The “Golden Hits Of The 60s 

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(Jimmie Rodgers)

Soma 1137

No. 5    July 11, 1960




“Mule Skinner Blues” was an unlikely hit–a 30 year old country tune about mules originally called the

“Blue Yodel No. 8” and popularized in rural parts by the “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers.   Most

peculiar, the record featured only a contorted vocal and two guitars; no bass, no drums, no other



Phil Humphrey and Jim  Sundquist were both born in rural Wisconsin on the same day, November

26,1937.   Phil’s hometown was Niagara; Jim’s Stoughton.   As fate would have it, 20 years later–almost

to the day–they met at beer party in Milwaukee.   Musical noise was made by the drunk duo that night.

Despite imparted joy each went their separate way, only to met  by chance a year later when Phil a truck

driver for the Omar Bread Co. happened on to Jim’s name on an apartment door bell.


Now a  unit–and one self-named for the brand of guitar they  played–their first gig together was the Oats

Bin in Stoughton; renumeration was  all the beer they could consume-­ -and possible $5, if the owner liked

them.     Phil had heard the mule skinner tune on an obscure bluegrass disk by Joe D. Gibson.   Soon the

number was apart of their swelling repertoire.   A music fan and store owner named Bill Gregor suggested

they drop down to his basement and record the mule tune on his VM tape recorder.


Enthused, Gregor took the result, their sparse, driving rendition of the “Singing Brakeman’s” song, to  Jim

Kirchstein at Cuca Records.    “Cuca didn’t even have a studio,” said Jim, to Gary Myers, author of Do You

Hear That Beat.   “With the money he got from ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ he bought a lot of equipment for a

beautiful studio.”


For several months the pair tried the hands-on approach to promoting their disk.    “We had a trunk full

of Cuca records and nobody would buy them,” he said.   “We had given up on it totally.”   Enter La Crosse,

Wisconsin DJ Lindy Shannon who played the track into the area’s top 10.


Taking notice were Amos and Dan Heilicher at Soma Records (that’s Amos spelt backwards).   The

Heilicher brothers had the boys re-record the raucious rocker at Vernon Bank’s Kay Bank Studio in

Minneapolis–the same locale where DAVE DUDLEY wailed his “Six Days On The Road” and the

Trashmen later taped “Surfin’ Bird.”   Despite signing with the brothers, Jim and Phil seem to have paid

the costs of making their record.   Soma contracts stated that for only $295 an artist could record two

tunes, have them issued on Soma and receive 350-45s, with a further 150 disks going to DJs.


Sales were  phenomenal–within weeks, the public seemed wild about mules.   The tune, a bodacious boast

about handling a mule, featured Jim and Phil’s delirious whooping and their crackling guitars.  The record

rocked, and no one seemed to question just why these boys were so whipped up about a mule.


The Fendermen, with Johnny Hauser from La Crosse  (drums) and Minneapolis man Den Dale (b. Dennis

Gudim/bass), toured as an opening act for Johnny  Cash and  Johnny  Horton.   Their first big show was in

Minneapolis.   “When we walked out on stage,” said Jim, “all that  applause just hit us–10, maybe 20,000

people.   It was the biggest thrill of my life.”   There were appearances on “American Bandstand,” even one

at the Grand Ole Opry.


Problems, however, were noted near immediately:   no royalties were received from Soma.   Phil and Jim,

with Cuca’s Kirchstein, brought a lawsuit against the label.   A second and third single were released–to

little  response–and the  now extremely collectable lone LP was held up near a year, due to the litigation.


Only months had lapsed and the thrill was truly gone.  “The last time I saw Phil Humphrey we were

flipping a coin to see who was going to buy the turkey dinner as we said goodbye.   We were in Minneapolis

at the 600 Club.   I wished him luck and he wished me luck.   We sat down and we had a turkey dinner

together and a couple of drinks.   Then he went his way and I went mine.”


Phil picked up a Canadian band and recorded a few failed singles as Phil Humphrey & the Fendermen;

later surfacing as a member of  the inconspicuous  Barbara Lee & the Kountry Kats.   Jim immediately

returned to Cuca recording the “Cocaine Blues” as Jimmy Sun & the Radiants; later as the Muleskinners,

“Wolfman,” “Galloping Paul Revere” and “Mule Skinner Blues ’65.”   Soma Records continued to issue

disks with names that they  hoped would successfully suggest the  Fendermen still existed; the Fembermen,

Fenderbenders, Thundermen,  Echo Men…


In 1968, Jim left the rock’n’roll world.   “I was tired of being broke all the time and got a job at the Twin

City Arsenal.”   In the ’90s, he and wife Sharree performed gospel music together.   “I don’t drink anymore

or smoke anymore or pop pills anymore.   It’s quite a sight to all these people that knew me before.  Back

then, I could hardly stand up on the stage.”