Most music fans know about the Milwaukee bands of our day. We may have even heard a few stories about the bands that were around a bit before our time. But how many of us know about the great Milwaukee bands of days long since passed (sorry, guys!)?
Gather 'round, young ones, and we'll tell you the story of a most unusual Milwaukee band. The Velvet Whip grew out of a desire to fuse classical instrumentation and contemporary music and quickly became one of the hottest acts on the counterculture scene, playing at the Avant Garde Coffee House and other venues in the second half of the 1960s.
"The genesis of The Velvet Whip goes back to my high school days and my involvement with the Milwaukee Music for Youth," remembers violinist Dan Ball. "I was playing the violin and hooked up with a cello player named Henry Steinfort. We hit it off and proceeded to try to learn the Brahms 'Double Concerto.' We didn't succeed but threw around the idea of starting a Young Composers Society dedicated to performing our own music. We rehearsed and performed at a grade school in Milwaukee and that lasted for about two years. It was a thrill to hear our music performed somewhat professionally."
By 1967, Ball and Steinfort -- having flirted unsuccessfully with making a go of an avant garde ensemble ("Unfortunately, our cutting edge group was not in demand," Ball admits) -- turned their gaze to the music they heard all around them. And for the same reasons most young guys pickup guitars.
"Henry and I then had the bright idea of starting a rock band. Since I played violin, I could obviously play guitar and Henry could transfer from the cello to electric bass. Little did we know how inadequate those ideas were. We were clueless about the rock band scene and had no experience, just desire. It looked like fun and a great way to meet girls."
So, the duo set about assembling The Velvet Whip.
"Since we had no idea about how to get people who could play to join us, we looked for all the long haired guys in town to join our band," says Ball. "Long hair was a novelty and it seemed like all the 'cool' guys were starting to grow their hair and beards. There were three candidates with long hair. Two could play guitars and the other was just an experience all unto himself."
Ken Blochowiak, an engineer at WUWM -- where Ball also worked as a DJ and engineer -- was hired as the guitarist. Tom Ruppenthal joined as bassist after first denying any musical inclinations.
"When I first encountered Tom it was on a stairway at 'Uncle Bob's' apartment on Warren Street," recounts Ball. "Uncle Bob's was a gathering place for all the young hipsters and always had a number of people just hanging out. We found out he played guitar and bass and we persisted and recruited him for our seminal journey into psychedelia."
Completing this unorthodox quintet was -- no, not a drummer -- but rather "The Richard." Ball explains:
"Richard Bussian danced, introduced the music and hit a pie tin with a drumstick. His spasmodic dancing was called 'doing the Richard' and he became 'The Richard.' He was unique; sort of like the Laughing Buddha with the private chuckle. His vision and offbeat ideas would become one of the hallmarks and quirkiness of the Whip."
Steinfort concurs. "A legend in his own time, 'The Richard' was 'THE RICHARD'! The Tambourine Man, top 10 list designer, skit/monologue writer, with flair, wit, sarcasm, flamboyance and a bit of the bizarre thrown in for good measure! He was the band's 'Standard Bearer' -- a vital aspect of the band's creative uniqueness!"
In a 1975 article in the now-defunct Bugle-American, Carol Frinzi recalled the band and its antics.
"I seem to remember them having a real whip in the act, too. It was during a song called, 'Little Girl's Dream (19?? Early Whip Trip),' I think. Richard (Bussian) would yell and scream into the mike and lash the whip all over the stage and then the strobe light would go on and the band would all run back and forth, going crazy. It was nuts."
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!"
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.