If you follow the social media website Facebook and are a member of the group entitled “You Know You’re From Richland Center If,” you cannot help but notice when anything regarding The Chieftones is posted that there are many, many likes and comments. Even though the band has long since departed the music scene, there are multitudes of fans in our community who have fond memories of the group.
The band had a strong Richland County presence in the 1960s, when they relocated from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to the small village of Boaz, located just west of Richland Center. The band lived on a farm owned by Richland County District Attorney Elaine E. Fitzgerald on the corner of County Hwy. E and Hwy. 171. They were known for their horses and caged mountain lion(s) in residence.
According to Fitzgerald’s obituary, she was the first female district attorney in Wisconsin to serve concurrently with a female sheriff. She was a local woman who graduated from Richland Center High School and received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin law school. Fitzgerald was 29 years old when she won the job by 12 votes as a Democrat in 1959; quite a feat in solid Republican Richland County. She was the first woman D.A. in Wisconsin in 17 years and only the third in Wisconsin history until that time. She is listed as the registered agent of the “Chieftones,” Canada’s All Indian Band Fan Club U.S.A., filed in November of 1965. One of 15 siblings, she died at age 83 on April 16, 2013, in Menomonie.
The four original members of the Chieftones are members of the Tsimshian Indian Nation. The first Nations are the various indigenous peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Metis. Within Canada, “First Nations” has come into general use replacing the deprecated term “Indians,” for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It’s interesting that the Chieftones, much like their country music counterparts of their day, featured elaborate performance outfits. This type of showmanship was common then with the likes of Porter Waggoner and Ray Price, to name a couple of well-known performers. The Chieftones left little to the imagination, defining themselves as Canada’s All Indian Band with their Indian regalia.
The Chieftones were formed in 1964, composed of Vincent “Billy ThunderKloud” Clifford, Barry “Littlestar” Clifford, Jack Wolf and Richard “Grayowl” Douse. The Cliffords, who were brothers, Wolf and Douse were all born in British Columbia and were educated at a Native Residential School in Edmonton, Alberta.
According to Gary Myer’s ‘60s Wisconsin discography “Do You Hear That Beat,” the four formed the band in Edmonton, then moved to Boaz, then Nashville and eventually were booked out of Boston, Mass. The band’s recordings dated from 1966-1975. Signed to 20th Century Records in 1974 they achieved their greatest success when they were joined by The Cheatin’ Hearts, a group of Nashville session musicians who had backed Hank Williams, Jr. They had five singles in the country charts in 1975 and ‘76; “Indian Nation,” “It’s Alright,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Pledging My Love” and “What Time of Day.” “What Time of Day” made the Billboard Hot 100 at number 92 in 1975 and the country album “Billy ThunderKloud and the Chieftones” peaked at number 31 on the country chart in 1975. After their successes in the ‘70s, they began a slow drift out of the music business. ThunderKloud was honored as Outstanding Indian in 1975 by the American Indian Exposition.
The band members were well-known within the Richland County community and generous with their time, doing a number of benefit concerts in the City Auditorium on behalf of the Hilltoppers Color Guard and the Richland Center boys’ and girls’ clubs.
Jane Kintz, local art teacher and proprietor of Rembrandt and Rutabagas Bed and Breakfast, fondly recalls memories of the Chieftones. She says, “Mom was friends with Elaine Fitzgerald…The Chieftones (the band’s name before they changed it to Billy Thundercloud and the Chieftones) lived at Elaine’s farm in Boaz. My mom, dad and I visited them there with Elaine when I was in the seventh grade. We were out by the barn, as they had their horses out. Naturally, I had a crush on all of them, especially Barry! My parents actually liked their music and took a friend and me to the Bunny Hop near Middleton to hear them several times.”