By Michael Casper
Growing up in Plymouth, Wisconsin in 1951, there wasn’t a lot a 6 year old could do to occupy his time. When Dave Steffen and his family moved to the Crystal Lake area, he says he was a loner who liked to run away from school at recess.
“I was pretty much out of the main stream,” Dave said “I was shy, and when I got off the bus, I was pretty much by myself, and there wasn’t really anyone around. I had a basketball hoop, so I was pretty good at hoops, but music was what I liked, and the guitar is what I loved.”
Dave had older sisters who were into Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
“It was there that I was first introduced to the likes of Chuck Berry,” Dave said “The Ventures, Everly Brothers. Pretty much any group or performer that played guitars, I was into. I liked the Rock and Roll side of things. So for me, my ‘guitar life’ began at age six.”
Like many youngsters, Dave got a toy guitar for Christmas, and his parents were very supportive of his musical passion. But he didn’t get his first real guitar lesson until he was ten.
“My folks rented it from a guy by the name of Joe Champeau from whom I took lessons,” Dave said. “He lived about 20 miles from the Sheboygan area. I can’t remember what type of guitar it was, and I think my folks paid like $2 or $3 for the rental. My first lesson I flat out stunk (laugh). In fact my parents told me I didn’t have ‘it.’ But after that first lesson, I went back home, and basically practiced my guitar until my fingers bled. I was ticked off. I was not a natural. But I came back after the first week and I blew everybody away. At ten years old, I was totally determined.”
Playing the guitar may seem easy for those who watch Dave Steffen play, but it’s hard. And even Dave didn’t realize how hard.
“To this day, when I teach students the first time,” he said “I recognize all over again how hard it is. It’s not like a piano where you can play a single, clear note. You have to work at it, your fingers get calloused, muscles have to do things they have never done before. It looks easy on TV.”
Dave’s bullheaded determination led to his first performance.
“My instructors were so impressed with my enthusiasm and quick progress,” Dave said “they put me in the ‘studio recital,’ after just three weeks. I was one of the last kids to perform, there were like fifty students. It was in a hall, and I played ‘Blue Tail Fly.’ I screwed up the first measures, so I started over again. I was nervous, it was my first time on stage. But I was already headlining (laugh)! And the studio was using me as an example of what can happen when you work hard.”
All these many years later, Dave’s hard work, and countless gigs have resulted in his being inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) hall of fame.
“I was shocked when I got the news,” Dave said. “I was never even mentioned for and of the WAMI’s prior to this (laugh). But this is an honor, and I’m really happy and humbled by this.”
Dave’s never been big on accolades.
“I’m just not a guy who likes folks making a fuss,” he said “these big events, I’m still mostly a loner, and not into big celebrations. I’m just happy to still be playing my guitar, working, and doing what I love.”
Dave’s the first to say he wasn’t a natural, but he had learned some music from his dad who had his own big band.
“The Roy Steffen Band,” Dave said “a twelve-piece band that played all the Glenn Miller-like standards. They toured all over the Milwaukee and southern Wisconsin area. I remember my dad telling me about when they came to Cedar Lake to play a wedding, and found out they had to play polkas, and they didn’t know any polkas (laugh) they ended up having to pull out some sheet music in a hurry!”
Dave continued to take lessons once a week. He would spend a lot of time listening to “guitar stuff,” picking it up by ear. And that led into Dave’s first gig at age 14, with his group “The Wanderers.”
“It was during Road America at the Pit and Paddock,” Dave said “back in 1965. We had to have our parents there, since we were all under age. We played some Beatles, Herman’s Hermits. I’ll never forget that night because I had an ‘awakening.‘ We were playing, when all of a sudden out of nowhere, there was a chick who came out of the crowd, climbed up on our piano, and started dancing and taking off her clothes! And that’s when I realized, I was going to keep practicing guitar because this business is for me!’ (laugh)”
In 1968 Dave put together another band called Love Society. They took the song “Do You Wanna Dance,” by Bobby Freeman and gave it more of their own sound, and entered a Battle of the Bands, where agent Al Posniak from Target Productions heard it, and wanted to record them.
“It actually became a hit locally,” Dave said “and we had a bidding war between three or four companies who wanted to sign us. We eventually signed with Scepter Records, which at the time had a singer by the name of Dionne Warwick signed to the label. The song made Top 10 across the country, we landed a manager, got a Greyhound bus, and we were off. We toured. Did a live show on WLS radio in Chicago, did a show for TV called “Upbeat” which was out of Cleveland.”
They were on a roll. Then came the realization that they needed another hit.
“We tried doing a follow up,” Dave said “but we were kids. We were getting into heavier music. Against our manager’s will, we did a song called Tobacco Road, a psychedelic version of it which to this day I still think sounds cool, but it wasn’t a good business move. We ended up getting a contract with RCA, at the time located at 1 Wacker Drive in Chicago, and we recorded an album there. We had one hit, “Bang on Your Own Drum,” which was getting airplay, but no sales due in part to a shipping or trucking strike or something. There were no records to be found in the stores.”
It was in 1974 when Sun Blind Lion was formed out of the Love Society, and with it came that harder edge sound. They recorded an album at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis. Bob Dylan had just recorded ‘Blood on the Tracks’ there two weeks prior.
“It was at Sound 80 where ‘Jamaican Holiday’ was recorded in just a few days,” Dave said “it was a regional hit in 1976. We were doing a lot of midwest touring. Scott Rivard was the engineer, and he also was the engineer for Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion. Record companies were coming to see us, and we almost got signed. But they had a different idea of what they wanted us to be. Spandex pants, and all that…they were looking for a ‘formula.’ That was not our style. We decided we couldn’t be something we weren’t.”
Sun Blind Lion kept gigging until about 1979.
“And then in ’80 I decided it was time to follow my guitar playing and blues rock roots,” Dave said. “And we started the Dave Steffen Band. Back then you made ‘cassettes’ instead of vinyl albums. In ’81 we recorded in Sheboygan. In ’82 we did another studio album in Waupun at Madison Street Studio. Nick Kazulka, the engineer there, did a fantastic job. He had an old sound board that Jimmy Hendrix has once used, it sounded killer. And it wasn’t just the board, but also Kuzulka’s engineering on that album was brilliant.”
Then California called.
“I had this friend, Don Burhop who lived in San Francisco,” Dave said “and he was doing the lighting for Jefferson Starship, Santana, Grateful Dead, bands like that. He told me, ‘Dave, you gotta come out here.’ He invited us to come out. We were playing a few gigs in some smaller bars at the time here, until in January of 85’ we finally thought we’d give California a try for a while. We loaded up the Chevy van and headed for the coast. That ‘few month trip’ turned into 10 years.”
The band got by on very little.
“It was not easy,” Dave said “ for quite a while we lived off a sack of potatoes (laugh). I mean there are only so many ways you can make a sack of potatoes into something appetizing.”
They lived at Burhop’s house.
“He took us in. And that cassette album we recorded in Waupun…it opened a few doors, and we ended up opening for The Tubes, Santana, Robin Trower. We entered a Battle of Bands, took 2nd place, we got to be known, but it took time and it was not easy.”
True to his Wisconsin roots, Dave always returned in the summer months.
“That blue Chevy van went more than 600,000 miles,” Dave said “it never rusted, thanks to the California weather, so we just kept dropping in a new engines and tranny’s when we needed to!” (laugh) We met a lot of great folks in California, hanging out in Marin County like Huey Lewis and the News, Carlos Santana, guys from the Dead. It was exciting, thrilling, but we never really got the ‘big deal’ we always wanted.”
Dave moved back to Wisconsin in 1995 when his mom was diagnosed with cancer.
“I came back to take care of her,” Dave said “it’s what you do.”
Dave misses California, and its vibrant music scene, but as he says, “the times were changing out there, and we’ve been able to carry on what we love here in Wisconsin.”
Playing the blues guitar is what he knows.
“I’m not getting wealthy,” Dave said “I have a buddy of mine that does some yard work, and I’ll occasionally help him out, I call it ‘raking for the rich’ (laugh) to give my muscles a work out. But music is my love! And I’m making a living playing.”
Dave will be the first to tell you he couldn’t do what he’s done without a core group of performers and friends.
“Craig Neuser has been with me since we did our Hawaii gig,” Dave said. “He was 19 at the time, so it’s been 20 years. I was teaching Craig’s brother at the time, and I was doing an acoustic set; Craig came out and played with me, and he played pretty good, and the dude could sing, which was a bonus! Didn’t take much to convince him to come along to Hawaii. We also have Spencer Panosh, who was Craig’s good friend from Whitelaw, Wisconsin and I really liked his drumming, and I loved how he and Craig worked together so well. He joined Reverend Raven for awhile, but came back 10 years ago. Spencer is very talented, and a natural drummer. So when you match that up with the voice that Craig has, you get something special. They are reliable, with no baggage, these guys are straight forward guys.”
Dave also co-fronts another version of the Dave Steffen Band called The String Benders, a quartet including two acoustic guitars, drums and a bass.
“Russ Reiser sings and plays acoustic,” Dave said “he started the Benders as a part time band. I joined him, along with Ron Kalista on drums, and Craig Neuser on stand-up fiddle.”
So into the WAMI Hall of Fame goes Dave Steffen.
“I’m humbled,” Dave said. “They told me it has a lot to do with my body of work, but I think part of it is because I’m still ‘hanging around’ (laugh), hang in long enough…hey, somebody will recognize you (laugh).”
To find Dave’s complete upcoming schedule and music, visit davesteffenband.com