'Milwaukee Rock And Roll' Anthology Takes A Personal Approach To Music History

Apr 7, 2020

Milwaukee has a rich musical history, and a new anthology is taking a personal approach in chronicling generations of music in the city. From folk, rock 'n' roll, blues, and R&B — Milwaukee Rock and Roll 1950-2000: A Reflective History chronicles the performers, promoters, photographers and DJs that played a pivotal role in shaping the city's musical history.

The book Milwaukee Rock and Roll is a reflective history of the city's diverse music scenes, filled with first-hand accounts and archived photos of some of Milwaukee's most influential artists, bands and personalities.
Credit Marquette University Press

Milwaukee Rock and Roll is co-edited by Dave Luhrssen, Phillip Naylor, and Bruce Cole. Luhrssen is the managing editor of The Shepherd Express, author and a regular film contributor to Lake Effect. Naylor is a history professor at Marquette University and teaches a course on the history of rock and roll. Cole has been a drummer in local bands since the 1960s and is the curator of the Jean Cujé Milwaukee Music Collection at Marquette for the past 25 years.

READ: 'Brick Through The Window' Chronicles Milwaukee's Once-'Flourishing' Punk Rock Scene 

The Milwaukee music scene has grown to an impressive size, with Summerfest as just one of its highlights, but the written history has been lacking. So, about 15 years ago, Luhrssen and Naylor started discussing making a book over lunch at Miss Katie's Diner. "It just got rolling from that point," says Luhrssen.

Their musical melding of the minds has a strong advantage with Cole's involvement, according to Naylor. "[Bruce has] an elephantine memory concerning different rock groups, so we basically had a walking archive with us," he notes.

The Jean Cujé Milwaukee Music Collection also provided a wealth of information with several thousand recordings of Milwaukee-related entertainers and bands along with memorabilia and pictures. With so much history to cover, Cole admits this book is just a fraction of what they could cover. But he hopes readers see it as a reflective history rather than an encyclopedia — filled with first-hand accounts of essays and visual reflections.

"These are people that know what they're talking about in different areas of music contributing," he notes.

Milwaukee was just the right size, according to Luhrssen, giving musicians a lot of accessibility to audiences and vice versa. Plus, the city's bar culture offered an abundance of venues for bands to play in.

"It was small enough that different music scenes could actually feel like genuine communities and big enough to afford at least reasonable opportunities to perform and develop in the area," he explains.

As the book chronicles music history before The Beatles, during the "British invasion," and after, Naylor says one thing remained the same: "I think that the common denominator here, which made Milwaukee kind of an interesting place, is that you really had very good musicians."

Milwaukee Music Recommendations From The Editors:

Phillip Nayor: "You can cover everything with Sigmund Snopek." From Prague rock to classical, "I would say that [Snopek] offers a lot of genres for people to listen to and he's been very productive and still is."

Dave Luhrssen: The Haskels "identified very strongly with being from Milwaukee. Many of their songs touched on recognizable Milwaukee landmarks, Milwaukee personalities. They covered songs by earlier Milwaukee bands such as The Legends, so they were a little bit of a history lesson of Milwaukee rock and roll back in the late 1970s, early '80s."

Bruce Cole: "The Legends were very important because they were the biggest band in the early '60s ... They signed with Capitol Records about three weeks before The Beatles did. Unfortunately, they were so tremendously good it didn't show in the recordings ... it [didn't] come out the way it does live. But I would say their early album is something to listen to for historical purposes."