Tucked deep into the wilds of Wisconsin’s Dairyland, Cuca Records was the custom recording and pressing outfit for the Badger state. From its opening in 1959 to the end in 1973, Jim Kirchstein recorded nearly 2000 sides ranging from polka and gospel to country and R&B, and issued over 1000 45s on his Sara, Night Owl, Polka Dot, Top Gun, Psalms, Lucky Leprechaun, Jolly Dutchmen, Sounds of Wisconsin, Age of Aquarius, Banana, Citation, Butternut, Dee Jay, and American imprints.
Following his tour in Korea, Kirchstein returned to his hometown of Sauk City and opened a record store in the cellar of his brother’s toy store. As the business grew, so too did his interests, resulting in the lamentably-named Swastika label in 1959. RCA was manufacturing records for Kirchstein at the time, and certain workers and management took issue with the design and forced a quick rebrand. (“That was a very dumb thing I did,” Kirchstein reflected years later.) And so it was that Cuca Records was born, with Willie Tremain & The Thunderbirds’ “Midnight Express” reissued in August of that year on the new label, inspired by a nickname of his wife’s Mexican-American cousin.
The label’s first new product arrived in the first month of the new decade, when The Fendermen bopped up Jimmy Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8” and turned it into “Mule Skinner Blues.” Their name homage to their preferred guitar, The Fendermen were Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey. “We had a trunk full of Cuca records and nobody would buy them,” Sundquist said. Their big break came when Lindy Shannon at La Crosse’s WKBH caught them playing between screenings at the local movie theater. “He got us on a Cavalcade of Stars-type of show and when we did ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ it brought the house down. He said, ‘Gosh, you guys ought to cut that thing. That’d be a hit!’ I said, ‘We already have—here, have a box.” Within a few months the record was screeching up the Billboard Hot 100 as a result of Cuca upstreaming the record to Amos Heilicher’s Minneapolis-based Soma Records, where it reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but generated no royalties for the band. The band tracked an album’s worth of material, but the release was delayed due to an ongoing lawsuit between Cuca and Soma. By the end of the year the duo were badly frayed. “The last time I saw Phil Humphrey we were flipping a coin to see who was going to buy the turkey dinner as we said goodbye,” recalled Sundquist. “I wished him luck and he wished me luck. We sat down and had a turkey dinner together and a couple of drinks. Then he went his way and I went mine.”
More from the Cuca Archive
In Cuca Country Vol. 2
In Cuca Country Vol. 1
The Genius Of