American Tea Company
40 years ago a local band topped the charts
I’m not sure if it’s cliché or obvious to point out that the music industry is in the midst of some pretty heavy changes. Beyond just the fact that major record labels are essentially crumbling from the inside, brought down by a combination of their greed and the internet, it really seems that we are in the midst of a giant paradigm shift in popular music. This shift has affected Eau Claire on a local level with bands like Bon Iver and The Daredevil Christopher Wright achieving various degrees of national success with what are essentially home recordings.
The success of these bands is awesome, and are yet another collective feather in the Chippewa Valley’s very feathery cap, but we fool ourselves if we believe that this area hasn’t been bustling with music for years. As far back as 40 years ago, Eau Claire was contributing to the revolutionary bands of the 60s with their own groups who grew their hair long, hung out, and turned up the rock.
Perhaps the most successful of these bands was a group called American Tea Company. ATC, whose members included Ken Rogers, Gary TeStrake, Jim Schuh, Mark Nelson, and Tim Haley, played heavy pop rock in the style of CCR, The Doors, and Steppenwolf from 1967 up until their end in 1970. But before they would break up, they recorded a 45, toured the Midwest, and even had a hit on the state charts. Quite a feat for a band who would break up only 17 weeks after their song charted (back then the charts were decided by number of radio requests).
“We were really focusing on the up and coming music on the charts,” said drummer, Jim Schuh in a recent interview. “We would buy Billboard magazine and learn the songs that looked like they had potential before they were popular. … People said our lead singer sounded more like (Jim) Morrison than Morrison did.”
Schuh argues that their story is all the more compelling because of the lack of home recording equipment in those days, “We had to travel 365 miles to Illinois just to record our record. It was the first 45 that they had ever done.”
It’s something you could never tell from just listening to the recording, mainly because there’s some pretty major exuberance that takes place on ATC’s hit single, I Want You Now. The bass and drums drive home the point over screaming guitar solos and some pretty blistering organ sounds, and amidst all of this are multi-tracked lead vocals, an effect new to the recording studio.
“Multi-tracked vocals were a very new concept and the producer was impressed that we had such good voice control that we could record seemingly identical takes over and over,” said Schuh.
ATC doesn’t have a rags to riches story – the band never really broke into the big time after the initial success of I Want You Now – but Schuh doesn’t seem to harbor any resentments. He has continued to play over these last 40+ years in many groups, most recently with Howard “Guitar” Luedtke. Schuh can be content in knowing that I Want You Now stands as a testament, not only to the summer of love, but to the universal truths of being a teenager – namely the yearning for more, and the hope for the future and everything in between.