The Wisconsin Woods

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(Pictured: La Crosse, Wisconsin, was home to the G. Heileman Brewing Company and the World’s Largest Six Pack; the brewery and the six-pack have been renovated, and repainted, since Heileman closed in 2000.)

La Crosse is a city of about 50,000 on the Mississippi River in far western Wisconsin. We have from time to time bumped into radio station WLCX, most recently mentioning their selection of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the #1 song for the entire year 1976. ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, has quite a collection of WLCX surveys, and a look through them, especially during the early 70s, reveals some interesting stuff.

La Crosse had a thriving local music scene at the turn of the 70s, and WLCX played local hits. The excellent “Where Do You Want to Go” by Hope was #1 for four weeks in the summer of 1970. Hope was known originally as Jesters III; their earliest releases were on the La Crosse-based Coulee label, although “Where Do You Want to Go” was released on A&M. Hope’s run at #1 was interrupted by the Silver Bullets, with “The Lone Ranger (Overture to William Tell).” The Silver Bullets were the same group of La Crosse-area musicians who recorded as the Ladds and Today’s Tomorrow. The variously named group recorded on several small labels; “The Lone Ranger” came out on Teen Town, based in the Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville, where label owner Jon Hall ran a club called Teen Town. Today’s Tomorrow’s fabulous version of “Witchi Tai-To,” originally released on Teen Town, was licensed nationally to the Bang label and hit the WLCX Top 10 during Hope’s final week at #1.

Another significant group from western Wisconsin was Unchained Mynds, who recorded on the Transaction label, a sister of Coulee. Their trippy “We Can’t Go on This Way” was licensed to Buddah for national distribution. They also released a version of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” on Transaction. WLCX would chart two other local hits on Transaction before the end of 1970, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” by Last Draft and Stone Flour with “Till We Kissed.”

(We are deep in the Wisconsin woods now, but we’ll get you out in a minute.)

Apart from the local acts, WLCX also had a thirst for novelties. At the end of 1970, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug was #1 for a month. It’s a Scandinavian-themed holiday parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” which had done six weeks at #1 on WLCX in September and October. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such a thing in western Wisconsin, although Stan and Doug themselves were from Seattle.

In February 1971, WLCX listed Bloodrock’s execrable “D.O.A” at #1 for two weeks. (In both weeks, the #2 song is “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins, and it occurs to me that every discussion about the incredible variety of 70s radio music could begin and end right there.) Stan and Doug probably never overlapped with “D.O.A.,” which is kind of a shame, but as 1971 rolled on, the novelty hits did too. Later that year, the list of #1 songs at WLCX includes Tom Clay’s montage hit “What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John” and Hudson and Landry’s comedy cut “Ajax Liquor Store.” The year 1972 begins with a run to #1 for the passive-aggressive “Once You Understand” by Think, and the station started 1973 with an uninterrupted eight-week run at #1 for “Dueling Banjos.” In 1975, a five-week run at the top for Ringo Starr’s “No No Song” was followed by three weeks for Benny Bell’s reissued 1946 recording “Shaving Cream.” Later in 1975, “Mr. Jaws” by Dickie Goodman would be #1 for four weeks. Six weeks after that, “Convoy” would begin a seven-week stay at #1, followed immediately by the George Baker Selection’s “Paloma Blanca.” Also in 1976, WLCX would chart Jimmy Dean’s Mother’s Day novelty “IOU” at #1 for four weeks, and Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” for a week.

WLCX went on the air in 1947 and bore the same call letters, except for a brief period in the late 50s, until 1983. The station is known as WLXR now and is running an oldies format, still at 1490 on the AM band, still playing some of the songs it played in the 70s. (Probably not “Witchi Tai-To” or “Shaving Cream” though.) It’s always fun to remember when local radio was truly local, doing its own thing and going its own way, and the WLCX surveys reveal a station doing just that.

(This post owes a lot to Wisconsin music historian Gary E. Myers, whose Do You Hear That Beat (published 1994) and On That Wisconsin Beat (2006) are astonishing references, the first one compiled in the era before e-mail.)  

6 thoughts on “The Wisconsin Woods

  1. Gary Omaha

    >>It’s always fun to remember when local radio was truly local, doing its own thing and going its own way<<

    Amen, Jim!

  2. porky

    The Heard, a group from Peoria IL, migrated to Janesville, WI and took advantage of the teen club scene there, becoming the Wylde Heard, cutting a record that was picked up nationally by Philips. At some point group member Jim Croegaert joined Hope who later released a long player on A&M.

    The Unchained Mynds record was also picked up by a national label, Buddah, and the B-side was their take on Wayne Cochran’s “Going Back to Miami” a classic “one-chord wonder” later covered by the Blues Brothers.

    One other tidbit I find interesting is that the Crossfires, the Turtles in their incarnation as a surf band, cut a song called “Silver Bullet” that was a revved up “Lone Ranger Theme.” The above-mentioned Silver Bullets could not have known about this version as it was unissued until the early 80’s.

    Oh, and to show how these bands all had their ear to the ground, the pre-stardom Guess Who cut both “We Can’t Go on This Way” and “Till We Kissed.”

    1. The Myers books show how much cross-fertilization there was in every local music scene around the state’s bigger cities; bands formed and reformed and reformed again, sometimes searching for the Right Combination and sometimes just for the hell of it. Also important were the local entrepreneurs—club owners, radio people—who could help the bands get an audience beyond the garages they rehearsed in. The heyday didn’t last long—eight or nine years at outside, maybe?—but while it did, it was pretty great. It’s like there was a hive-mind at work, which is the most colorful explanation for how a band from Winnipeg and a band from La Crosse ended up recording the same relatively obscure song.

      1. porky

        Gary’s books are great (extra points for sorting out the spelling of all those Czech/Polish names of the region).

        I’ve been involved in the research of Golden Voice studios in downstate Illinois and have befriended the couple (now in their 80s) who built and founded it. They said that Danville, IL native Irv Azoff ran a booking agency in Champaign, IL and used their studio as a “test kitchen” of sorts to put together good bands. That guitarist didn’t gel with that singer? Next! Throwing musicians aside like spices from a recipe that didn’t work. Sadly these tapes didn’t survive a fire.

        Oh, and that Azoff guy went on to bigger and better things…

  3. John Gallagher

    I half expected you to say the P-Nut Gallery’s “Do You Know What Time It Is” went to #1 in La Crosse. On another note, Think did very well here in Erie, PA at WJET.

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