The Fendermen

I’m going to take a look at an instrumental group who made the charts in 1960…

The Fendermen

Video: Mule Skinner Blues 2008:

Video: A Fantastic version of Mule Skinner Blues by Jerry Reed & Chet Atkins:

1. Mule Skinner Blues/ Soma 1137/ June 1960/ #5

2. Honky Tonk/ early 1960

3. Torture/ B side of Mule Skinner Blues

Jim Sundquist, born 26 November 1937, Niagara, Wisconsin

Phil Humphrey, born 26 November 1937, Madison (other sources have Stoughton), Wisconsin.

The Fendermen are classified as a ‘one hit wonder’ but, with their interpretation of Mule Skinner Blues, what a hit! Aptly described on “the Sundazed re-issue of their sole album as crazed, pickled-in-reverb hoot-fest with Jimmie Rodgers meeting The Ventures on a three-day bender”, this is wonderful unique and original music.

The Fendermen basically comprised Phil Humphrey on vocals and rhythm guitar and Jim Sundquist on lead guitar. The story is that both Phil and Jim had his own band in the late fifties and each played a Fender guitar. They met up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where they joined forces as a duo.

Come 1959, the guys recorded their version of ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘, a song originally by Jimmie Rodgers back in the thirties as ‘Blue Yodel No. 8‘, along with another tune titled ‘Janice‘. In December of that year, record salesman Ronny Conway passed the resulting tape to Jim Kirchstein at Cuca records with the request to release the pair of songs as a single on his label. In January 1960, Kirchstein did just that as he sensed commercial potential. Allocating Cuca catalogue # 1003, he ordered 300 copies from RCA as a custom pressing and began to send out copies of ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘ to radio stations around the country. A DJ in Lincoln Nebraska started to play it heavily, as did Lindy Shannon on station WKBH in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Demand for the disc was created but Kirchstein could not get RCA to press up further copies for a few weeks.

Meanwhile Amos Heilicher of Soma Records had heard of this disc breaking out and offered to lease the recording and issue it on his label. According to Jim, Amos offered Kirchstein 10 cents per record sold which Jim accepted. However the returned contract stated a 6 cents royalty return. Heilicher had the Fendermen re-record ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘ and a different flip side, this time a tune titled ‘Torture‘ (for which Heilicher had the publishing). These tracks were laid down at Vernon Bank’s Kay Bank Studio in Minneapolis (where Dave Dudley’s ‘Six Days On The Road‘ and The Trashmen’s ‘Surfin’ Bird‘ were cut).

The disc issued on Soma # 1137 received national exposure and in April 1960 reached position five on the Billboard chart. The Fendermen appeared on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand’ and went on a national tour. The disc was released around the world and appeared on Top Rank JAR 395 in the UK. The touring version of The Fendermen at this time included John Haur, Barry Andrews and Jack McManus.

However Kirchstein had not received any royalties and so instigated legal action. Two weeks before trial date, an out of court settlement was reached with Heilicher paying Kirchstein $50,000. After payment of legal fees, Jim was left with $9,000.

The Fendermen were now Soma recording artists and the follow up was a revival of Huey Smith’s ‘Don’t You Just Know It‘ coupled with the instrumental ‘Beach Party‘ (Soma # 1142). These titles were laid down at the aforementioned Kay Bank Studio and the musicians included Dale Denny on bass and back-up vocals. Work was also started on an album. At first, Soma released the wrong version of ‘Don’t You Just Know it‘ in which Phil Humphrey sang the verses in the incorrect order. This was quickly rectified but the disc only managed to bubble under the Hot 100.

In reality, in chart making terms The Fendermen were finished but Soma released a third single in 1961 titled ‘Heartbreakin’ Special‘ c/w ‘Can’t You Wait‘ (Soma # 1155).

The record label also issued an album titled (unsurprisingly) ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘ (Soma #MG 1240) either in 1960 or 1961.

Sometime around here, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey went their separate ways. Jim recorded the single ‘Cocaine Blues‘ c/w ‘Molly And Ten Brooks‘ under the name of “Jimmy Sun and the Radiants” which was released on Cuca #1046 in 1961. This was a clear attempt at trying to recapture the magic of ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘ but was commercially still born. This band later renamed themselves The Muleskinners and had a release with ‘Wolfman‘ c/w ‘Everglades‘ on Soma 1418 in 1964.

As for Phil, there was a release on Sassy 00284/5 sometime in the early to mid sixties with another version of ‘Don’t You Just Know It‘ c/w ‘Popeye‘. This was credited to Phil Humphrey & The Fendermen featuring Dave & Izzy.

Later the Fendermen took a distinctly Canadian look when seemingly Butch McGillis, Al Girard and Gary Triska of the Edmonton based group “The Rock-A-Tunes” became members.

There is also the track ‘Green Sleaves‘ by Phil Humphrey’s Fendermen that was included on the 1996 Swedish issued CD ‘Cuca Records – Rock ‘n’ Roll Story’. Interestingly enough, the same CD has ‘Rocky Road Blues‘ by The Mule Skinners but it is not clear whether there is any connection with The Fendermen.

In 1999, Jim Sundquist clearly hankered after the earlier days as he recorded and released the CD album ‘Jim Sundquist & His Fendermen 2000: The Big Requests‘. The following year, Sundquist was featured on a re-recording of ‘Beach party‘ that was included on the ‘Ultra Modern’ album by The Vibro Champs (Sci-Fi Western 8324). A search of the web has revealed that Jim is still playing live gigs and that his son runs a musical instruments store in the Green Bay area.

The Fendermen may have only had one hit but it was a scorcher.



One response to “The Fendermen

  1. We have a facebook fan who said “Muleskinner is a cover of the original version by Bill Monroe.”

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