Sixty years after what’s been called southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band started playing, its founder and members of the band are holding a concert in Avoca Sunday.
The band started by Vilas Craig of Richland Center was called the Kollege Kings when it was made up of members of the Richland Center High School band cornet section.
What’s being billed as Vilas Craig and the Nu ViCounts — besides Craig, Doug Bachelor of Fennimore on guitar, Roddy Dull of Boscobel on bass, Bill Becker of Mount Hope on piano, and Gordon Glass of Richland Center on drums — will perform a free concert at Legion Park in Avoca Sunday at 1 p.m. In addition to the Nu ViCounts, Craig’s son Timothy, a Nashville recording artist, will be performing.
“I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time,” said Craig. “I just didn’t know if I’d have the get up and go to put up posters all over.”
The band in its two iterations has retained remarkable local popularity. Phil Nee of WRCO radio in Richland Center has hosted a Saturday night oldies show since 1986.
“Vilas Craig and the Vicounts 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 Kollege Kings began in 1957 with four members, all of whom are still living — Craig on vocals, guitar and saxophone, bass player James Chitwood, piano player Steve Prestegard and drummer Bill McCorkle. Their first performance was in Readstown.
“I came home from UW, talked to Jim Chitwood,” who was going to Marquette University in Milwaukee, “told him I think we should start a band,” said Craig. “Jim said, I think Steve plays some piano. But I didn’t have a drummer, and I didn’t have a car.”
McCorkle provided both drums and vehicle. Gene “Fuzz” Mueller later joined the band to play guitar, “because I wanted a guitar player who played better than me,” said Craig. Mueller was “very ahead of his time; he was so good on the guitar.”
Within two years, McCorkle was replaced by Karl Gillingham, and Chitwood was replaced by Al Sugden.
Craig, Chitwood, Prestegard, Mueller and Gillingham were reported by the March 12, 1959 Richland Observer to make up the “local dance orchestra” going to Minneapolis to record and start their own record label, Riff Records.
Craig changed the group’s name to Vilas Craig and the Vicounts in 1960.
The claim of the Kollege Kings or Vicounts being southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band comes from Craig himself and from author Susan Masino, writer of Famous Wisconsin Musicians. Whether they were the first or second (music blogger Joe Knapp claims it was the White Caps with Johnny Edwards, which recorded their first song in 1957), the Kollege Kings was 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.
While some were unfamiliar with rock, others were hostile to rock.
“A Catholic priest in Mauston told kids to not go to our dances because we were the work of the devil because we played rock and roll,” said Craig.
The Kollege Kings and the Vicounts would be described today as “rockabilly” in the style of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, both of whom had songs on the country and pop music charts, as well as Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Craig’s voice sounded similar to Holly’s on Kollege Kings and Vicounts records. He also counts as an influence Ricky Nelson.
“We played every weekend on Friday and Saturday,” said Prestegard. “Sometimes the Friday night dance was at a high school and the Saturday night was at a public dance hall or arena of some type. Vilas did all the promotion and bookingm including advertising. The rest of the band had full-time daytime jobs.”
The Kollege Kings recorded their first two records, “Spring Fever” and “My One My Only Love,” at Kay Bank Studios in Minneapolis in April 1958. That same day, a singer from Fargo, N.D., Bobby Velline, recorded his first song at the studio, “Suzie Baby.” Velline’s break came when he substituted for Buddy Holly the night after his fatal plane crash in Iowa for a concert in Moorhead, Minn. By then Velline was known as Bobby Vee.
That wouldn’t be the band’s first brush with 1960s musical figures. The Vicounts once were the backing band for Bobby Darin for a concert in Madison, and then backed Bobby Goldsboro for concerts, along with Jackie DeShannon in Rockford, Ill. They also played the Grant County Fairgrounds in Lancaster with the one-hit group The Rivieras, and a UW–Platteville concert sponsored by its men’s basketball team with Gene Pitney. They also played on a cerebral palsy telethon broadcasted by WISC-TV in Madison.
“Spring Fever” got some Wisconsin radio play, first by Bill Dyke on WISC radio in Madison. Dyke later became mayor of Madison and the Iowa County circuit judge before he died last year.
The band also got promotional help from Mike Young, a Soldiers Grove man who owned area jukeboxes and made sure they included the band’s 45s, Craig said.
Later recordings included “Little Miss Mary,” “You Know How,” and “Little Miss Brown Eyes.” The latter included a cello, viola and two violins, but the arrangement differed from the original plan.
“I told him what I wanted; it didn’t work,” said Craig. “They were getting paid by the hour. There was a French lady who played the violin; she couldn’t talk much [English], but we could communicate with music and notes. Steve went to the piano and plinked a few notes. She and I worked out with notations the orchestral backup.”
“‘Little Miss Brown Eyes’ was a hit in a few radio markets,” said Nee. “If it would have had better distribution, it would have been a national success.”
The band’s next recording was “Walkin’ Down the Avenue,” and its B side, “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” with most of the original band members replaced by new players. Craig met the Milwaukee band the Royal Lancers, liked their saxophone player, and “I hired the whole band to get him.”
A later song, “The Spin,” was an attempt to create a dance. The band also recorded “Skinnie Minnie’s Twist,” Bill Haley’s “Skinny Minnie” with a twist beat. “Chumba” became the band’s most requested song, Craig said, thanks to Sugden’s bass solo. “Gotta Find My Baby” featured a UW–Platteville barbershop quartet and two trombones. One early song, “If I May,” was remade later as “Love You If I May.”
“Don’t You Just Know It” was directed at another Wisconsin act, The Fendermen, whose “Mule Skinner Blues” reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and got them an appearance on ABC-TV’s “American Bandstand.” It includes yodel-like vocals as the Fendermen had done.
To write a song, Craig said, “You have to be triggered first. Something reminds you of something — it could be a beautiful day, and you start ‘The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.’ When I get a song in my mind and what I want the instruments to be, I go back and rewrite the lyrics so they make sense.
“I wrote most of my songs coming from a dance job — something I’d think about, I’d be driving alone and I’d hear something, and I’d say, I can write that. It all comes together kind of at once.”
The band played in the Platteville National Guard Armory, the old Potosi fire station, Fennimore Memorial Building, Checkerboard Ballroom in Prairie du Chien, Blaine Gymnasium in Boscobel, Royal Palace in Galena, the Cobb school gym during a Corn Boil, among other locations. They were to be the opening act for The Hollies at the Dane County Fairgrounds in Madison, but ended up playing the entire concert when the Hollies canceled in a dispute over what musical equipment they would use.
“Some places were more fun to play in than others because we drew better and more enthusiastic crowds in some towns than others,” said Prestegard. “We always did well in the towns that made up the South Central high school conference, which back then Richland Center was part of. Also we always drew good crowds up and down the Kickapoo Valley.
“Since every gym and dance hall had its own piano, which usually was never in tune and some of the keys didn’t work, I learned how to tune a piano and repair them to a certain extent. It always was an adventure to play in a new hall, since one never knew whether or not the piano worked like it should.”
Craig and the band played on weekends while band members were working or going to college. Craig graduated with a music education degree from UW–Platteville with his mother, who graduated with an education degree after taking summer courses for several years.
While the band didn’t tour from one place to the next often, playing mostly Fridays and Saturdays, there were still adventures on the road. Craig said they once got to a venue whose owners thought they had hired a different band, which had not shown up. When that band did show up, Craig’s band had already set up.
“I said it takes an hour and a half to take down, and then they have to set up and that’s another hour, so you’re not going to have anything for a couple hours,” said Craig. “So the guy told them he’d hire them some other time, and we played.”
A Fennimore performance included an emergency repair by the building janitor after the microphone cord was severed by a falling cymbal. One drummer accidentally put his foot through his bass drum, forcing the drum to be flipped around to be usable, leaving the torn end facing the audience.
The most famous of Craig’s 52 players over the years probably was Keith Knudsen, an Iowa native who later played drums for the Doobie Brothers starting in the mid-1970s.
“I played until I was teaching school my second year, and they called me in the office and told me I better quit playing because it was bad for the kids thinking rock when you’re conducting Haydn” in school, said Craig.
Craig’s playing days were far from over, however. He has played for decades at various jobs. The Avoca concert is coming seven years after Craig held the Rock and Roll Reunion with 30 other musicians in Fennimore in 2010. Dull’s former band, Edge, played at that benefit concert.
“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 CD “Younger Days” includes Kollege Kings and Vicounts songs, a remake of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” (the only song Presley ever wrote) plus three songs recorded with his son, Timothy in Nashville. Tim Craig, who also played Phil Everly in the NBC-TV series “American Dreams,” remastered the band’s earlier songs.
Note: The writer is the son of the Kollege Kings’ first piano player.