The Velvet Whip tore through musical conventions
In Spinal Tap-style, drummers would be the Whip's Achilles' heel, at least early on. Despite some auditions, few drummers could keep up.
"Most of them thought we were a little too weird because we were doing our own music and a lot of it was improvised," remembers Ball. "Our first gig had as the drummer the brother of an artist acquaintance who ran the Negative Movement (an independent film society based first at UWM and later in Riverwest). The guy had a bass drum with a painting of an old mill scene, which he lit from behind. Very cool, but the guy was way too straight to plug in with our eccentricities."
Despite shifting their focus, Ball and Steinfort hadn't abandoned their desire to play music that veered off the accepted paths. They found themselves less than skilled at playing covers and focused on original material that wasn't exactly middle of the road.
"Everybody in the group wrote music for the band," says Steinfort, "either the lyrics, melodies or both, so the repertoire was quite varied in sound and theme, and needless to say, we had a huge number of songs in our grab-bag. In retrospect, our music was quite timely, reflecting our feelings about the issues of our day: social, political and religious.
"Our music at times was purposely crude, raw, brash, aggressive and irreverent, and sometimes, raucous, joyous, lusty or melancholy and simplistic, yet containing many underlying complex layers of improvised sounds and unique rhythm patterns! (Songs) varied in length, from the three to 20 or more minutes. Three of our most frequently requested tunes were: "Artificial Insemination," "Bitchin Women" and "And I'll Show You," a lusty, high energy tune, with a pulse throbbing sensuous beat that even Austin Powers would dig."
According to Ball, "The music we played was very free form and we invited the audience on stage to play along. We thought all this chaos was a success but we needed a drummer."
A friend aimed them toward Appleton, where there was a drummer who attempted to commit suicide by smashing a beer truck into a wall.
"This was our kind of guy," says Ball, "nihilistic, disturbed and a fine sense of irony in the Beer State. We dispatched a few of the band members who visited Chuck Reitzner in the hospital. We convinced him, in his dazed state, that Milwaukee and The Velvet Whip were his destiny, so the 'Round Headed Kid' was now our drummer."
Soon, The Velvet Whip was playing gigs at house parties, the UWM Theater and the UWM Ballroom, and after a particularly successful debut at the Avant Garde on Prospect Avenue, they became one of the house bands there, along with The Baroques and The New Blues, and they played every Thursday and on some weekends.
They also played in Chicago and around Wisconsin; Madison, Oshkosh, Janesville. But once away from their home turf, The Velvet Whip sometimes found crowds had trouble relating to the band's music, according to Steinfort.
"I recall a one-time performance at some non-distinct bar/nightclub in South Milwaukee, where we were ruthlessly heckled, booed and threatened with bodily harm by the less than open-minded blue collar clientele! Needless to say, from that point on, we closely checked out the typical clientele of prospective performance locations, before signing contracts to perform!!!"
Then there was the band's single, and ill-advised, high school performance.
"It was the Sadie Hawkins Dance at Nicolet High School in Glendale," recalls Steinfort. "It ended abruptly before we even finished our first set! It seems that the principal of the school did not appreciate the near riot created when 'The Richard' tossed handfuls of white vitamin C pills into the audience, which the students thought were LSD tabs! It seemed funny at the time, watching all those kids clambering and crawling over each other as they struggled to pocket as many of the pills as they could find in the darkened gym! In retrospect, it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do.
"Later, as we were packing up our equipment to leave, the principal of the school came up to us and gave us a real tongue lashing, blah-blah-blah ... and proceeded to pay us for the performance that we barely started! We didn't have the heart to tell him that we were already paid by the president of the student council! So we pocketed the double payment, got the heck out of there in record time, and promptly cashed both checks, first thing the next morning!" (Ball, it should be noted, recalls that the band returned the second paycheck.)
According to Ball, the band's success at home drew some outside interest, but these five fellows didn't know how to get to the next level.
"We were having a good time but the inexperience of youth helped us miss a number of opportunities," he admits. "Had we been a bit business savvy, we could have parlayed our limited fame into a real income. As it was, we were essentially living hand to mouth in a voluntary form of poverty. We all had to work extra jobs to support ourselves.
"We had attracted one record label. We were not very aggressive about promoting and marketing our music. Without proper guidance, we were doomed to failure."
Ultimately, things just fell apart, Steinfort says.
"No blow-ups," he says. "Just a gradual, slow end. The Garde was nearing the end of its existence, and we would lose our haven of creativity, not to mention our source of financial security; gigs were not as plentiful beyond the walls of the Avant Garde! A mutual agreement to let it end was followed by at least two band reunion concerts ... or was three or four?"
According to Steinfort, although the band members are now spread out across the U.S. they still keep in touch. They are currently working to assemble a CD from what Steinfort called, "old and kinked reel to reel tapes of the band's performances at the Garde."
But there are no plans afoot for a reunion, it seems.
"I wish I could say a definite yes!" enthuses Steinfort. "But (everyone has) gone in their own direction. I would suspect and am always hopeful, that at some future time and place, there might be at least a possibility for a physical reunion. This old hippy's always ready to rock 'n' roll!"
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Still getting calls for Velvet Whip info and stories. I can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Henry Steinfort has now retired as an art teacher at Howard's grove elementary school. He doesn't use the internet. He promises to get onboard when he finds the right computer. Sometime this decade, maybe. He is still creating art and performs with an "acid jazz" free form group around the Milwaukee area. You can see old Whip photos on me FaceBook page - Dan Ball
Well, it's about time Henry S showed up. . .even if this article is 5 years old, I'm happy to see it wasn't all a figment of my imagination. I haven't forgotten the poetry nights at the AG and the art happenings at UWM created by you-know-who. Anyone else recall Screaming Eagles Arts? Are you out there Henry?
I stumbled upon this interesting site and article and talkback. I was a member of the Velvet Whip and I possess the recordings made at the Avant Garde and even listen to the old tunes at times. The recording quality is not great but it does capture the essence of the Whip at the Garde. I know that Dan who love to tinker with the old recordings and even rerecord the songs, but I think the music, as is, is worth a brief listen. So if anyone else stumbles upon this site and would be interested in a cd of the Whip Live, please contact me at email@example.com and I'll send you one. It certainly would bring back memories for anyone who experienced that time and place.
Oh, my God!!! I was researching both The Velvet Whip and Baroques on the Internet today because I recently wrote a poem about my 1960s experiences for a poetry class I am taking a the local state university. I wanted to credit them for how I they are commemorated in the poem, and found this site. Seeing their photos and reading words from Dan Ball, Henry Steinfort, and "The Richard"'s daughter have brought many tears of joy to me today. I never missed the "Whip"'s performances at the Avante Garde on Thursday nights. I am the one who loaned "The Richard" his second tamborine after he broke his. I still have it. I am also the one who arranged for a concert to be held by the Velvet Whip at the the UWM Kenwood Concert Center. I really hope that Dan Ball and Henry do write a history of the Velvet Whip and those times, and that they create a CD. If they have already, then I would like to know how to get copies. I will try to reach Dan at his email he provided in one of his responses. Thank you sooooo much for this article. This has really brightened my day.
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