In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit notable Milwaukee music that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
First of all, yes, we may be stretching the definition of “MKE” for this installment of MKE Music Rewind. But when it comes to 1960s duo The Fendermen—a group with strong ties to Stoughton and Madison, but also ties to Milwaukee—we’re happy to bend the rules. Behold the reverb-drenched weirdness of the group’s sole hit, “Mule Skinner Blues”:
Niagara native Jim Sundquist and Milwaukee-born Phil Humphrey formed The Fendermen in 1959. The two bonded over their love for Fender guitars (hence the name) and also the fact that they shared a birthday (November 26, 1937). A terrific piece for Wisconsin Life details The Fendermen’s early days and their sudden rise to one-hit-wonder fame:
Their first gig was at the legendary Oats Bin Tavern in Edgerton in 1959 in exchange for 5 dollars and all the beer they could drink. Their set was mostly country and rockabilly standards, but they couldn’t help but notice that folks went wild for their rather unhinged cover of the old Jimmie Rogers song “Mule Skinner Blues.”
Word of their frenetic rendition reached the owner of Sauk City’s CUCA record label, known primarily for polka. He saw them live at the Ideal Bar in Madison and enthusiastically agreed to record and press the tune. They tried selling the 45 on their own with little luck until a La Crosse DJ named Lindy Shannon became obsessed with the song and played it into their local top 10.
From there, it was picked up by the SOMA label out of Minneapolis, who released it nationally and sent it soaring into the Billboard Hot 100, where it reached #5 in June of 1960. By the end of the summer “Mule Skinner Blues” had sold well over a million copies.
“Mule Skinner Blues” has a fascinating history itself. As noted, it’s a Jimmie Rogers song that dates back to 1930. Originally titled “Blue Yodel #8,” the song has been covered by everyone from Bill Monroe and Harry Belafonte to Van Morrison and The Cramps. Dolly Parton released a version in 1970 and received her first solo Grammy nomination for her efforts. Vancouver punk band Sore Points performed the song in a 2018 episode of The X-Files. The delightfully random list goes on. (“The term ‘Mule Skinner,’ slang for muleteer, is a driver of mules, and has nothing to do with removing the animal’s hide,” Wikipedia helpfully informs.)
The Fendermen’s version of “Mule Skinner Blues” remains notable for its sparse arrangement, all that reverb, and Humphrey’s distinctive “yee-haw, yuk-yuk” lead vocal. The “cha cha cha” ending—unique to The Fendermen’s cover—was suggested by the group’s original producer, William Herbert Dreger. (Dreger was later replaced “due to a dispute amongst the group.”)
The success of “Mule Skinner Blues” led to The Fendermen—now joined by bassist Denny Dale and drummer Johnny Hauer—opening for Johnny Cash and Kitty Wells, and appearing at the Grand Old Opry and on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Their success was short-lived—Sundquist and Humphrey disbanded the group in 1961 and eventually parted ways (though both eventually relocated to Minnesota).
Sundquist died of cancer in 2013; Humphrey died of heart failure in 2016. Before that, however, the two reunited in a Green Bay music store in 2008, seeing each other for the first time in decades. They played “Mule Skinner Blues,” of course, and they absolutely killed it.
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