Featured Interview – Jimmy Voegeli

jimmy voegli photo 1Traditions run deep in the upper Midwest, where family values are still cherished and good music is, too. And nobody delivers that better than keyboard player/vocalist Jimmy Voegeli and his seven-piece show band, The Jimmys.

It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing a grange hall in a small town in Wisconsin, where they’re based, or entertaining hard-partying beach crowds on the Gulf Coast or enthusiastic festival audiences in eastern or northern Europe, concertgoers are treated to intense blues, soul, funk and R&B in a manner that breathes new life into a style of musical performance that peaked the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Voegeli – pronounced “Vaguely” — is a modern-day master of the Hammond organ, and his individual talents have been on display at the piano bar stage aboard frequent Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises. Despite his international following, however, few fans are aware that he has an entirely parallel, separate life – one that’s both highly demanding in and of itself and certain to take them completely by surprise.

Based out of Monticello, Wis., a hamlet with 1,200 residents located about 20 miles north of the Cheddar Curtain separating the Badger State from Illinois, Jimmy’s a major contributor to one of the most important farming operations in the world today.

Blues Blast caught up with him recently after he’d returned home after thawing out during late winter musical tour of Jamaica and Florida. The warm sands and bright sunlight were already a fading memory when he came back to melting snow and flooded fields.

Now in his early 50s, he had virtually no time to catch his breath before returning to what he jokingly refers to as his “part-time” job: toiling 35 to 40 hours a week as he tends to equipment and fences at world-famous Voegeli Farms dairy before sequestering himself into his office to devote his “free” time on the phone to book future gigs.

Sitting on 1,400 acres a short drive north to Madison, the farm was founded by his ancestors who emigrated from Switzerland in 1854. Its herd of Brown Swiss cows – true thoroughbreds in the dairy industry — produce cheese and yogurt, and the family’s breeding operation regularly ships award-winning stock and embryos to every continent except Antarctica from a herd consists of about 500 head, 220 of which are milked twice daily and can individually produce 20,000 pounds of liquid gold in a single year.

“My nephew who’s now starting to take over the farm – he’s in his late 20s – that makes six generations on the same place,” Jimmy says. “My brother, Bryan, is most certainly the overlord. He puts in 75 to 80 hours in a typical week, and I’m most certainly lucky that I can kinda come and go and that they don’t need me there to do 365 days of milking chores. I’m more in charge of mechanics and field work.

“That said, I do hold off booking the band a little bit in spring and fall for planting and harvesting. It’s a unique thing, but I’m proud of it. It grounds you in ways that are pretty hard to explain.

“I just came off a really fun run in Florida, met some great people and got great reactions. It’s always an honor when folks want a picture or a signature. Twenty-four hours later, though, I’m back here fixing a manure spreader… (laughs)”

Both Bryan and Jimmy grew up in a typical farm family, learning how to operate tractors long before they were old enough to drive. They followed in the footsteps of their father, Howard, by graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in dairy science.

“My dad had in mind to become a veterinarian,” Voegeli says. “But his father kinda made him come back to the farm.”

It proved to be a wise decision because Howard, who passed in 2003, overcame his initial regret to become a pioneer in the field of the multi-billion-dollar field of bovine genetics and its related world of cow show competitions – a family tradition that Bryan continues today.

Howard was instrumental in bringing the World Dairy Expo to Madison in 1967, and the advancements in breeding that he brought about turned what had been an idyllic homestead into the dairy epicenter that it is today, earning earned him awards from several world leaders along the way.

“There’s always something going on here, and we’re always busy,” Voegeli insists, pointing out that Bryan had just returned from the Dominican Republic, where he delivered several head of Brown Swiss to eagerly awaiting clients.

Jimmy’s love for music came about through his folks. His father spent his free time playing trumpet in polka bands, still popular across the upper Midwest in towns that, because of their relative isolation, still maintain the essence of the homelands of their founding fathers.

jimmy voegli photo 2“That’s how my parents met,” he says. “My mom, Alice, loves to tell the story, and she always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells about it. “Dad was playing in a big dancehall – Turner Hall — that’s still operating in Monroe, Wis., and he saw this beautiful girl – my mom — walk in. When the band took a break, he tried to find her, but she’d already left.

“My dad told the bandleader that the next time she came to a gig, he was going to put his trumpet down and go ask her to dance. The bandleader said: ‘That’s all fine and dandy. But if you do, I’m not gonna pay you.’”

Sure enough, that’s exactly how events transpired about a month later. Howard offered her a ride home after a stop at another watering hole. Little did he realize that she lived on a farm about 20 miles away. He had to awaken her uncle and enlist him to syphon gas from one of their vehicles because Howard’s tank was empty and he was penniless because he hadn’t been paid.

“You’ll never see that boy again,” the uncle said.

“Whenever both sides of the family got together, we were always singing four-part harmonies all the time I was growing up,” Jimmy recalls. “My dad was listening a lot to Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman – big-band stuff. I know that’s what planted the horn sounds and horn lines and the love for swing music in my brain. I can’t play it for a darn, but I sure love and appreciate it!

“I back-doored into the blues,” he says. “Our parents made us all pick up an instrument, and I was in chorus and all that kind of stuff. I started out with trumpet and had a hard time with it, switched to euphonium (a valved bass instrument similar to a tuba) in high school and always relied on my ear to play because we had three different teachers in four years.

“I was just a lazy punk, and didn’t try to read (music) very well. My junior year, my band teacher, Mike Korth, flunked me. It was his way to get me to stop goofing off. At the time, my dad asked me: ‘How the hell can you flunk band?’

“It was the proverbial wake-up call for me.”

Voegeli started fooling around with piano at college after playing horn in the marching band. He continued working toward his dairy science degree, but his true passion was music. His inability to sight read became instantaneously apparent during his junior year when he attempted to enroll in a piano course in the UM School Of Music. His prospective professor initiated the tryout by placing a sheet music on the piano rack and instructed him to play.

“I couldn’t do it,” he remembers. “I said to her: ‘You play 24 bars, and then I’ll play it back.”

She relented, and Jimmy passed the test. But he quickly became fearful that the formal structure he was being introduced during classes would alter the feel he’d developed on his own by learning everything by ear.

After graduation, he hooked up with a succession of local bands, enjoying an 18-year run as the keyboard player in the Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band, one of the most highly decorated units in the state. Several of the relationships initiated then continue 30 years later in The Jimmys lineup today.

The turning point in Voegeli’s life away from the dairy and toward the bright lights of the stage came when he and the band traveled up I-39 for a festival in Wausau and he received a standing ovation after a solo.

“As soon as we got done with the show,” he says, “my dad came up to me and said: ‘I was so-o-o proud.’ I choked up and walked away, but that was the day I became a musician first and a farmer second.”

Voegeli love for the organ came about by accident in 1990 when bass player John Wartenweiler, a vital part of The Jimmys today, spotted an ad in the local paper. A retired church organist was selling a blond Hammond B-2 model complete with Leslie speaker, a large box with a revolving cone that provides the unique sound perpetuated by Jimmy Smith, Booker T. Jones and other keyboard legends.

The band stopped to see it in the old school bus they used as a van on their way to a show. As soon as the owner fired it up, the Leslie issued forth a gust of wind that sent papers flying.

“Man, I gotta have this!” Jimmy said.

Quickly agreeing on a price, he loaded it into bus. Voegeli christened the formerly sacred instrument by playing numerous versions of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” to a crowd of enthusiastic, heavily tattooed, booze-infused bikers.

“It was the first time I’d ever touched a Hammond,” he notes. “Heck, it was the first time I’d ever seen one!”

Today, his love for the instrument has become somewhat of an addiction. He currently owns six Hammonds and seven Leslies in different degrees of playability, and the figure has been higher in previous years. The pristine B-3 sitting in his living room has only been moved three times since it was built in 1955. Most of his acquisitions have come about through casual conversations.

At the time of that first purchase, Voegeli’s band was already deep into the blues, he says. “Stevie Ray Vaughan was bringing it into the mainstream. So we were learning and doing a lot of that music…Johnny Winter and things of that nature, and I kept hearing the Hammond in a lot of it.”

Jimmy started doing his homework by studying the work of Reese Wynans — a member of Vaughan’s band, Double Trouble, who began his career with founding members of the Allman Brothers and established himself as the go-to organist in Nashville after Stevie Ray’s untimely death, which occurred later that summer.

Like many of his peers, he worked backward in time to research a galaxy of stars — Bill Doggett, Isaac Hayes, Booker T., Billy Preston, Otis Spann and others. “I tried to study that stuff as much as I could,” he says – although he freely admits he’s not as knowledgeable about music history as many pros.

In the early years, he also got to play side-by-side at a festival with the legendary piano player Pinetop Perkins, who taught him a valuable lesson. “I said: ‘I love the way you present yourself and the way you dress,’” Jimmy recalls. “He said: ‘Listen here, I believe when you walk into a club, you should know which one is the piano player.’”

After the show, Jimmy told him: “It was an honor to play with you. He said: ‘Yeah, boy. You play really fast.’ I say: ‘Oh, no-o-o-o! I don’t think that’s a compliment.’ He said: ‘No, no. You’re good.’

jimmy voegli photo 3“I tried to take that to heart and be more poignant with my notes…to be more sparse.”

Voegeli has also been inspired by the delivery, drive and showmanship of guitarist Albert Collins, and Barrelhouse Chuck is one of Voegeli’s latter day heroes. “He was such a gentleman to me…so nice and so encouraging. I loved the guy!”

He’s also fascinated by the playing of British émigré Jon Cleary, who’s been based out of New Orleans for decades. “I can’t really grasp what the fuck he doin’,” Jimmy jokes. “He’s so smooth and juicy, and his timing just pisses me off. I just want to give up!

“And then what makes it even worse is that he’s nice. At least be a dick so I’d have something to hate you over!”

Voegeli’s solo recording career began in 2006 when he was still a member of the Westside Andy-Ford band. Entitled F Is For The Blues, it featured his report card with the failing grade on the cover. It started out as a horn-based six-song demo, and it was a star-studded effort from the jump.

Green Bay native and Grammy winner Billy Flynn handled guitar duties along with Ford and the percussionists included Nashville tunesmith Jon Nicholson, James Brown’s original funky drummer, the late Clyde Stubblefield, and Mauro Magellan, a longtime member of the Georgia Satellites. Jimmy’s former teacher, Mike Korth, now a close friend, sat in on trombone for one cut.

“We got done with the demo, Billy said to me: ‘You’re more than halfway done with a whole album – and this is not a full album,’” Jimmy recalls. “’You need to go for it.’”

A great lover of horn bands, Voegeli’s keyboard prowess has been featured on more than 100 CDs in the years that have followed. But it took him a few years before deciding to form, following his father’s advice to “bide your time because you’ll know when it’s right.”

“I talked with Westside Andy for months about leaving,” he says, “then took many, many more before I actually did because I had such an amount respect for him and the rest of the guys in the band. It was a really tough decision. There was a lot of energy there. We could really throw it down.”

Delivering everything from straight-ahead blues to second-line New Orleans funk, The Jimmys roster includes several close friends Voegeli made during that era, including his longtime rhythm section of Magellan and Wartenweiler and a horn section of Mike Boman on trumpet, Pete Ross on sax and Darren Sterud, who doubles on trumpet and trombone.

But the guy who truly makes The Jimmys great, Voegeli says, is his guitarist and longtime buddy, Perry Weber. His background includes lengthy stints with harmonica players, Milwaukee legend Jim Liban and Madison Slim, who’s played with a who’s who of musicians, including Honeyboy Edwards and The Legendary Blues Band.

Weber’s enjoyed a national presence, too. Hubert Sumlin – with whom he lived — considered him an adopted son, and he also received invaluable training through close relationships with Muddy Waters percussionist turned harp player Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Luther Allison and New Orleans legend Bryan Lee.

“He’s so old-school and so well-known behind the scenes, and he has his own unique style and sound that’s unmatched,” Voegeli says. “He’s so true to his art, a relentless, fingers-to-the-grindstone guy. I find it kinda embarrassing that someone who’s as well-known as he is in his own state doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves nationally.

“But he’s not the type of person who’ll go after it himself. I have to put it upon myself to get people to realize what kind of a player his is and the history that’s comin’ through his fingers.”

The Jimmys shared a common mindset from the jump, preferring to concentrate on booking festivals and concert series rather than club dates. “It’s no secret that it’s harder to book and travel with a group of our size,” Voegeli says. “We’re more comfortable playing for two hours straight and laying it all on the line in one extended show than playing two or three short sets.”

Since forming about a decade ago, The Jimmys have produced four albums, including two powerful live sets that capture them at their best, receiving favorable reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. A two-time Blues Blast Music Awards finalist, they’re currently working on a follow-up to Live In Transylvania, a runner-up to a Walter Trout release in the 2017 live-release competition.

“They always take longer than you think they will,” Voegeli points out. “We’re about 90 percent done with it, and we’re currently in a holding pattern because we’ve been on the road and our producer (Grammy winner Tony Braunagel) has been busy on other projects.

“I’m proud of all the new songs, but especially one I wrote years ago when I was with Westside Andy and Mel Ford. We opened up for the Kentucky Headhunters, and we were in their tour bus doing what musicians do after a show, acting stupid.”

Like Voegeli, the founding members, brothers Richard and Fred Young, have a farming background. “They started talking in their foreign of Kentucky) and the drummer (Fred) tells me how he had this antique tractor collection and everything. But he got a divorce and his wife took it all.

“In his wisdom, he says: ‘I gotta write a hit to get that back.’

“I was sitting there going: ‘Woah! That’s genius!’ I made him write it down and sign (a waiver) on a paper towel after hearing it, telling him: ‘I’m going to turn that into a song someday.’

“About a year ago, I was cleaning out a bunch of stuff after building a studio in a barn that I’m repurposing. I got all the posters out from the past, and out on the floor drops this piece of paper. It was the towel, bringing back the old memory.”

Jimmy started writing the tune, envisioning it as a duet with a man and woman trading verses. When Voegeli played it for Braunagel, he quickly suggested Marcia Ball for the part, and she agreed to join the project during a phone conversation a few minutes later.

“We just recorded it when she came through a week ago at the studio we work at in Milwaukee,” Voegeli says. “We videotaped it, too.

“I was cryin’ because it was so beautiful. She’s a wonderful gal.”

jimmy voegli photo 5Just to keep things on the up-and-up, Jimmy telephoned the Young brothers, too, in an effort to make sure that he could tell the story without creating any hard feelings, even offering co-writing credits if that was their desire.

Richard was on the other end of the line when he called. His response, Voegeli says, was: “Naw, my friend, I know there’s no troubles. You don’t have to worry about copyright and all. But I gotta tell ya: My brother done snookered your ass. He’s been married to the same woman for 35 years.”

“I sat there and listened to that sob story and held onto it for 20 years before writing the song,” Jimmy chuckles, “and it was all a lie!”

Look for the album later in the year. There are other well-known guest stars involved in the project, but Voegeli’s currently keeping them under wraps. He and Ball are in discussion about another large-scale joint venture somewhere down the road, too.

After a decade together, he says, the band is finally starting to get the notice that anyone who’s heard them or their albums realizes they already deserve. After playing the Bonita Blues Festival in Florida the week before this interview, they were immediately booked for next year’s Tampa Bay Blues Festival. And other good things are on the horizon.

Whatever transpires in the future, however, you can rest assured that Voegeli and his bandmates are well-grounded like the Midwestern stock from which they come.

“We’re certainly not the tightest, not the bluesiest, but you won’t find a band with more heart,” he insists. “We have so much fun onstage and off that we create a certain aura, I hope, that we’re just puttin’ on regular clothes and puttin’ on a regular show and acting like regular guys.

“That makes it so easy and fun because we’ve been accepted by our peers by just doing exactly what we want to do. It’s a disgusting amount of work, but we’re having a blast! Every part of my life is unique from the other parts,” he says. “It’s joyful and filled with great people. I’m grateful for what I have.”

As spring finally arrives in the heartland, Voegeli is far busier with farming than music right now, laying down crops and tending to his fields. It’s a delicate tightrope that he walks on a regular basis this time of year. But rest assured, he’s still working the phone when chores are done, lining up gigs.

Be sure to see The Jimmys if they’re in your neighborhood. You’ll be glad you did. But as Voegeli jokingly suggests, be sure to “bring both livers and a fun attitude” when you do.

Visit Jimmy’s website at: www.thejimmys.net.

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