As lead guitarist of the Fendermen, rockabilly hero Jim Sundquist inspired a generation of garage rockers to pick up Fenders of their own when he scored Minnesota’s first big national hit, “Mule Skinner Blues,” in 1960. Sundquist, 75, died Tuesday of cancer.
Although he wound up settling in Minnesota, his career was launched in Wisconsin, where he was born in the town of Niagara, north of Green Bay. He picked up the guitar in his teens and, with rhythm guitarist and singer Phil Humphrey, formed the Fendermen — named, of course, after the instruments they played — in 1958 in the Madison area.
The two-guitar duo (no drums, no bass) originally focused on country standards. One night at a sawdust saloon called the Oats Bin, they started mixing in rock ’n’ roll and created a stir with their hopped-up version of a Jimmie Rodgers tune. A music-store owner heard “Mule Skinner Blues” and helped them cut a single, which sold 8,000 copies in two days after a La Crosse DJ started spinning it.
That caught the attention of Minneapolis music mogul Amos Heilicher, who had recorded polka and old-time music for years but never had a pop hit. He brought them in to re-record the song, with Humphrey providing the braying vocals and Sundquist the twanging lead guitar.
Released on Soma Records in May 1960, “Mule Skinner Blues” was an instant smash in the Twin Cities that quickly spread nationally, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard chart and scoring the duo an appearance on Dick Clark’s TV show “American Bandstand.” The label couldn’t press enough copies to keep up with the demand.
It was the start of big things for Heilicher, who rode the garage-rock wave with such acts as the Trashmen and Castaways, but the Fendermen’s success was short-lived. After a couple of attempts to repeat their smash, the duo broke up in 1961.
Sundquist kept playing, however, and in 1980 formed the band Jim Sundquist and His Fendermen, which worked regularly until recent years. His work continued to inspire a latter-day wave of roots-rockers, including the Vibro Champs, a Twin Cities band that served as backing group when he and Humphrey reunited for two shows in 2005.
“It was a thrill,” said the band’s leader, Alan Subola. “People had their old 45s and LPs from 1960. There was a lot of magic and energy and joy.”
Subola first heard “Mule Skinner Blues” on a K-Tel “Goofy Greats” album he bought as a teenager. “Even though that song would be found in novelty compilations, they were seriously considered rock pioneers,” he said. “Jim had that archetypal 1960s surf guitar sound. They inspired groups like the Trashmen and even the Cramps,” the California punkabilly group who cut their own version of the Fendermen’s big hit.
On his old Fender Jazzmaster, Sundquist “was a very fluid player,” Subola recalled. “He hadn’t lost anything as far as his picking.”
He also worked for 20 years as a music and art therapist for senior citizens at Redeemer Residence in Minneapolis, and had a side career in gospel music with his wife, Sharrie, whom he wed in 1991. After retirement, they moved to the central Minnesota city of Fairfax.
Along with his wife, he is survived by children Jeff (Sheri) Sundquist, Jon Sundquist, Janelle Sundquist, Jim (Rose) Sundquist Jr. and Jodi Sundquist; stepsons Greg (Julie) Rundquist and Dan (Melany) Rundquist; many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and four siblings. A memorial service was held Saturday in Minneapolis, with burial at Acacia Park in Mendota Heights.