In the beginning

It was the late ’60s, and Bob Cornell was in his late 40s when he started booking rock ‘n’ roll bands to play gigs in our corner of Wisconsin.

Cornell was moonlighting. He was a Catholic priest, and the rock shows were an extension of his youth ministry. They gave young people something positive to do, and the proceeds went for scholarships.

The Rev. Robert Cornell also taught history in high school and college, was a two-term Congressman and a passionate Democrat. All that came first in his obituaries when he died a week ago at 89, and rightly so.

Yet here’s how one local musician remembered Cornell:

“He had so much interest in young people that he became the first real concert promoter in our area. Long before any media took interest in rock ‘n’ roll, Father Cornell was booking ‘national recording acts.’ … He got national acts by booking them on Friday night in Green Bay and Saturday in Sturgeon Bay.”

Among the acts booked by the priest: REO Speedwagon, the Ides of March, the Cryan’ Shames, the Buckinghams and the Outsiders — all Midwestern bands — along with the Byrds, Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Carpenters, Santana, the Doobie Brothers and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

If you’re from Wisconsin, and of a certain age, you may remember some of the regional and local bands that also played at those gigs, among them Soup, Rocker and Axe. That same musician, whom I suspect played in at least one of those bands, added:

“All of us who rock owe Father Cornell our careers.”

He thought this group was among the best bands booked by Cornell.


“Ben Franklin’s Almanac,” the Cryan’ Shames, from “Sugar & Spice,” 1967. It’s the flip side to “Sugar and Spice,” their cover of the Searchers’ tune, on Destination 624, a 7-inch single. I found this cut at Garage Hangover, Chris Bishop’s wonderful blog about ’60s garage bands.

From 1966 to 1969, the Cryan’ Shames were one of the hottest groups out of Chicago. More polished than a garage band, they played British-influenced yet mostly original pop. Their biggest hit was their first, “Sugar and Spice,” which cracked the Billboard Top 50 in 1966.

They were so popular in Chicago that their first five singles made the Top 10 on WLS, the Top 40 AM radio powerhouse of the day. There was no hotter song in Chicago in August 1967 than “(It Could Be) We’re In Love.” It was No. 1 for four weeks, keeping the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” out of the top spot.

That’s why, some 40 years ago, Father Cornell thought they were worth hearing and seeing.

Robert Cornell was an original. When he turned 75, his Norbertine order required him to write his own obituary. There, in Latin, was his motto: “Illegitimi non carborundum” (or one of its variations). It translates as: “Never let the bastards get you down.”

Peace, Father.


Filed under May 2009, Sounds

3 responses to “In the beginning

  1. That’s an amazing story! I love the motto as well (what’s the latin version?)
    ‘Ben Franklin’s Almanac’ is a fave from way back.

  2. Great post. I had never heard of Father Cornell. Thanks for teaching the younger generation about this great man!

  3. Bill Rudersdorf

    I had father Cornell’s history class @ st. Norbert’s. Never knew he booked r&r bands

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