In Music

Milwaukee's own The Velvet Whip as they appeared then... (PHOTO: Geoff Grohowski)

In Music

... and Steinfort, Ball and The Richard, circa 2005. (PHOTO: Geoff Grohowski)

In Music

The short-lived Velvet Whip had one of the wildest stage shows in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: Geoff Grohowski)

The Velvet Whip tore through musical conventions

Most music fans know about the Milwaukee bands of our day. We may have even heard a few stories about the bands that were around a bit before our time. But how many of us know about the great Milwaukee bands of days long since passed (sorry, guys!)?

Gather 'round, young ones, and we'll tell you the story of a most unusual Milwaukee band. The Velvet Whip grew out of a desire to fuse classical instrumentation and contemporary music and quickly became one of the hottest acts on the counterculture scene, playing at the Avant Garde Coffee House and other venues in the second half of the 1960s.

"The genesis of The Velvet Whip goes back to my high school days and my involvement with the Milwaukee Music for Youth," remembers violinist Dan Ball. "I was playing the violin and hooked up with a cello player named Henry Steinfort. We hit it off and proceeded to try to learn the Brahms 'Double Concerto.' We didn't succeed but threw around the idea of starting a Young Composers Society dedicated to performing our own music. We rehearsed and performed at a grade school in Milwaukee and that lasted for about two years. It was a thrill to hear our music performed somewhat professionally."

By 1967, Ball and Steinfort -- having flirted unsuccessfully with making a go of an avant garde ensemble ("Unfortunately, our cutting edge group was not in demand," Ball admits) -- turned their gaze to the music they heard all around them. And for the same reasons most young guys pickup guitars.

"Henry and I then had the bright idea of starting a rock band. Since I played violin, I could obviously play guitar and Henry could transfer from the cello to electric bass. Little did we know how inadequate those ideas were. We were clueless about the rock band scene and had no experience, just desire. It looked like fun and a great way to meet girls."

So, the duo set about assembling The Velvet Whip.

"Since we had no idea about how to get people who could play to join us, we looked for all the long haired guys in town to join our band," says Ball. "Long hair was a novelty and it seemed like all the 'cool' guys were starting to grow their hair and beards. There were three candidates with long hair. Two could play guitars and the other was just an experience all unto himself."

Ken Blochowiak, an engineer at WUWM -- where Ball also worked as a DJ and engineer -- was hired as the guitarist. Tom Ruppenthal joined as bassist after first denying any musical inclinations.

"When I first encountered Tom it was on a stairway at 'Uncle Bob's' apartment on Warren Street," recounts Ball. "Uncle Bob's was a gathering place for all the young hipsters and always had a number of people just hanging out. We found out he played guitar and bass and we persisted and recruited him for our seminal journey into psychedelia."

Completing this unorthodox quintet was -- no, not a drummer -- but rather "The Richard." Ball explains:

"Richard Bussian danced, introduced the music and hit a pie tin with a drumstick. His spasmodic dancing was called 'doing the Richard' and he became 'The Richard.' He was unique; sort of like the Laughing Buddha with the private chuckle. His vision and offbeat ideas would become one of the hallmarks and quirkiness of the Whip."

Steinfort concurs. "A legend in his own time, 'The Richard' was 'THE RICHARD'! The Tambourine Man, top 10 list designer, skit/monologue writer, with flair, wit, sarcasm, flamboyance and a bit of the bizarre thrown in for good measure! He was the band's 'Standard Bearer' -- a vital aspect of the band's creative uniqueness!"

In a 1975 article in the now-defunct Bugle-American, Carol Frinzi recalled the band and its antics.

"I seem to remember them having a real whip in the act, too. It was during a song called, 'Little Girl's Dream (19?? Early Whip Trip),' I think. Richard (Bussian) would yell and scream into the mike and lash the whip all over the stage and then the strobe light would go on and the band would all run back and forth, going crazy. It was nuts."

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dimondan | July 19, 2012 at 3:22 p.m. (report)

Still getting calls for Velvet Whip info and stories. I can be reached dimondan07@yahoo.com

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dimondan | Oct. 6, 2011 at 11:55 a.m. (report)

Henry Steinfort has now retired as an art teacher at Howard's grove elementary school. He doesn't use the internet. He promises to get onboard when he finds the right computer. Sometime this decade, maybe. He is still creating art and performs with an "acid jazz" free form group around the Milwaukee area. You can see old Whip photos on me FaceBook page - Dan Ball

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lindajo | Aug. 16, 2011 at 2:22 p.m. (report)

Well, it's about time Henry S showed up. . .even if this article is 5 years old, I'm happy to see it wasn't all a figment of my imagination. I haven't forgotten the poetry nights at the AG and the art happenings at UWM created by you-know-who. Anyone else recall Screaming Eagles Arts? Are you out there Henry?

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truppenthal | July 28, 2008 at 2:08 p.m. (report)

I stumbled upon this interesting site and article and talkback. I was a member of the Velvet Whip and I possess the recordings made at the Avant Garde and even listen to the old tunes at times. The recording quality is not great but it does capture the essence of the Whip at the Garde. I know that Dan who love to tinker with the old recordings and even rerecord the songs, but I think the music, as is, is worth a brief listen. So if anyone else stumbles upon this site and would be interested in a cd of the Whip Live, please contact me at truppenthal@earthlink.net and I'll send you one. It certainly would bring back memories for anyone who experienced that time and place.

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druizyco | April 30, 2007 at 11:37 a.m. (report)

Oh, my God!!! I was researching both The Velvet Whip and Baroques on the Internet today because I recently wrote a poem about my 1960s experiences for a poetry class I am taking a the local state university. I wanted to credit them for how I they are commemorated in the poem, and found this site. Seeing their photos and reading words from Dan Ball, Henry Steinfort, and "The Richard"'s daughter have brought many tears of joy to me today. I never missed the "Whip"'s performances at the Avante Garde on Thursday nights. I am the one who loaned "The Richard" his second tamborine after he broke his. I still have it. I am also the one who arranged for a concert to be held by the Velvet Whip at the the UWM Kenwood Concert Center. I really hope that Dan Ball and Henry do write a history of the Velvet Whip and those times, and that they create a CD. If they have already, then I would like to know how to get copies. I will try to reach Dan at his email he provided in one of his responses. Thank you sooooo much for this article. This has really brightened my day.

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