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Unsung Heroes of Milwaukee Rock and Roll – The Uptown Savages

By Blaine Schultz

savagesIn the decades since he cut his teeth ripping it up in the Fox Valley with the Rockin’ Bones, Jon Ziegler has lent his musical talents to such combos as Transistor Royale, Doghouse Flowers and The Exotics. Yet for all his accomplishments with those fine bands Ziegler’s most heartfelt work may well be at the greasy intersection where rhythm & blues meets rock and roll with The Uptown Savages.

And let’s just agree that the guy covers a lot of ground. When I recently dropped by WMSE radio where Ziegler’s long-running Chicken Shack program was in full swing, in the corner of the studio was parked the crib of his infant son. Big Joe Turner would be proud.

If all they ever did was exist as a live band, that would be cool, but on the their third long player (on the Cuca Records label, no less) Rock’n’Roll With You, the seven piece mines a few choice covers (Ike Turner, Willie Dixon, Mickey Baker) and tears into ten tunes penned by Ziegler and piano player Jack Stewart. (The decades these two alone have served in the rock and roll wars is beyond impressive.)

Driven by a rhythm section (drummer Bill Backes and bassist Peter Balistreri), a sax duo (Mary Rodgers and Andrew Spadafora) and lead guitarist Dave Smith, Stewart and front man/guitarist Ziegler keep moving from rockabilly stompers to rhumbas. In a perfect universe the band performs their “All Seeing Eye” in a barroom scene from an Orson Welles movie.

Ziegler took time to answer some questions

Why do you think this music is timeless and can you even label it with a genre?
In my opinion our style of music is as much a part of the “American Songbook” as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin et al. In the larger scope of things we are simply a roots rock-and-roll band, but we have performed and recorded across many sub genres: rockabilly, hillbilly bop, country, blues, rhythm and blues, ska and even some surfy instrumental stuff. Rock ‘n’ Roll With You is definitely our most cohesive body of songs; it is very much a rhythm and blues record, 50s Gulf Coast style.

What are you most proud of as a band?
I am proud of our longevity, our ability to evolve and improve, and our ability to adapt to any kind of performance situation. (It should be noted the The Uptown Savages have evolved through personnel changes and can even be seen as sort of an apprenticeship.)

What are the major obstacles you face today keeping a band together?
At this point our biggest obstacle is finding places to play. The Milwaukee club scene, like much of the rest of the country, has dried up. There are not a lot of places to play in town and every other person has a band. There is also a ton of competition for people’s entertainment dollar. If someone wants to be a working musician they have to travel all over or play in multiple bands. I like to play every week so I play in three (plus) groups.

Talk about one unforgettable thing that happened at a gig
Well… I have been sworn to secrecy about many of the unforgettable things. However, we have been lucky to be able to perform with many of our heroes, unfortunately, many within months of their passing on. For example: Link Wray, Ronnie Dawson, Ray Condo, and Nick Curran and a few others. Meeting and hanging out with these guys will be something that I will remember forever.

Other than that after gigging for 15 years most of our other unforgettable memories are more WTF?! moments that were the result of lazy promoters, agents and club owners, etc. At least I can say that in three decades in the business, I have always gotten paid at least what I was promised at the end of the night. We have never been stiffed.

What are your biggest accomplishments/challenges as a band?
This is the first band that I have ever played in that was able to release three full-length CDs of mostly original music. I also consider myself really lucky to be able to do this every week at my age. People still call me to book the band and ask me when we are playing. I think that our new CD Rock ‘n’ Roll With You is by far our best CD. As a matter of fact each record has been better than the last. Not a lot of bands can say that. Most bands are shadows of themselves after 15 years. I truly believe that, at least musically, we have just begun to.

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