Milwaukee Talks: Daryl Stuermer

He has appeared on the Oscars, he's toured the world with Genesis, Phil Collins, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and others. He's recorded with many artists and has a string of acclaimed solo discs to his name, his latest having just won WAMIs.

We're talking about Milwaukee guitarist Daryl Stuermer, of course. Stuermer recently took some time to chat with us about his career, his latest record, what he's working on, the Milwaukee music scene and more.

OMC: How did you get into playing the guitar? Did you love music from childhood?

DS: In grade school I was in band as a trumpet player, and about when I was 11 years old, I picked up the guitar because my brother, who is two years older...

OMC: Is that Duane?

DS: Yes. At that time he was playing the guitar and he sang and he put a little band together. You always get very influenced by your older brother or older sister or whatever, so, that got me into thinking that the guitar was something very cool. I got involved with it and within about a year, it seemed like a very natural instrument for me.

I continued playing the trumpet, but I started getting more interested in the guitar. Probably by the time I was about 15 years old I really was involved playing the guitar, and I thought that this was where I was going to go, in one way or another.

OMC: And was Duane your role model or were there more famous people that you were looking up to?

OMC: Well, it started out with my brother being an older brother and we started playing in some bands together. But as far as the guitar players that were very influential to me at that time, in those early years, I'd say blues guitar players. There was a guy named Michael Blumfield and Elvin Bishop and then BB King. All these people were very influential. But when I was about 15 years old I also started hearing jazz guitar players and I realized that when I was listening to the jazz guitar players, I couldn't play what they were playing. So, that got me more interested. I was thinking, "where the hell are these notes coming from?"

OMC: Obviously you decided to go somewhat in that direction; how did you proceed to learn how to play what they were playing?

DS: Well, what I started doing first was...one record that was really influential to me -- this record's probably out of print -- it was by Joe Pass. Joe Pass had a record called "Joe Pass Plays the Rolling Stones," and I thought, "OK," because my background is a little bit more of rock and blues. I thought, "OK, I know these songs" and then when I heard it, I thought, "Oh my God." I wanted to learn the solos he was doing and so I'd take the record and I would slow the record down and learn it from there. I could hear the notes but they'd fly by so fast.

When I was probably 15 or 16 I decided I would take lessons and I started learning from a local guitar player named George Pritchett. He was at Crown Music (in Bay View) at the time, and I lived on the south side of Milwaukee; that's where I was raised. I think I took lessons for about a year and a half.

OMC: He (the late Pritchett was one of Milwaukee's best-known guitarists) must have been a pretty great guy to get lessons from.

DS: It was great because, first of all, my respect for his playing was very high because he was doing things I couldn't even imagine playing, and he and I got along, actually, very well. That's when I started learning to read music on the guitar. I could already read music on the trumpet but not on the guitar. So he got me into reading, he got me into chordal things, which were more jazz-oriented. Then he would take a song like "Shadow of Your Smile" and he would say, "What I want you to do with this song is learn it and play the melody and play the chords. And then I want you to play a combination of chords and melody, and then I want you to solo over the top of it." So that got me more involved with the songs.

OMC: And you got a wide-ranging education, then.

DS: I think so. Even though he didn't respect rock players, I did. So I had a real combination. I had a lot of respect for guitar players like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Howard Roberts and Kenny Burrell; these were probably my favorite guitar players at the time. At the same time I loved Eric Clapton, I loved Jimi Hendrix, you know, and any of those players that were very popular at the time.

Then later on as I got older, all of a sudden there were guys playing a combination of the two like John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell. So I got more involved with the fusion of the music.

OMC: When you were in bands in Milwaukee at the time, what was it like? Was it easy to get gigs, were you treated fairly well?

DS: Well, it was hard to get gigs because when I started playing I was too young to play clubs so occasionally I'd be in a band -- I was usually the youngest member of the band -- and I could get into the club because I wouldn't tell them how old I was. In those early years I had a couple good bands. I had one called Family at Max which was a good band. It was a big horn group with Warren Wiegratz as the saxophone player. It had about five horn players and a rhythm section. It was kind of a sophisticated group, too. They were getting gigs. I remember turning 18 years old at a place called Someplace Else on Water St., and I remember playing there when I was 17 years old. We were playing there like every other weekend on Friday and Saturday nights.

Because I was always in a band that was playing original music, it was hard to book a band like that.

OMC: Do you think that's changed at all?

DS: I think the whole scene has changed. At least at that time you could play clubs. There were different clubs that had a lot of different groups, and so there was work out there. In fact, around 1973, when I had the band Sweetbottom, we'd play in a place for sometimes six weeks. We would be booked at a place like Vitucci's, and then we'd started playing at a place called Sardino's Bull Ring, on the east side, and we played there for two and a half years, five nights a week, and I don't see that happening today.

OMC: No, it doesn't happen today, and it seems that a lot of bands are forced into taking what they can get, which means undervaluing themselves and then they're stuck in a rut of being undervalued.

DS: Right, but the thing is we weren't really maybe making that much money, but we were making a steady living. Working five nights a week in a club, even if you were making $25 a night, at least you knew you were making $25 and at the end of the day you'd have some money in your pocket.

OMC: Now, if bands play that often, people lose interest.

DS: We were also able to play all original music if we wanted. We covered some songs yet we threw in original music. We had a really nice following. Friday and Saturdays would be a little more commercial music because there was a bigger crowd but people would come and see us on Wednesday and Thursdays and maybe Sundays and they'd know they'd be getting a little more original music. We'd usually rehearse on a Monday and Tuesday, you know, go down to the club and rehearse and try one of the new songs for that week. It was actually a very good time to develop a band and do things. It developed my playing.

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