By Steve Prestegard, with additional reporting by Dawn Kiefer
Southwest Wisconsin musician Vilas Craig will celebrate his birthday with a concert and dance at The Phoenix Center bowling alley in Richland Center on Saturday, Dec. 22, from 8 to 11 p.m.
In addition to performing with his current band line-up, Craig has extended an invitation to other musicians he’s performed with over the years to join him on stage for a few songs.
Craig, who turns 80 on Dec. 21, led two bands considered to be among the first rock and roll bands in Wisconsin — the Kollege Kings, which formed in 1957, and, by 1960, Vilas Craig and the Vi-Counts.
The first version of the Kollege Kings featured Jim Chitwood on bass, Vilas Craig on vocals, Karl Gillingham on drums, Steve Prestegard on piano and Gene “Fuzz” Mueller on guitar. Steve Prestegard is the father of Platteville Journal editor Steve Prestegard.
“It gets in your soul,” said Craig. “If I didn’t have music with me — I don’t care if it’s Beethoven or if it’s hard rock — I don’t think I could function. And I love playing jobs, because of the people you meet — we had four girls from Reedsburg that drove all the way to see us everywhere we played.”
Craig’s band in its two iterations has retained remarkable local popularity.
Phil Nee of WRCO radio in Richland Center, who has hosted a Saturday night oldies show since 1986, has known Craig for many years.
“Vilas Craig and the Vi-Counts have had more requests for airplay than some of the biggest names in music from that era,” said Nee. “Many still know Vilas or a former band member, so that has a bit to do with it. Some of the records, though, sound every bit as good as well-known songs from Ricky Nelson, Elvis, Johnny Tillotson, Johnny Burnett, and others.
“Vilas was good at writing or picking songs that had hit potential, and he surrounded himself with very talented musicians.”
The claim of the Kollege Kings or Vi-Counts being southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band comes from Craig himself and from author Susan Masino, writer of “Famous Wisconsin Musicians.” The Kollege Kings were such a pioneer in music that, according to Craig, the band had to play polkas in some concerts because fans were unfamiliar with rock music.
Craig credits some of his early success to late Circuit Court Judge William Dyke, who was a disc jockey at WISC radio in 1959. Craig says that Dyke was the first to play his record and continued to be a great help to him.
Craig has performed in two concerts with what is billed as Vilas Craig and the Nu Vi-Counts in Avoca in June 2017 and 2018. The Nu Vi-Counts consist of Doug Bachelor, Roddy Dull, Bill Becker, Gordon Glass and Dave Gibbs.
The Dec. 22 performance in Richland Center will feature a lot of old rock and roll, such as Duane Eddy and The Beach Boys, as well as a tribute to chuck Berry. One set will spotlight country music, with a tribute to Merle Haggard,
Admission will be a $5 donation at the door. Net proceeds will go to Ocooch Mountain Humane Society. Donations of nonperishable food will go to the Richland County food pantry.
More information about Craig and his bands can be found at www.swnews4u.com/archives/35017/.