Jim Sundquist, half of the Madison-based one-hit wonders the Fendermen, died Tuesday at his home in Fairfax, Minn., of cancer. He was 75.
Sundquist, who joined with Phil Humphrey to form the Fendermen in 1958, had a brief but spectacular career built on their one hit: “Mule Skinner Blues,” a rockabilly remake of an old Jimmy Rodgers song with a distinctive yodeled chorus of “hee-hee-hee-haw-haw-haw.”
Sundquist was an art student at UW-Madison when he joined forces with Humphrey, then a bread truck driver in Stoughton. The duo shared a birthday — Nov. 26, 1937 — and a fondness for Fender guitars.
They got their start playing small clubs in the area, getting paid $5 plus free beer for their first appearance at Oats Bin in Stoughton before moving up to Ideal Bar in Madison, where they made $11 each.
They recorded “Mule Skinner Blues” in the basement of a Middleton home in 1959 and sold a handful of copies through Sauk City-based Cuca Records.
The record was released by Soma Records of Minneapolis and quickly became a hit, soaring to No. 5 on the Billboard charts. According to Record Research Inc., it was the biggest single ever for a Wisconsin-based act.
Before long, they were performing with Johnny Cash in Minneapolis and appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
An extended legal battle over “Mule Skinner” profits delayed the release of the Fendermen’s only album until 1962. The album was a commercial flop at the time but now is considered a collector’s item.
The Fendermen split up early in 1961 after their attempts to follow up on the success of “Mule Skinner” failed. They had different musical ambitions, with Sundquist preferring a country sound and Humphrey yearning to form a bigger band.
“We didn’t see eye to eye,” Sundquist said in a 1995 interview with the State Journal. “I love Phil Humphrey and he was a great entertainer, but I don’t think he thought highly of me as a guitar player.”
Sundquist and Humphrey continued to perform separately for a number of years. Humphrey later moved to Canada and disappeared from the music scene. The last time they saw each other was around 1964, according to Sundquist’s website.
After struggling for years with drug and alcohol problems, Sundquist said his life turned around in 1990 when he was born again. He remarried in 1991 and performed in a gospel duo with his wife, Sharrie. He worked as a music and art therapist for senior citizens in Minneapolis for 20 years before retiring to Fairfax.
He is survived by his wife, five children, two stepsons, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren and four siblings.