remembered.

Davis, meanwhile, issued at least three 45s on her Spoke label, none of them by Upper Peninsula acts.

The label's first release was "Suddenly Just Like That"/"Walk the Waves," by a group called the Innocence. It's uncertain where the band originated, although it was certainly outside the U. P. A second 45, "Just as Much"/"Nicotine Fit" was recorded by a Chicago group named the Society.

A third Spoke 45, "You Can't Hardly Tell"/"So Little Time," was taped by Frank Perry, who may have been from Wisconsin.

On the other hand, the obscure HerMi label was attached to just one release by the Vigilantes, a Copper Country-based rock group.

The group recorded "Warm Wind" at radio station WHDF in Houghton in 1962, and moved to the Chicago area the following year.

Drummer and founding member Jay Mihelich, who now lives in Muskegon, told me he owned the imprint along with bandmate Don Hermanson, who played guitar for the Vigilantes.

The HerMi moniker was a combination of the first few letters of their last names, Mihelich explained.

The record's label credits the song to Vic Scerney, although Phil Geratano actually composed it, Mihelich said. Mihelich learned that from his La Grange, Ill. neighbor Jim Holvay, who wrote "Kind of a Drag" for the Buckinghams.

Jim Kirchstein, owner of Cuca Records in Sauk City, Wis., where many U. P. groups recorded, was supposed to publish the song, according to Mihelich. "But, I don't think it ever was," he added.

"We pressed 1,000 copies with Kay Bank Studios in Minneapolis, but there are probably less than 50 in existence as I ground up over 900 of them at our pressing plant in the early seventies," Mihelich revealed.

Menominee's Trevar label put out two 45s, both involving the local rock band Infinite Blue.

On the first disc, young folk singer Patti Whipp performed her songs "Walking"/"It's Gone," with Infinite Blue playing the instrumental backing.

In 1971, Infinite Blue released a 45 under their own name containing the songs "Black Train"/"Lies." The A side was composed by Dick Wagner of the rock group The Frost, while the flip was an original song.

The Trevar label was owned by Menominee brothers Jim and and Philip Ravet, who reversed the letters in their last name to identify their record label.

Actually, Princeton, Peninsula, Spoke, HerMi and Trevar were just some of the labels which have operated from the U. P.

Although acts which recorded for such labels may have hoped their singles would become nationally-charting hits, none did.

Those U. P. imprints, like hundreds of independent labels around the country, preserved local music from the 1960s era, then vanished.

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