A while back, I picked up a couple of extraordinary reference books: Do You Hear That Beat: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50s and 60s and On That Wisconsin Beat: More Pop/Rock/Soul/Country in the 50s and 60s by Gary E. Myers. The work Myers did to uncover the history of hundreds of obscure acts, some of whom never recorded or were active for only a matter of weeks or months many years earlier, defines the concept “labor of love.” Especially when you consider that the first volume, originally published in 1994, was researched in a time before e-mail.
A major section in both books is devoted to cataloging artists who recorded on the Cuca label, the fabled Wisconsin independent located just up the road from Madison in Sauk City, which existed from 1959 to 1973. Cuca’s most successful recordings were the 1960 hit “Mule Skinner Blues” by the Fendermen, which went to #5 on the Hot 100, and “Spring” by Birdlegs and Pauline, which we’ve mentioned here before. (Both were licensed to larger labels for national release.) But I am guessing there were mighty few Wisconsin record buyers in the 60s who didn’t own something on Cuca, given that the label recorded not just rock and pop but also jazz and old-time (polka) music. There’s a good history of Cuca here, so I’m not going to try to retell it. I’d rather single out some noteworthy acts who appeared on Cuca.
—I’d never heard of Dick Campbell before reading Myers’ book, but if you don’t count Tommy James, Campbell is probably the most successful rocker to come out of my home town. Inspired by the success of the Fendermen, the 1961 Monroe High School graduate rode his bicycle to Sauk City—about 50 miles—to see where they’d gotten their start. Eventually, Cuca owner Jim Kirchstein let Campbell use his studio to cut demos of his songs. After relocating to Massachusetts, and by a chain of events that’s not exactly clear to me, Campbell was signed to Mercury. Dick Campbell Sings Where It’s At was released in 1966. According to Myers, the album was recorded in Chicago and Campbell was backed by musicians including Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and then-still-unknown Peter Cetera. Both sides of its lead single, “The Blues Peddlers” and “The People Planners” wear their Bob Dylan inspiration (and aspiration) on their sleeves; in 2000, Scram magazine named Campbell #1 on its list of the Top 10 Next Dylans. After clubbing on the East Coast for a while in the late 60s, Campbell formed his own label and publishing company, and eventually got into video production. Late in life, he retired to Monroe, where he died in 2002.
—John Doremus had one of the most famous voices in radio. A post I wrote several years ago still attracts hits from fans looking for information about him. But before he became a radio DJ, commercial spokesman, and voice of American Airlines’ inflight programming, he was a singer who performed under the name Johnny Do Ray. The Internet knows practically nothing about this. Three different videos featuring his 1959 single “Judgment,” released on the Chicago label Profile, are available at YouTube; one of them features a note from Gary Myers himself that Do Ray is actually John Doremus. Apart from that, the sketchy biographies of Doremus available online, and even his Chicago Tribune obituary, don’t mention his singing days. Myers’ book shows Do Ray’s only Cuca release as “What Is a Boy,” released in 1966, which is almost certainly not when it was recorded. Exactly when it was recorded, and exactly how a guy from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, came to have a record released by a label in Sauk City, Wisconsin, is unclear.
—John Rustad and Paul Wierman were DJs in Rockford, Illinois. (A number of upper Midwest DJs figure prominently in the Cuca story, and in Myers’ broader history of Wisconsin performers.) During the heyday of the break-in record, they made one called “Meanwhile Back at the Pad,” as newsmen covering a rocket launch. The cuts used for the break-ins are mostly obscure, the record goes on way too long, and it isn’t very funny, but Wierman told Myers it got some airplay on the East Coast. He also said that Cuca was unable to provide enough copies to respond to the demand for it.
There’s lots more in Myers’ books that worth blogging about, so stay tuned for future installments.