Remembering Milwaukee

Al Jarreau is the only singer to win "Best Vocalist" Grammy Awards in three different genres of music (pop, jazz and R&B). Photo Credit: Daniel Chauvet

Far within Wisconsin’s prairies wreathed in Laurel’s green, stands my noble alma mater. Ripon’s glorious queen. Hail to thee my alma mater. There’s an inscription carved onto a fireplace mantel at Ripon College that reads (and I’ll never forget), “He who cuts his own wood, warms himself twice.” Sturdy Midwestern work ethic that I've remembered always.

Before Ripon, I grew up in Milwaukee, two blocks from the Schlitz brewery. Just thinking of it sparks the memory of that scent of beer and hops that permeated the air in my neighborhood. Or, if I walked an alternate route to Lincoln High School, I passed the Pfister and Vogel Tannery, which had its own distinctive fragrance.

The sounds…of church bells that faithfully tolled the hour and half hour. We lived 150 yards from St. Francis Catholic Church, which boasted some very big cathedral church bells that could be heard a half mile away. St. Francis Church also had a grade school on the same property. When the church bells were quiet, you could hear the sound of kid’s voices playing in the schoolyard.

More sounds…across the street from the church was a Catholic Youth Organization, and in the evening you could hear the sound of bowling pins cracking together as they were hit by a bowling ball. Oh yes, and I was a youthful pinsetter, before pin setting machines came into use.

And, to complete the thoughts of sounds…how about the Polka tavern 15 feet from my bedroom window? I know more polkas than Frankie Yankovic. Those melodies, ever present in my childhood, certainly shaped my style of music over the years.

Have you ever seen priests in long brown robes with a hood and a rope belt around the waist that knotted at the hip? These guys would join in our snowball fights, between the newspaper boys and the neighborhood kids. There was a 20-foot by 20-foot tin shed where paper delivery boys gathered to roll the Milwaukee Journal into a tightly compacted cylinder that could be tossed with pinpoint accuracy onto a distant porch.

After leaving Milwaukee for Ripon, I mostly visited Milwaukee for holidays. The smells of Christmas trees, turkeys roasting, nutmeg and cinnamon, and a sweet potato pie. I could go on and on with these precious, cherished memories, but I’ll end here, with the hope that my recollections have awakened yours, and that they help paint a beautiful picture of traditional, nostalgic Wisconsin.

Al Jarreau was born in Milwaukee in 1940. He attended Lincoln High School there, and then enrolled at Ripon College. He began singing in his church at the age of four, and eventually achieved the opportunity to sing with a pianist at the Lobby Lounge in Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel. Eventually, he moved to California (San Francisco and then Los Angeles) to pursue success in music, and he found it. Al Jarreau has been performing professionally for more than 50 years. He is the only singer to win "Best Vocalist" Grammy Awards in three different genres of music (pop, jazz and R&B). To this day, he continues to record new albums, and to tour worldwide with his band, telling anyone who will listen about Wisconsin, his beautiful home state.

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