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Southwest Wisconsin pop music pioneer dies
Southwest Wisconsin pop music pioneer dies
The Vicounts recorded “Gotta Find My Baby” with a UW–Platteville barbershop quartet (from left) Richard Fuller, Steve Benton, Bill Hennepin and Norbert Krause. Craig added trombone players Bob Geach and Bernie Powers. Photo credit:
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by Steve Prestegard

One of Southwest Wisconsin’s pop music pioneers died Sunday.

Vilas Craig, 83, who along with members of the Richland Center High School band trumpet section created either Southwest Wisconsin’s first or second rock and roll band, died, according to Craig’s son Timothy.

“He is my biggest influence by far and his life was all about music,” said Timothy Craig, a Nashville musician, on his Facebook page.

Vilas Craig played music, as well as teaching music in area schools, from the Kollege Kings’ formation in 1957 through last summer, including a 60th anniversary concert in June 2017 that packed Legion Park in Avoca.

“It gets in your soul,” said Craig before his 2017 concert. “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.”

Craig formed the Kollege Kings in 1957 with four members — Craig on vocals, guitar and saxophone, bass player James Chitwood, piano player Steve Prestegard, and drummer Bill McCorkle. Gene “Fuzz” Mueller later joined the band to replace Craig on 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.

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, and 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.

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.

Craig, the Kollege Kings and the Vi-Counts recorded 12 songs between 1959 and 1965, several of which can be found on YouTube or streaming services. 

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. 

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 his death in 2016.

Later recordings included “Little Miss Mary,” “You Know How,” and “Little Miss Brown Eyes,” followed by “Walkin’ Down the Avenue,” and its B side, “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” with most of the original band members replaced by new players. 

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.”

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.”

Craig held a Rock and Roll Reunion concert in Fennimore with 30 other musicians in 2010.

Craig performed two concerts with what he called the “Nu-Vi-Counts” in 2017 and 2018 — Doug Bachelor, Roddy Dull, Bill Becker, Gordon Glass and Dave Gibbs. The 2017 concert in Avoca, in which Tim Craig also performed, took place on the 60th anniversary year of the Kollege Kings’ forming. 

Craig celebrated his 80th birthday in December 2018 with a concert in Richland Center, the second he had that month. Craig performed through last summer, according to his Facebook page.

Arrangements are pending.