Jim Kirchstein

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Jim Kirchstein founded Cuca Records, one of the most renowned and prolific independent labels of the 1960s. According to Sarah Filzen's history of Cuca (available online at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's…
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Jim Kirchstein founded Cuca Records, one of the most renowned and prolific independent labels of the 1960s. According to Sarah Filzen's history of Cuca (available online at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's website, http://www.library.wisc.edu/), Kirchstein was born March 31, 1931, in Florida. A year later, his family returned to its native Sauk City, WI, where he would eventually play trumpet in his high school band. After graduation, Kirchstein enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where in the months of a four-year tour of duty he taught electronics in San Diego. After exiting the military he studied electrical engineering education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, concurrently opening the Hi-Fi Record Shop, a music retail outlet located in the basement of his brother's Sauk City toy and hobby store. As a retailer, Kirchstein quickly learned the ins and outs of record marketing and distribution, and he began acquiring second-hand recording equipment with an eye toward opening his own studio; his plan reached fruition in 1959, when he learned of the demise of Milwaukee-based Phau Records and immediately purchased its remaining assets, including hundreds of original master recordings and acetate-cutting equipment.

Setting up shop in Hi-Fi's already cramped quarters, Kirchstein cut his first record -- country singer Don Chambers' "Riding Down the Canyon" -- in late 1959, pressing up 300 copies via RCA. He dubbed his new label Swastika, still a symbol of good luck to Sauk City's largely German population, but RCA's pressing plant workers blanched at the perceived Nazi affiliation and Kirchstein quickly rechristened the venture Cuca, the nickname of his wife's cousin. When Cuca's third release, the Fendermen's rockabilly cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard "Mule Skinner Blues," the label caught fire. Kirchstein mailed copies to hundreds of radio stations across the U.S., creating a regional hit in several areas throughout the Midwest. When RCA proved unable to squeeze a new pressing into its schedule, Kirchstein leased the Fendermen's master to Minneapolis-based Soma Records, which released the single nationally and scored a Billboard Top Ten hit in the spring of 1960. After Soma owner Amos Heilicher withheld much of Cuca's expected royalties, Kirchstein threatened litigation, and the companies ultimately settled out of court for 50,000 dollars, more than enough for Cuca to launch its own publishing arm and build a new studio.

The success of "Mule Skinner Blues" combined with the relative scarcity of recording outlets in the south central Wisconsin area combined to make Cuca the destination of musicians across the Midwest. Pop hitmaker Bobby Vee, bluesman Earl Hooker, R&B singer Jan Bradley, and country legend Pee Wee King all recorded there, as did little-remembered bluegrass, blues, and gospel acts from locales near and far. In all, Cuca cut about 2,000 singles and 150 LPs during its 14-year existence, the majority of them representing either local rock or polka bands; in 1964, Kirchstein also founded his own FM radio station, WVLR, juxtaposing live broadcasts with play lists dominated by Cuca releases. The venture barely broke even, however, and he sold his interest three years later. Soon afterward, independent record distributor Midwest went bankrupt, owing Cuca 15,000 dollars -- roughly half of its total income for six months. The same fate then befell another distributor, GRT, again owing Kirchstein money he would never recover. In tandem with a wave of industry consolidation and a drop in demand for the kind of polka and old-time records the label often released, Cuca's fortunes continued to plummet, and when in 1972 the University of Wisconsin offered Kirchstein a full-time engineering position, he accepted, shuttering the label the following year.