Among the top 10 bands and artists from Wisconsin, the names of some of the biggest stars that may come to mind first would be Liberace, Les Paul, and Steve Miller. However, the Badger State has had more than its fair share of notable recording artists who made an impact on the music industry that has most of the different genres covered. The earliest settlers to call Wisconsin their home were Germans who brought galops, polkas, galops, schottisches, and waltzes as musical influences that would become popular across the United States of America.
During the 1840s, Milwaukee’s population of German immigrants became known as Deutsche Athen, otherwise called German Athens. One of the earliest groups formed in the city was the Milwaukee Music Society as it celebrated German’s musical culture. It was from this group some of the greatest classical musicians America had to offer came from the Badger State such as Hans Balatka, Hugo Kaun, Eugene Luening, and Theodore Steinmetz. Joining the Germans to further populate Wisconsin were the Swiss and it would be through these people that polka music rose up to become a key influencer to the state’s musical culture. Today, Wisconsin’s bustling music scene continues to flourish as a hub of activity for aspiring and established musicians who recognize this state for its wonderful blend of cultural and musical influences.
10 Great Bands And Musical Artists from Wisconsin
#10 – BoDeans
Before the BoDeans got its start as a rock band, Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann met as high school students in 1977 at Waukesha South High School. Upon realizing the two shared similar musical interests, they began to write songs together. After high school, Llanas went to college before he was lured by Neumann to chase the dream of pursuing a career in the music industry with him. At the time, both men knew if they intended to get anywhere as musical artists they needed to focus. As guitarists, the two formed Da BoDeans in 1980.
By 1983, the group became a four-man band with a hired drummer and bass player as they mostly performed around Milwaukee’s East Side. The men practiced in a friend’s garage who would later become the band’s manager. Mark McCraw helped the group develop and was its financial backer before it was able to achieve its big breakthrough in 1986 with the critically acclaimed debut album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams. With Llanas and Neumann in the BoDeans lineup at the time was Guy Hoffman as its drummer and Bob Griffin on bass.
While with Slash/Warner Records, The BoDeans encountered a disagreement with one of the label’s producers, Mike Campbell, while the band was in Los Angeles, California. He wanted the group to follow the pattern of a 1960s-era Tom Petty but the BoDeans lineup wanted to stick with a trending formula that was already working for them. Because of this, 1987 was a year that had BoDeans shelved at first before the bandmates were offered an opportunity to return to Wisconsin and record its second album however the crew saw fit. That offer came from fellow Wisconsinian Jerry Harrison. He became the group’s producer for the 1987 recording and release of Outside Looking In, an album that allowed the BoDeans to step away from the rootsy rock sounds that came from its debut album. “Only Love” was the big hit from that album as it peaked as high as number sixteen on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart. However, the BoDeans felt there was still room to grow and this was found in the 1989 release of Home. Although it still had the influence of roots rock, it also drew in musical sounds from arena rock, heartland rock, and Motown.
It wouldn’t be until 1991 that the BoDeans would achieve its ultimate goal of using state-of-the-art technology to produce the kind of rock album it wanted all along. 1991’s Black and White produced “Good Things,” a song that became a fan favorite despite the fact it wasn’t officially released as a single. This was followed by 1993’s Go Slow Down produced what became the biggest hit for the BoDeans, “Closer to Free.” This cult favorite became the theme song for the popular television series, Party of Five, in 1994. Unlike the synth-heavy Black and White album, Go Slow Down leaned further on an acoustic sound and it was a step the BoDeans took into the realm of alternative rock. On the US Billboard Hot 100, “Closer to Free” became a number sixteen hit in 1996. This was the same year that Blend was released as the BoDeans’ sixth studio album. It would be this time the group would find themselves in a legal battle against Mark McCraw that would ultimately lead to a judge favoring the BoDeans’ side of the argument.
The current lineup of the BoDeans no longer has Sam Llanas, Guy Hoffman, or Bob Griffin in it but founder Kurt Neumann continues to rock on. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, a permanent display of the classic BoDeans is found there. The band’s discography so far features fifteen studio albums to its credit, along with four live albums, two compilation albums, and eight charted singles. In addition to an impressive recording career with the BoDeans, Neumann also produced a solo album, Shy Dog. Released in 2000, all the instruments played on its tracklist were performed by Neumann himself.
As for Llanas, he recorded and released 1998’s A Good Day to Die as a side project with Absinthe, a group he founded while the BoDeans took a break from each other as a lineup. This was followed by 2011’s 4 A.M. (The Way Home) as a solo project after Llanas permanently left the BoDeans as the relations between himself and Neumann had soured. In 2013, it was Four / Five Live – Volume I, then in 2014, The Whole Night Thru. The most recent recording from Llanas was 2018’s Return of the Goya – Part 1. With personal and professional relations strained between Llanas and Neumann, it is unlikely the two will reunite as the BoDeans but at least the legacy of the music they created continues to live on.
#9 – Violent Femmes
The Violent Femmes from Milwaukee became a cult favorite not long after it was officially founded as a folk punk band in 1981. It all started with Victor DeLorenzo and Brian Ritchie before Gordon Gano joined in as the group’s lead vocalist. The name of the band was created by Ritchie after one of his bandmates questioned him over an issue regarding his brother. It was a name DeLorenzo also liked so it was used for their rhythm duo before Gano joined the lineup.
In the beginning, the Violent Femmes played in coffee houses and street corners before the band was discovered by James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders. The corner Ritchie and his group performed at was in front of a venue where the Pretenders were scheduled to perform later in the evening. On August 23, 1981, Violent Femmes was invited by Chrissie Hynde to play a short acoustic set after the opening act. Two years after this, Violent Femmes made its recording debut as a studio album. Since then, there have been nine more, along with nineteen singles. However, Violent Femmes remains on top as the most popular as it sold enough copies to become certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
The influence of the Violent Femmes as punk rockers included hits and fan favorites such as “Add It Up,” “American Music,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Breakin’ Up,” Gone Daddy Gone,” “Kiss Off” and “Nightmares.” After making its recording debut in 1983, the Violent Femmes was followed by the 1984 release of Hallowed Ground. The influence of Christian and country music was incorporated into its tracklist. This was followed by the 1986 release of The Blind Leading the Naked. After this, the group split up in 1987 when Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie opted to pursue solo careers. However, the Violent Femmes picked up where it left off with the recording and release of 1989’s 3.
In 1991, Why Do Birds Sing? was an album that produced another fan favorite, “American Music.” Two years after this, DeLorenzo decided he had enough and was replaced by Guy Hoffman as the band’s new drummer. This lasted until 2002 when DeLorenzo decided he was ready to come back. 1994’s New Times, 1995’s Rock!!!!!, and 2000’s Freak Magnet featured Hoffman as a member of the Violent Femmes before DeLorenzo returned. After this, the dawn of the twenty-first century witnessed a collection of compilation albums and standalone songs before the band officially broke up in 2009.
In 2013, the Violent Femmes reunited but DeLorenzo was out of the lineup again. Since then, the group has produced two more studio albums. We Can Do Anything was released in 2016 and was followed by Hotel Last Resort in 2019. With a total of ten studio albums to its credit, the Violent Femmes also has five live albums and four compilation albums. While Hoffman was in the lineup, the Violent Femmes rose up again as one of the most popular acts as it made its comeback with New Times and its biggest hit, “Breakin’ Up.”
That peaked as high as number twelve on the US Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart as the group’s last big hit. However, he Violent Femmes continues to rock on as the group has lovingly returned to its East Side Milwaukee roots, along with the Horns of Dilemma. This horn section was employed by the Violent Femmes whenever the group performed before a live audience. While at the peak of its career, Steve MacKay and Sigmund Snopek were part of the core lineup. Today, saxophonist Blaise Garza leads the lineup as he and mostly Wisconsin-based musicians rock with Violent Femmes each time they put on a show.
#8 – Bon Iver
The founder of Bon Iver, Justin Vernon grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and founded his first band in 1997 called Mount Vernon. This came about while he was still in high school and met with a group of students at a jazz camp. After he graduated in 1999, Vernon attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and majored in religious studies. This led to spending a semester in Ireland. In 2001 he recorded and released his first solo album, Home Is. He’d later release two albums, Self Record in 2005 and Hazeltons in 2006. While in college, he founded a band, DeYarmond Edison, in 2001 and the lineup by 2002 featured himself as well as Brad and Phil Cook. There was also Christopher Porterfield and Joe Westerlund. Together, these men moved to Raleigh, North Carolina to see how far they could get as a band there. This led to the recording and release of an album, Silent Signs in 2005 and an EP that was made available on the group’s Myspace page.
The experience Vernon had in North Carolina wasn’t as great as hoped. In 2006, the frustrated singer-songwriter left the band and broke up with a girlfriend he had there. At the same time, he had to contend with mononucleosis hepatitis, and a liver infection which played a factor in his decision to return to Wisconsin. He moved into his father’s cabin in Dunn City and it would be during the winter season while there he came up with Bon Iver as a name. While he was busy recovering from his condition, he began watching the television series Northern Exposure on DVD. He learned of the French phrase “bon hiver” as part of a greeting from one of the show’s episodes. In English, it translates to “good winter.” As a name, Bon Iver would become a musical project he put together in 2006.
In 2007, Bon Iver made its debut with For Emma, Forever Ago. Justin Vernon used his time while in isolation as a means to recover from his medical ailments. It was also an opportunity to do a bit of soul-searching that unintentionally led to a tracklist of songs about lost love and other personal issues. There was no intent to write and record music but this changed after he received encouragement from people closest to him. The success of For Emma, Forever Ago became a breakthrough success for Bon Iver as the album became certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. It also became platinum in Australia, Switzerland, and the UK.
The standout hit was “Skinny Love,” which became double platinum with the RIAA. As Bon Iver, Vernon had a group of musicians he performed with while on tour. This was followed in 2009 with an EP, Blood Bank. This led to Justin Vernon collaborating with Kanye West in 2010 for “Lost in the World.” This song featured Bon Iver’s “Woods” from the EP. West also sang “Monster” and Dark Fantasy” on West’s album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Because of this exposure with West as a recording artist, Justin Vernon and his Bon Iver grew in popularity.
2011’s Bon Iver was an album release Justin Vernon produced with Bon Iver as a band that featured Colin Stetson as bass saxophonist and Greg Leisz as guitarist. The musical direction of this recording was considerably different than its predecessor. Vernon wanted Bon Iver’s sound to be more diverse with different voices and musical performances. The recording session took place in an old Eau Claire-based veterinarian clinic Vernon and his brother purchased in 2008 and converted into April Base Studios. As bold of a move as it was, Bon Iver’s eponymous album earned a 2012 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. Its standout hit was “Holocene,” another certified platinum single that earned two Grammy Award nominations, namely for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. This album also became certified platinum with the RIAA, as well as in Australia. It was certified gold in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and the UK.
After taking a two-year break, Bon Iver continued to record and release new music. Leading up to and including the 2016 release of 22, A Million critics and fans witnessed a recording that was regarded as a step into a strange musical realm of uncertainty. This was followed by 2019’s I, I and a more polished version of a Bon Iver fan favorite, “Hey, Ma.” The album and its tracklist were accompanied by a documentary, Bon Iver; Autumn. In 2020, I,I was nominated for Album of the Year by the Grammy Awards but lost to Billie Elish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Overall, Bon Iver has four studio albums to its credit, as well as an EP, eight singles, and four music videos. As popular as Justin Vernon and Bon Iver have become, the founder still calls Wisconsin his home.
#7 – Bobby Hatfield
Bobby Hatfield was born on August 10, 1940, in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. However, he and his family moved to Anaheim, California, when he was four years old. It was here he grew up as a student who excelled in sports but found his true passion was in music. While still in high school, he pursued a singing career that would lead him to meet his singing partner, Bill Medley. The two met while attending California State University, Long Beach. In 1962, Hatfield and Medley joined a group called the Paramours before moving on as a duo act known as The Righteous Brothers. This was a name that came about after the two performed before an audience of African-American marines who called them Righteous Brothers as they were impressed with their soulful-like singing. “Little Latin Lupe Lu” was a 1962 released single that essentially launched the career of The Righteous Brothers as it became a chart hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 at number forty-nine. At the time, Hatfield and Medley were signed to Moonglow Records and were regulars on Shindig!, a television show that ran from 1964 until 1968.
It was in 1964 that The Righteous Brothers met Phil Spector at a show near San Francisco called Cow Palace. Spector was impressed by Hatfield and Medley enough to sign them up to his label, Philles Records. The duo would have its first number-one hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” This was followed by “Unchained Melody,” a single that was credited to the Righteous Brothers but it was technically a solo performance by Hatfield. This was the same cult classic that was featured in the 1990 blockbuster hit, Ghost. The success of these two singles prompted Spector to urge The Righteous Brothers to record standard favorites such as “Ebb Tide.” While still with Spector’s label, “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “For Sentimental Reasons” were singles credited to The Righteous Brothers but again were actually Hatfield solos.
In 1966, Hatfield and Medley left Phillies Records and began to record with Verve/MGM Records. As The Righteous Brothers the duo released another big hit, “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.” In 1968, Hatley and Medley went their separate ways but the Righteous Brothers continued with Hatfield and a new singing partner, Jimmy Walker. When this version of The Righteous Brothers failed to share the same success as Hatfield had with Medley, this led to Hatfield moving forward as a solo act. “Only You” became his only charted hit as it squeaked into the US Billboard Hot 100 at number ninety-five. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that Hatfield and Medley reunited as the Righteous Brothers and produced another hit single, “Rock and Roll Heaven.”
In 2003, Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as The Righteous Brothers. This was the same year Hatfield’s body was discovered by road manager Dusty Hanvey. It was perceived he died in his sleep hours before he was scheduled to appear with Bill Medley for a Righteous Brothers concert. According to the autopsy, Hatfield had a significant amount of blockage in the coronary arteries, otherwise known as advanced coronary disease.
#6 -Woody Herman
Woody Herman was born in Milwaukee on May 16, 1913, to a father who had a passion for show business. This played a key role in the young man’s upbringing as he learned how to sing, dance, and play the clarinet and saxophone by the time he was twelve years old. In 1936, he married an aspiring actress named Charlotte Nestle after courting her for about five years. Shortly after this, he teamed up with the Tom Gerun Band and had his first vocal recording, “Lonesome Me.” He also performed with other orchestras including working with Arnheim and Isham Jones. Jones had grown weary as a band leader and songwriter so this left an opening for Herman to take over as band leader. As soon as Jones retired altogether, Herman herded together his own orchestra. His first band specialized in the blues and was often classified as The Band That Plays The Blues. This group first served as a cover band for Decca Records before recording its first song, “Wintertime Dreams” in November 1936. It was noted by critics and the press that Herman and his crew were destined for greater things as a musical act.
In 1939, while still with Decca, Herman and his band produced their first hit, “Woodchopper’s Ball.” At first, the song was slow to make an impression but it was continually released as a single by Decca that would eventually catch on as a hit and sell over five million copies. Now considered a jazz standard, “Woodchopper’s Ball” later achieved a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2002. Another signature hit Herman experienced took place in 1942 after covering Harold Arlen’s classic, “Blues in the Night.” It topped what is now known as the US Billboard Hot 100. Additional hits to Herman’s credit include “Blue Flame,” “Do Nothin’ Till Your Hear from Me,” and “The Golden Wedding.” While at the peak of his career, Herman was recognized as a musical genius who often experimented with different musical sounds that were deemed trendy and cutting-edge at the time. An example of this was his collaboration with a trumpeter named Dizzy Gillespie. “Down Under,” “Swing Shift,” and “Woody’n You” were three musical arrangements Gillespie presented to Herman in 1942. The first two were used in 1942 while “Woody’n You” was produced in 1944.
Starting in 1945, Woody Herman teamed up with Columbia Records as he found the label’s Liederkranz Hall had the best recording facility in New York City at the time. It was there he produced “Laura,” the theme song that came from the 1944 movie. Herman’s cover performance was so impressive that Columbia held back an arrangement Harry James had for the song that was recorded a few days beforehand. In the meantime, Herman’s orchestra underwent a few changes that would lead to what was called the First Herd. This group’s niche was progressive jazz as it drew in the influence of the greats such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It led to musical arrangements that were rich with be-bob and swing rhythms that were performed by the team of Sonny Berman, Ralph Burns, Pete Candoli, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, and Davey Tough. Billy Bauer was also part of the lineup but was replaced by Chuck Wayne. It was this group of men, plus Woody Herman, who recorded “Caldonia” in New York in February 1945. The highlight of this song came from the trumpet performance near the song’s end. At first, Dizzy Gillespie was credited for the impressive solo but it was Neal Hefti’s musical vision that made it happen.
In 1946, Herman and his band earned a series of poll-related awards for best band as they were recognized by their peers as a talent pool that dominated the music industry at the time. Despite the success, Herman was forced to disband his orchestra that same year. He left to spend more time with his wife and family as they moved into a home in Hollywood that previously belonged to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was suspected Herman’s personal and professional decisions stemmed from the increased dependency his wife had on alcohol and subscription drugs. However, 1946 also witnessed several big bands dissolve as it also marked the end of a musical era. Although Herman would continue piecing together new Herd-like lineups throughout the span of his musical career, the classic lineup of the First Herd was the only one that proved to be commercially successful. The Second Herd was dubbed The Four Brothers Band and it was noted for 1947’s “Four Brothers.” As band leader, Herman continued to front different versions of The Herd as their musical sounds continued to shift according to the trends of the times. Despite dabbling in various genres, Herman’s first love had always been jazz.
Woody Herman’s track record as a band leader and performer featured pooling together the best young musicians who started with his orchestra before moving on to enjoy impressive musical careers of their own. As Herman’s health declined during the 1980s, the leadership of the Woody Herman Orchestra was transferred to Frank Tiberi before passing away on October 29, 1987. The legacy of Herman’s music continues to this day as one of the most beloved jazz legends of all time.
#5 – Jerry Harrison
Jeremiah Harrison was born in Milwaukee on February 21, 1949, and raised in a household that was heavily influenced by the arts. His mother taught at the Art Institute of Chicago while his father was a musician who also worked at an advertising firm. By the time Jerry Harrison graduated from high school, he was already experienced as a musician by the time he attended Harvard University. While he was there, shortly before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1972, Harrison’s career in the music industry officially began. In 1971, he teamed with Jonathan Richman to form Modern Lovers. Their mutual appreciation for Velvet Underground led to the duo recording The Modern Lovers as its debut album in California. However, this album wouldn’t be released until 1976, two years after Harrison returned to Harvard to obtain his Master’s degree in architecture. It was a move he made after Richman expressed his interest in serving as a songwriter more discreetly.
In 1977, Harrison officially joined his next band, the Talking Heads, as its keyboardist. That year witnessed the release of its debut single, “Love Building on Fire.” In 1979, Harrison put his artistic talents to good use when he designed the cover of the group’s third studio album, Fear of Music. After it was released in 1979, the Talking Heads earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording Package. In addition to working with the Talking Heads, Harrison produced records for a group called the New Escalators and a soul singer named Nona Hendryx. When Talking Heads released its fourth album, Remain In Light, in 1980, there was a dispute over the songwriting credits over two of its songs, “Houses in Motion” and “The Overload.” These were collaborative efforts between David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Jerry Harrison as Byrne at the time experienced writer’s block. In addition to these songs, Harrison also co-wrote “Once in a Lifetime,” a hit single that became one of the Talking Heads’ signature songs. In 2016, it was listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
Starting in 1981, Jerry Harrison made his debut as a recording artist with The Red and the Black. It was revealed in an interview Harrison’s inspiration for the album took shape after he welcomed a group known as the Situationists. This was a group that stayed in Harrison’s room as they joined the protesters at Harvard against the Vietnam War while he was a student there. There was a pamphlet at the time that was titled “The Red and the Black” and it was something that stuck with Harrison. In 1984, Harrison overheard a Ronald Reagan jokingly quote on the radio about outlawing and bombing Russians. It was enough to write a song about it, using a taped version of it in the song, “Five Minutes.” Credited to Bonzo Goes to Washington, this wound up becoming a number thirty-six hit on the US Billboard Hot Dance chart after it was released as a single.
The second album Harrison produced as a solo artist was 1988’s Casual Gods. One of its songs, “Man with a Gun” was featured in the 1988 flick, Two Moon Junction. Released as a single, “Rev It Up” became a number-seven hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Chart that same year. In 1990, Harrison recorded his third and final solo album, Walk on Water. In addition to working as a solo artist, Harrison continued performing with Talking Heads until the group broke up in 1991. After this, Harrison focused on a career as a producer and worked with several recording artists, including fellow Wisconsians, Violent Femmes, and The BoDeans. In addition to an impressive career as a singer, songwriter, and musician, Jerry Harrison has appeared before the camera as an actor and in cameos. These include 1984’s Stop Making Sense, 1986’s True Stories, and 2006’s The Darwin Awards.
#4 – Liberace
One of the most influential musicians of all time was Liberace. He was worn as Wladziu Valentino Liberace on May 16, 1919, in West Allis, Wisconsin. His father was an immigrant from Italy while his mother was born and raised in Menasha, Wisconsin. Liberace had an identical twin brother but he died at birth so it was just him, his parents, and three siblings. The influence of the musical and visual arts in the household came from a father who played in bands and cinema productions as a horn player whenever he wasn’t working as a laborer.
Referred to as Walter by his family, Liberace started to learn how to play the piano when he was four years old. His older brother, George, later became a violinist and television celebrity. These two, as well as their fellow siblings, Angelina and Rudolph, had a father who behaved like a demanding music director when it came to raising his children. In the process, Liberace learned from his mentor, Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The young lad met the Polish pianist when he was eight years old after a concert in Milwaukee. The backstage meet triggered Liberace’s spark to follow in the footsteps of a man who also became a close friend to the Liberace family.
While growing up, Liberace’s speech impediment issues and personal preferences often became the subject of ridicule by neighboring children who couldn’t understand why he’d prefer cooking and piano instead of sports. All this did was give Liberace cause to dive even deeper into his musical interests which would lead to an impressive career as a world-class performer. The popularity of the man continued to grow after he played jazz piano in 1934, first with a school band known as The Mixers, and then later with other musical groups. He also performed in adult-oriented venues and cabarets, which became an important source of income for his family, even though his parents didn’t care for the places he was performing in. In addition to playing the piano, Liberace took an interest in the visual arts, especially design, draftsmanship, and painting. He also became fashionably conscious with a style that would become just as famous as his music.
When Liberace’s popularity won him a solid fan base, he continued to be ridiculed by members of the population due to his flamboyancy. Instead of letting the scoffers get to him, Liberace used it as fuel to increase his popularity even further. This, combined with a musical talent that was undeniable, Liberace’s career included an encore performance of “Three Little Fishies” after performing a classical concert in 1939. When he was just twenty years old, he played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when it performed at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Two years later, Liberace steered away from performing traditional classical piano in favor of musical acts that fused pop into his style of play. Over time, Liberace abandoned playing classical music in favor of putting on the best show possible as a whimsical entertainer. Instead of playing a Chopin classic such as “Home on the Range” as a carbon copy of its original, Liberace performed a remixed version. He also interacted with the audience and at one time used a phonograph while he performed piano on the stage. These all played key roles in the man’s development as one of the premier musical acts throughout the span of his professional music career.
Liberace’s innovative approach as a performer led him to appear in Soundies, a popular trend in the entertainment industry that would eventually pave the way for music videos. “Tiger Rag” and “Twelfth Street Rag” were two standards that would later become merged as a home movie production by Castle Films. In 1944, Liberace made his first appearance in Las Vegas, Nevada, the very city that would eventually become his primary location as a performer and resident. Recognized mainly as Liberace, the man was at his best whenever playing in clubs. By 1945, he added the candelabrum as part of his signature trademark. However, he didn’t stop there as he invested in custom-designed pianos that were as lavishly decorated as the man’s wardrobe.
Aside from Las Vegas, Liberace also resided in Los Angeles, California. In public and in private, he held concerts that would have his performance level adjust according to what kind of crowd he had before him. The star quality of Liberace allowed him to become as extravagant as his heart desired, making it easy to stand out as an “it” act for locals and tourists to flock to his shows. At one point, tourists visiting Las Vegas without taking in a Liberace show were simply unheard of. 1954’s “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes was the number-one hit single from the group who recognized Liberace as a sex symbol. As popular as he was among millions of fans worldwide, Liberace still found himself on the receiving end of jokes by comedians and amused members of the public. He was also heavily criticized by certain music critics who felt Liberace’s performances were disrespectful to the original composers behind some of the songs he played on the piano. Liberace’s response to the criticism came with a reality check that he puts on shows designed to entertain and interact with the audience. He wasn’t interested in performing concerts where he would disappear backstage as soon as it was over. Liberace was genuinely interested in treating the audience with a level of respect he felt they deserved.
As outlandish as Liberace appeared in public, his personal views were strictly conservative. However, his flamboyancy often put into question who he was as a person and what kind of lifestyle preferences he really had. Regardless of what the media and the general public had to say about him, there was no denying Liberace’s showmanship turned him into an iconic public figure. He earned two Emmy Awards, six gold albums, and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As of 2016, the Liberace Garage in Las Vegas has his collection of costumes, vehicles, and a piano on display. This came about after the Liberace Museum and Tivoli Gardens Restaurant closed its doors after catering to the public for thirty-one years. After Liberace passed away in 1987, the Liberace Foundation dedicated itself to ensuring the man’s legacy lives on as it seems to be in agreement with one of his signature songs, “Too Much of a Good Thing is Wonderful.”
#3 – Garbage
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Garbage began to rock the world with its brand of music in 1993, thanks to its founders, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig. Marker and Vig were the founders of Smart Studio in Madison and their production, as well as Erikson’s, work would eventually lead to the formation of a band that got its name after their music was criticized by a listener who didn’t care for their performance. After calling it “garbage,” it spawned the name of the band that would become a global superstar after making its album debut in 1995. At the time, Vig was the vocalist but it was agreed among the bandmates a woman should take on the role. The search was on to find that perfect lady who could lead the three men to stardom. After watching “Suffocate Me” as a music video produced by Angelfish, the trio made arrangements to recruit the group’s Shirley Manson. At the time, Manson didn’t know who Butch Vig was until she learned he was the producer behind Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind.
When Manson auditioned before Erikson, Marker, and Vig for the first time in 1994, it didn’t go well. However, there was a social connection that had all four musicians realize they shared similar tastes in music. After Angelfish disbanded that year, Manson contacted the men’s manager in an effort to audition again. The second time around was the charm as the awkwardness from the first session performance was no longer there. Despite her experience as a singer for a band, Manson had none as a session player and had yet to learn how to write songs. When Garbage made its debut, Vig and his bandmates intentionally adopted a pop sound as the rock and roll genre was saturated with the influence of grunge at the time. After Garbage secured recording contracts, “Vow” was the first single that would be released, despite the fact there was no intention to record it for the group’s debut album nor produce it as a single. On the US Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart, it peaked as high as number twenty-six during the summer of 1995. It also squeaked into the US Billboard Hot 100 at number ninety-seven.
Garbage’s self-titled debut album was released on August 15, 1995, and this marked the beginning of international stardom for the Wisconsin-based group. “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Stupid Girl” became the album’s two prized singles that became big hits for the band worldwide. The group earned three Grammy Award nominations, namely for Best New Artist, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group. “Stupid Girl” became one of Garbage’s signature songs, as did the remixed version of “#1 Crush.” This was featured in the 1997 soundtrack for Romeo + Juliet. On the US Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart, “#1 Crush” became a number one hit. Garbage sold over four million copies worldwide. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, it was certified double platinum. In Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, the album was certified gold.
Version 2.0 was recorded as Garbage’s second studio album. It was the second of four recordings that took place in Smart Studios and it was an important one as the bandmates knew their debut album would be a tough act to follow. Its first single, “Push It” became another top ten hit for the band and its music video earned a series of nominations with MTV and its affiliates. So was the album’s second hit single, “Special.” Version 2.0 earned two Grammy Award nominations, namely for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album. Much like its predecessor, it earned several gold and platinum certifications as it also sold over four million copies worldwide. After this, Garbage performed and co-produced “The World Is Not Enough,” the theme song to the 1999 release of the nineteenth James Bond movie.
After taking a brief break, Garbage teamed up again in 2001 to produce its third studio album, Beautiful Garbage. This met with contractual issues that had Garbage move to Interscope as its new label before releasing “Androgyny” as the album’s first single. As fate had it, the promotional tour schedule Garbage had in mind to promote its latest album was put on hold after the world had to contend with the shock of the September 11 attacks. The album was released three weeks after the attacks and didn’t quite get the same amount of support as its two predecessors. Despite this, the album debuted at number thirteen on the US Billboard 200 and it sold well overseas.
In Australia, it was certified platinum twice and it became gold in Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK. The album was critically acclaimed but didn’t quite sell as well as the first two. When it came to the 2005 release of Garbage’s fourth album, Bleed Like Me, there were production issues again, as well as a tour that was cut short before the bandmates decided they needed to take a break. Garbage has since reunited, off and on, with additional recordings and tours since 2007. Overall, it has seven studio albums to its credit, along with three compilation albums, three video albums, an EP, and thirty-seven singles. Altogether, over seventeen million albums have been sold and the original lineup still continues to rock the audience with classic favorites and new material.
#2 – Les Paul
Les Paul was among the pioneers of the electric guitar and earned the distinct title of “Wizard of Waukesha” by his fans and peers. He earned this title as his technological tinkering with the electric guitar enabled him to create the Gibson Les Paul and the Gibson SG guitars. In the genres of blues, country, and jazz music, Les Paul often collaborated with his wife, Mary Ford, along with other greats such as Jim Atkins, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and the Andrews Sisters. With his wife, Les Paul recorded a version of “How High the Moon” in 1951. This husband and wife duo recorded several records together and sold millions of copies as one of the most popular acts while at the height of their musical careers.
Before the world knew him as Les Paul, he was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha on June 9, 1915. His family heritage included his mother’s relation to one of the founders of Milwaukee’s Valentin Blatz Brewing Company, as well as the makers of the Stutz automobiles. After his parents divorced while he was still a child, he and his younger brother had their names simplified by their mother. It was changed from Polfuss to Polfus. While growing up, he learned how to play a variety of musical instruments. First, it was the harmonica, then the piano, then the banjo and guitar. It would be during this time he invented a special harmonica holder that would be secured around his neck. This allowed him to play both sides of the instrument without needing his hands to do it. This invention helped him play either the banjo or the guitar while he was blowing into the harmonica. This became a patented design that’s still manufactured today.
As a teenager, Les Paul was performing as a country music singer. He still played the guitar and harmonica as his skills enabled him to perform at the drive-ins and roadhouses in the Waukesha area. This led to a professional career as a musician as he began to experiment with new musical sounds. This included wiring a phonograph needle to his guitar that was connected to a radio speaker. This made his acoustic guitar become more audible as he played it. This became the first example of an electric guitar that would later become another genius invention by a young man who was still a teenager. Instead of finishing high school, Paul dropped out so he could pursue music full-time after teaming up with Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri. After this, Paul and Wolverton moved to Chicago in 1934 as the two continued to perform country music. While in the Windy City, Paul learned and fell in love with jazz music. In 1936, he released two records in 1936 with the pseudonym, Rhubarb Red. This was the identity he used as a country musician at the time. Along the way, Les Paul was adopted as another stage name that would stick with him for the remainder of his career.
In 1937, Paul teamed with Jim Atkins, a rhythm guitarist who was the half-brother to the infamous Chet Atkins. These two, along with Ernie “Darius” Newton, formed a trio act and moved to New York City in 1938 as they landed a spot on a radio show hosted by Fred Waring. In addition to performing music, Paul continued to tinker with guitars that would lead to the 1940 creation of an electric guitar he called “The Log.” Its design became one of the first solid-body rock guitars that would later be regarded by Chet Atkins as the first professional musical instrument he ever owned. In 1941, Paul hoped to sell his idea of the electric guitar to the Gibson Guitar Corporation. It wasn’t interested until Fender began to market its Esquire and Broadcaster guitars in 1950.
Also in 1941, Paul was electrocuted while jamming in his apartment basement. It took two years to recover so in the meantime, he moved back to Chicago and became the music director for two of its radio stations, WJJD and WIND. After moving to Hollywood, California in 1943, Paul was drafted by the U.S. Army. While he served, he was in the Armed Forces Radio Network and had the good fortune to perform with other greats such as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Paul later worked with both stars in future projects as he continued to flourish as one of the brightest stars in the music industry. Another key influencer who played a role in Paul’s development as a musician was Django Reinhardt. The two became close friends so when Reinhardt passed away in 1953, Paul partially covered the funeral costs. He was also given Reinhardt’s Selmer acoustic guitar by his widow. This became one of Paul’s most prized possessions. In 1944, when Les Paul filled in as a last-minute replacement to perform with Nat King Cole, his performance of “Body and Soul” demonstrated how much he admired Reinhardt.
In January 1948, Les Paul and Mary Ford were returning to Los Angeles after visiting family in Wisconsin when their automobile encountered icy road conditions and experienced a horrific accident that nearly claimed their lives. Paul sustained multiple injuries, including to his right arm and elbow. It was a long road to recovery against impossible odds but Les Paul endured. He also learned how to continue playing the guitar with new ideas on how to handle the instrument as his love for the instrument was too great. The influence Les Paul had on the Gibson guitars continued into the 1960s but after his marriage to Mary Ford was heading for divorce, his closed association with Gibson came to an end. 1965 marked the year Les Paul went into semi-retirement. He continued to record from time to time and in 2008 Paul received a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters Award. On August 12, 2009, he passed away but the legacy of the man’s contribution as a musician and inventor continues to live on.
#1 – Steve Miller
Among the top recording artists coming from Wisconsin was Steve Miller and his Steve Miller Band. While at the peak of his career, he produced three number-one hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 between 1973 and 1982. Clean through the 1970s and well into the mid-1980s, Steve Miller was a dominant force in the music industry. He was born and raised in Milwaukee where music played a big role in his life throughout his childhood. His parents were jazz music enthusiasts as his mother liked to sing and his father was an amateur recording engineer in addition to being a physician. While growing up, Les Paul and Mary Ford often visited the Miller family house. When the couple married, Steve Miller’s father, George, was the best man while his mother, Bertha, was the matron of honor. Les Paul was Steve Miller’s godfather. When Paul heard a young Steve play guitar, he encouraged him to continue.
In 1950, when Steve Miller was about seven years old, the family moved to Dallas, Texas. The Miller family’s home often greeted musical greats such as Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus, and T-Bone Walker as visitors. Steve grew up learning how to play music from these men. In turn, Steve taught his older brother, Buddy, how to play bass guitar. In 1955, Steve Miller had his first band, The Marksmen. While attending school in Dallas, Miller taught fellow classmate Boz Scaggs the guitar chords so he could join the band. After graduating from high school in 1961, Miller set his sights on returning to Wisconsin. In 1962, he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he founded The Ardells as his next band. Scaggs would join Miller’s band a year later. Also joining was Ben Sidran as keyboardist. At one point, Miller attended the University of Copenhagen in Denmark for a semester during his senior year. He dropped out just shy of earning his literature degree as he decided to pour his focus on a professional music career instead.
As soon as Miller returned to the United States, he moved to Chicago, Illinois so he could lose himself in the city’s blues music scene. This gave him the opportunity to meet with the likes of Paul Butterfield, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. In 1965, he and Barry Goldberg formed the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band which became a popular duo act in the Windy City. After briefly staying in New York City, Miller returned to Chicago and found he didn’t care for the city’s blues scene at that time. He decided to return to Texas with the intent to finish his education but wound up heading to San Francisco, California instead. As soon as he got there and watched the Butterfield Blues Band and Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore Auditorium, he realized San Fransisco and its music scene was the place for him.
It would be in San Fransico in 1966 that the Steve Miller Band would mark its beginning as one of the world’s most popular rock music acts. At first, the group backed Chuck Berry on his Live at Fillmore Auditorium album that was released the same year Miller put his band together. In 1968, the Steve Miller Band debuted with Children of the Future. The tracklist featured a collection of psychedelic blues, a popular style that dominated the city’s music scene at the time. This was followed by another 1968-released album, Sailor, and it would be the final recording to feature Boz Scaggs in the Steve Miller Band’s lineup. He would move on to enjoy a very successful solo career after this. The first album the Steve Miller Band released after Scaggs left was 1969’s Brave New World. Also released in 1969 was Your Saving Grace, then in 1970, Number 5. Despite the fact these five albums charted on the US Billboard 200, there were no major hit singles produced yet that would turn Steve Miller into a star. These did, however, establish Miller’s on-stage personalities such as “Gangster of Love” from Sailor and “Space Cowboy” from Brave New World.
Recorded and released in 1972 was Recall the Beginning… A Journey from Eden. Miller’s sixth studio album introduced another character of Miller’s, “Maurice.” This added to the two previous personalities Miller established for himself before adding “The Joker” in 1973. This was also the name of Miller’s seventh studio album and it marked a new beginning for the recording artist. The album was less bluesy and it was enough to score the Steve Miller Band its first major hit. It topped the US Billboard Hot 100 after it was first released and it became an international success. Even as late as 1990, it became a number-one hit on the UK Singles Chart after it was used in a television advertisement.
In 1976, Fly Like an Eagle and its title track kept the momentum of the Steve Miller Band going as one of the dominating forces in rock and roll music. The same happened again in 1977 with Book of Dreams. Aside from “Fly Like an Eagle,” Miller scored major hits with “Rock’n Me,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Airliner,” and “Jungle Love.” Not only did Steve Miller excel as a top-rated recording artist during the prime of his career but his knowledge of the music industry and how business works played a key role in his overall success. Although 1981’s Circle of Love wasn’t an album that was as commercially successful as hoped, 1982’s Abracadabra was a different story. Its title track produced another major hit before Miller’s impact on the music charts began to slow down. However, the level of influence Miller had inspired many aspiring musicians to follow in his footsteps.
In 2016, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame. Altogether, Steve Miller has recorded and released eighteen studio albums, six live albums, eleven compilation albums, three video albums, and thirty singles. The most successful albums were The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle, Book of Dreams, and Abracadabra. Each of them became certified platinum at least once by the Recording Institute Association of America (RIAA). Aside from The Joker, they were also certified platinum in Canada. In the UK, Fly Like an Eagle was certified gold while Book of Dreams and Abracadabra became silver. The biggest hit single in Steve Miller’s career was “The Joker” as it was certified platinum by the RIAA five times, as well as gold by the UK. Even at eighty years young, Steve Miller continues to influence and inspire music fans as they look up to a man whose career soared to great heights and is still flying high today.
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10 Great Bands And Musical Artists From Wisconsin article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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