Ask Milwaukeeans to name their favorite local musicians and you’ll get a list as long as your arm. But some names come up over and over again, as generations of music lovers pass down their passions and regional “legends” find ways to stay relevant in an ever-evolving industry. Here, four of those favorites reminisce on their entrée into Milwaukee’s music scene and share why they’re still joyfully making music multiple decades later.
Milwaukee’s Jazz Master
BY NAN BIALEK
Milwaukee jazz guitar legend Manty Ellis cannot remember a time when he was not soul-deep in the music he loves.
“I didn’t have much choice,” says Ellis, who was born at home 86 years ago. “My father was a jazz musician, primarily self-taught, and he played professionally. He practiced every day and he practiced on the day I was born. So I was born into it.”
When Ellis was just 4, his father started pointing out little things to him, like the location of middle C on the piano. A few steps outside the back door brought him to the home of musician Bert Bailey, leader of Bert Bailey and His Brown Buddies. Little Manty would park his Kiddie Kart just outside Bailey’s door and watch the musicians arrive for rehearsals. By the time he was 9, Ellis was invited to sit in on band practice.
“I was a pianist at first and always wanted to play the guitar but we never had one,” he recalls. “My house had two pianos most of the time. The piano is the simplest instrument to understand because it’s laid out like your newspaper, in black and white. You can see what you’re talking about. It was the best thing ever handed to me.”
Milwaukee had just a few serious jazz musicians at the time: Billy Wallace, Bunky Green and Willie Pickens. Wallace, a well-known pianist, took the young Ellis under his wing and taught the lad how to play his repertoire so that Wallace could turn his attention to mastering the saxophone.
The first paid gigs for Ellis were Saturday night dances at the Lapham Park Social Center, but as jazz clubs opened in Bronzeville and downtown, he found more places to play. And, after 20 years on the piano, Ellis finally picked up the guitar.
Eventually, he opened the Manty Ellis Music Center on 19th and Hampton Ave. The store became a gathering place for students and accomplished musicians alike. Ellis built a bandstand and set up an electric piano, bass and drum kit. Whenever big-name artists like Freddie Hubbard and George Benson were in Milwaukee, they stopped in.
“The best musicians in the world came to the shop to play,” Ellis says.
There was the time, for instance, when jazz giant Lionel Hampton agreed to perform at a political fundraiser: “They picked [Hampton] up at the airport and dropped him off at the store. We rehearsed all day and the next night we played the gig at the Performing Arts Center.”
Ellis has also worked with Stanley Turrentine, Buddy Montgomery, Sonny Stitt, David Hazeltine, Vaughn Freeman, Eddie Harris, Brian Lynch and Melvin Rhyne. His most exciting night, though, was when he played at a gig in San Francisco with George Duke, “probably one of the best jazz pianists ever recognized by the jazz community,” Ellis says. “All of these people I’ve been face-to-face with on the bandstand.”
Ellis’s talent has been recognized with the 1997 Arts Midwest Jazz Masters Award, and a lifetime achievement award from Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery, where he still plays. But perhaps Ellis’ most valuable contribution to jazz is his role in developing the renowned jazz studies program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which he co-founded with pianist Tony King in the early 1970s. Both were teaching at the Conservatory at the time.
“Tony came up with the idea of doing it,” Ellis says. “He was a genius, and I’m not just using the word genius lightly. Every Saturday and Sunday for about three years we sat at my kitchen table and he wrote a program and we discussed things.” The program is unique because of its coordination between playing ensembles and the classroom.
“I’ve got students all over the world,” Ellis notes. “In the jazz world, wherever the top names were, my students were part of that.” The most important lesson, though, is showing students and the wider community that jazz is a cultural art form that has yet to receive the respect it is due.
“It doesn’t get the respect that classical music gets,” Ellis insists. “Every type of music has a contribution to jazz; you’ve got the blues in there, you’ve got gospel in there, you’ve got funk and hip-hop. It has a place in history as the only true art form that the United States of America can claim.”
Yesterday’s Blues and Tomorrow Sound
BY JEFF HAMILTON
For more than four decades, Paul Cebar has fused a pastiche of diverse musical styles, providing a unique soundtrack to the Milwaukee metropolitan area that’s grown as vibrant as Cebar’s trademark crayon-box wardrobe.
A longtime singer-songwriter and bandleader, Cebar is also a veteran disc jockey on WMSE whose record collection now hovers around 20,000. Thus, he’s a deeply knowledgeable music historian by experience and evolution.
The first band Cebar fronted was aptly called “Paul Cebar and The Milwaukeeans” and I had the honor of recording and co-producing two of their records, “Upstroke for The Downfolk” (1996) and “Get-Go” (1997). But when I recently spent a few hours chatting with Cebar at my local recording studio, I wanted to know how he came to be the Paul Cebar that generations of Milwaukee music fans know and love.
Cebar has always grooved to his own beat, even from a young age. I asked him how a kid from the west side of Milwaukee — one growing up at a time when the airwaves were full of soft rock, West Coast faux-country and bubblegum pop — came to discover obscure blues, jazz, Latin music and country artists that the world had all but forgotten. “I guess I was little bit of a square,” he grins. Turns out, a neighbor down the street had a collection of old blues and jazz 45s that had long been out of print. “Through those 45s, I got into that culture,” Cebar says. “I jumped way in!”
Cebar got his first guitar “as a little Catholic boy” when he made his first communion. Years later, and fresh out of college, he hit the road with his acoustic guitar just like a Minnesotan kid named Bob Dylan did years before, heading to New York City. But NYC in the 1970s was entering the disco and punk rock era. A young man playing folk and blues songs from decades past wasn’t exactly the style du jour at the time.
Even so, Cebar recalls playing memorable shows at venerable joints such as The Bitter End. “[The club’s owner] Paul Colby, who was very supportive of me, put me on a show opening for Willie Dixon,” Cebar explains of a bill with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and “Poet Laureate of the Blues.” “I think about it now and still think, ‘Holy cow! I opened for Willie Dixon!’ It was fantastic!”
Another stamp of approval soon followed — this time from the soulful folk icon some call the musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
“As I finished [my set], I see this gal coming up, broadly smiling,” Cebar recalls. “She gave me a gigantic hug and was like ‘That was fantastic!’ I realized it was Odetta. I mean, it was exciting!”
Though the Big Apple afforded him those A-list encounters, Cebar eventually made the practical decision to stop dividing his time between NYC and MKE and hone his talents full time in Milwaukee. His first “proper” band was the Racine-based R&B Cadets, whose founder John Sieger — another heavy hitter in the regional songwriting scene — invited Cebar to join the group.
“I realized that here in Milwaukee I could learn a lot more about being in a band, because you could play every weekend,” Cebar recalls of the decision. “It was a very pivotal thing. The Cadets were becoming very popular.”
When the R&B Cadets drifted apart, Paul realized he needed to begin writing his own songs, in part for the sake of his bank account. “I was pretty content to be an interpreter and put a spin on something and making it mine,” he explains. “At that time, I was learning about publishing and royalties, and being around John [Sieger] gave me the notion that I could do this.”
Cebar started crafting songs in earnest and formed The Milwaukeeans, which has since morphed into Cebar’s current band, Tomorrow Sound. Curiously, the first song he ever penned, “Our Love Is All Over the Floor,” is recorded but remains unreleased. He is also proud to collaborate with other noted songwriters, local and otherwise. “I’ve written with Willy [Porter] and Peter Mulvey. I’m writing with Pat McLaughlin; he has been working with Dan Auerbach [The Black Keys] and a root crew of songwriters. It’s been very fruitful!”
A beloved staple of the regional festival season, Cebar and Tomorrow Sound, whose 2014 release “Fine Rude Thing” was a critical success, are gearing up for a predictably busy summer. Cebar says he is also tossing around the idea of compiling a collection of unreleased recordings from his four-decade-plus career.
Courtesy of that career and his ongoing contributions to Milwaukee’s music scene — both as a pillar and a fan — Cebar was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry [WAMI] Hall of Fame.
First-time fans and Cebar faithfuls can see him with Tomorrow Sound July 6 at Summerfest and find his full discography on iTunes and Amazon Music.
Milwaukee’s Musical Chameleon
BY NAN BIALEK
This summer marks Robin Pluer’s 25th year as a featured performer at Milwaukee’s Bastille Days, and she is now as much an icon of East Town’s French festival as its faux Eiffel Tower.
But Pluer wasn’t always a master of the classic French tunes that she sings with sparkle on the Madison Medical Beaux Arts stage. In 1995, John Ertl, entertainment consultant for Bastille Days, suggested she mix them in with her contemporary playlist. So she began to rehearse the distinctly Parisian, emotion-driven ballads made famous by the late French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
“I locked myself in our pantry in the kitchen and learned the whole Piaf repertoire,” Pluer says.
While Piaf often wore a black dress on stage, Pluer creates her own costumes to reflect what she calls her own “funky elegance.” Some of her designs are inspired by the spirit of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere. Pluer has been known to upcycle kitchen curtains into a shirt and to cut holes in the top of her hats so she can pull her hair through.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always thought if you get on stage, you should look different from the audience,” she explains.
Pluer, who grew up in Milwaukee and Muskego, and also has lived in New York City and Buffalo, NY, says she always feels “at home” when she performs. When she was a girl, she carried her transistor radio everywhere she went. She still does.
“I was thinking why I feel ‘at home’ when I sing,” Pluer explains. “I liken it to having a station perfectly tuned in on the radio.” The rest of life, she says, is a bit like that white noise you get while tuning between stations.
Pluer has always been surrounded by music, from her older brother’s Supremes records, to her mother’s accordion numbers and her dad’s harmonica playing. When she began buying records, she was drawn to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin.
And when Pluer was ready to sing for a paycheck herself, her dad showed her an ad for a disco band called Nite Fever. She auditioned for the group, got the job, and began her paid career singing Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” at a church bazaar.
Since then, Pluer has charmed audiences from Hooligan’s on the city’s East Side to Toronto and Poland. She’s performed with John Sieger and his brother, Mike Sieger, and was an original member of the R&B Cadets with Paul Cebar. She’s played with Mrs. Fun and the Chris Hanson Band, written a few songs of her own and collaborated with Peter Buffett and Nick Lowe. And along the way, Pluer has picked up three “Best Female Vocalist” WAMI Awards and even more as a member of the R&B Cadets.
“I’ve been singing for a long time and I’m just thrilled that I can still sing and that I am still doing it,” says Pluer, 60. “I keep doing it because it’s what I love to do. It never feels like a job; it’s who I am.”
Pluer says one of her most memorable moments happened during the 2016 Bastille Days celebration. A terrorist had just driven a truck into a Bastille Days crowd in Nice, France, killing more than 80 people.
“It was such an awful thing and while I was getting ready, I thought, ‘I feel like a clown and I can’t go out and sing and have fun,’” she recalls. Pluer managed to perform for about half an hour before feeling certain that she was not going to be able to finish her set.
“Then I went back to my room and thought, ‘They got me. The terrorists got me. They filled me with fear and they stole my joy,’” she continues. Pluer put her costume back on, returned to the stage and invited the audience to support her by singing along.“My point is, singing is therapy for people. It’s almost like praying. It’s sacred. Music is therapy for the people in my audience, or anybody’s audience,” she says.
Bastille Days 2019 is scheduled for July 11-14 in Milwaukee’s East Town.
From Decibully to Dramatic Lover
BY JOSHUA M. MILLER
Milwaukee indie rock band Decibully left an indelible mark on the regional music scene during their decade-long run between 2001 and 2011. Their early popularity caught the attention of national indie label Polyvinyl, which released the band’s first two albums. The following years featured multiple tours around the U.S., Canada and Europe. What ultimately proved to be the band’s final two albums debuted on the local label Listening Party Records.
Singer William Seidel’s inimitable voice and emotion-laden lyrics helped distinguish Decibully from other local groups and made them a popular staple in the city’s music scene.
But then life happened.
The band played less often as members tackeled new life changes and responsibilities. Seidel himself got married, started a family and opened two businesses in the hospitality realm, Bay View’s Goodkind and Burnhearts. Though he was no longer performing, running Burnhearts gave him a chance to stay in tune with what was going on musically in the city and to support regional bands via Burnhearts’ popular summer street party and winter’s annual Mitten Fest.
“The fun thing about doing Burnhearts is … I still get to listen to a lot of local music and bring in local bands for street parties and live events,” Seidel says. “I tried to stay as connected as possible throughout the years and I really feel like it’s a really exciting time for this city.”
It’s no surprise then that the city’s expanding musical realm would lure him back creatively too. In 2014, Seidel and Decibully reunited for a Milwaukee Day show. It went so well that Seidel decided to form a new band.
The resulting group, Dramatic Lovers, features some of Seidel’s fellow Decibully members as well as current and former members of Maritime, The Promise Ring and Temper Temper. The band gets its name from World War I Italian anarchists that met at the building that is now Cactus Club, a now-iconic local music venue that would prove instrumental in the band members’ musical growth.
“Life keeps going on and I’ve made some good decisions in my life, so it’s just nice to get back and do some more creative things again,” Seidel reflects. “It’s pretty natural to get back together and start writing songs. As far as playing out live and stuff, that comes second. The primary reason was just to get back together and have a creative outlet again.”
That creative outlet proved so satisfying that Dramatic Lovers recorded its soon to be released debut album, You Talk Loud, at Polish Moon studios in Milwaukee with producer Jason Todd.
For Seidel, songwriting still comes from a very personal place, but he now tries to frame lyrics in a more universal way, admitting he doesn’t feel weighted down by expectations as he once did.
“We spent a long time trying to be rock stars and when you set that free from your mind, there’s a whole new approach to life,” he says. “It frees you up to explore different things, musically and emotionally and real-life.
“I just wanted [the songs] to be approachable for all people, not just 40-year-old men that like indie rock,” Seidel continues. “I want to translate to all generations and all kinds of people and not be super specific and stuck in my own life … [rather] taking two or three things that have happened in life, for sure, and expanding on that and seeing it through other people’s eyes to find the different voice for every song.”
Seidel says Dramatic Lovers’ influences — The Cure, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order — are still the same as when he performed with Decibully. But with a catch.
“It’s the way that we’ve translated them,” he explains. “Decibully took more of a roots-rock approach to the music that we all grew up to, whereas this band’s a bit more literal in our translation of our influences. Dramatic Lovers has a little more aggressive guitar sound and a little bit faster, upbeat direction with it. Even though the core of the group is the same players, we want to do something that was new and exciting to us, even if it’s more of a throwback sound.” MKE