Just what was Green Bay’s first album ever?
By Rev. Nørb
If one were to ask a sampling of random passers-by to name the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll record, some surveyed might guess Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & his Comets, which topped the charts in 1955.
A certain faction of the more historically-minded might suggest it was Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, from 1951. Others, such as myself, might point to Guitar Boogie by Arthur Smith, which dates back to 1945. Getting a definitive answer, though, might be tough. You may not get an answer at all, but rather blank looks.
Let me answer this one for you: Green Bay’s first rock ‘n’ roll record was Money/Side-Winder by the Vibratones, who were also Green Bay’s first rock ‘n’ roll band.
Starting in 1958, the Vibratones enjoyed a 33-year career on the local music scene, eventually morphing into more of a show/wedding band, and playing just about every conceivable local venue along the way.
“At the beginning, we were just a rock and roll band,” Guitarist Jim Maas said. “And nobody else was doing it.”
While the idea of being the first rock ‘n’ roll band in town – any town – conjures up mental images of red-faced city fathers and offended grandmothers chasing teenagers down the street with brooms, Maas would offer no negatives whatsoever when asked to detail the pros and cons of the situation.
“It was a big pro,” Maas said. “The kids were pretty enthusiastic.”
Riding the crest of said enthusiasm, the Vibratones hooked up with Sauk City’s Cuca Records early in 1962. Located about 25 miles northwest of Madison, Cuca founded its empire on “Mule Skinner Blues” (a #5 hit for the Fendermen in 1960), which released everything from polka to country, and is the most prolific independent record label in Wisconsin music history.
Cuca’s releases were recorded and mastered on-site, with the record pressing generally subcontracted to industry giant RCA Victor. In March 1962, Green Bay’s first rock ‘n’ roll record emerged from Cuca’s pink-walled basement recording studio.
Gracing the A-side was the band’s take on Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” which had been the first-ever hit for the Motown Records empire in 1960, and would later be covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Flying Lizards. Though the Vibratones version was reportedly a hit in some locations, it does not appear to have distinguished itself through the years. Despite the local historical significance, a YouTube search fails to turn up hide- nor-hair of it.
The B-side has fared better. While the period bookended by Elvis joining the Army/Little Richard joining the seminary/Buddy Holly’s plane crash (late 1950s) on one end, and the arrival of the Beatles (early 1964) on the other, is often mischaracterized as a time where rock ‘n’ roll was at its lowest ebb. That era is (correctly) considered a golden age of American instrumental rock ‘n’ roll by enthusiasts of the genre.
Featuring Link Wray-esque guitar licks trading off with piano and sax, the Maas-penned “Side-Winder” stakes Green Bay’s claim to the late 1950s/early 1960s instrumental rock tradition, and hasn’t been ignored by international collectors – turning up on far-flung compilations like Elemental Instrumentals (Ace Records, England), and a Dutch album called The Cuca Records Rock Story, Vol. 3.
The band’s second single, “Eventually,” was released by Milwaukee’s Raynard Records in 1965.
“That was our best seller,” said Maas. “We broke even!”
The record, he said, garnered enough airplay to land them in the local Top 10, right between the Supremes and the Beatles. Alas, the band’s third single – “I Remember Yesterday” – happened to come out at roughly the same moment as the Beatles’ slightly-more-well-known song, “Yesterday.” The resulting confusion, however, did not work in the band’s favor.
“That one didn’t sell so well,” said Maas, succinctly.
The Vibratones would continue for 26 more years, but never release another record.
Bearing in mind that the Vibratones’ version of “Money” came out a full two years before the Beatles version was released in the U.S., I asked Maas how it felt when the band first heard the Fab Four doing the song on The Beatles’ Second Album in 1964. Were they proud? Annoyed? Irate? Turns out, nothing of the sort,
“Oh,“ said Maas. “I didn’t even know they recorded that one.”
Rev. Nørb is a lifelong inmate of Green Bay. While in high school, he self-published Green Bay’s first punk zine, SiCK TEEN, and later went on to write for various music publications with names like Maximum RockNRoll and Razorcake. He’s been in numerous bands over the course of the last forty years, most notably Suburban Mutilation, Depo-Provera, Boris the Sprinkler, the Onions, and the Smart Shoppers.