Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
It’s good to be Paul Cebar.Late last year, a video of a one-time-only super group featuring Wilco, Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples hit the Internet. Lowe had been opening for Wilco for months, including one night during the band's five-night stand in Chicago, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had recently produced Staples’ Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone. With Staples residing in Chicago, the stars aligned, and the handheld video captured the results – the musicians crammed into a backstage dressing room taking a run through the Band’s epic singalong “The Weight,” which would be performed as a surprise encore later that evening.
The video is a candid moment shared by impeccably credentialed musicians. Staples, who performed the song with the Band in The Last Waltz, calls the shots, making sure the layered voices at the end of the chorus build just so. By the third time around, everyone’s got their part.
Knowing that I shared musical tastes with Cebar, I forwarded the video to him. His matter-of-fact reply shouldn’t have been a surprise: “I was standing behind the guy with the camera.”
Of course he was.
Cebar and Lowe have been friends since the early 1980s. That’s when the Englishman discovered Cebar’s band at the time, the R&B Cadets, while passing through Milwaukee, and he tried to godfather them to a record deal. When Wilco came through the area this past December, Cebar acted as Lowe’s Midwest ambassador, accompanying the revered performer/producer at stops in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago.
As events coalesced in that dressing room, Cebar had earned his way there over the course of a 30-year career that has yet to pay off in the fame-and-fortune department, but has won him the respect of A-list musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, T-Bone Burnett and Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas.
“Paul’s music is fascinating to me,” says Raitt, who eagerly took time away from promoting her new album and tour to sing her friend’s praises. “He’s a rare treasure because of his incredible passion for such a wide range of music that is too often overlooked.
“I salute him and admire him, and I love him.”
It has been 25 years since Cebar stepped into the role of frontman, taking on the creative satisfactions and business frustrations of being the guy whose name is on the marquee. In 1986, the R&B Cadets abruptly collapsed when Cadets leader John Sieger found a better deal with his side band, Semi-Twang. After years of pounding the pavement for a record contract, the Cadets had just put out their first disk, Top Happy, through the trend-shaping Twin/Tone label in Minneapolis. Semi-Twang, however, signed at the same time with powerhouse Warner Bros. Records.
Angry at investing in a band that had come apart at the worst possible moment, Twin/Tone gave up on Top Happy and washed its hands of Cebar. He resolved that in order to control his fate, he would make music under his own name from that point forward.
It was the decisive step in a musical apprenticeship that began with a young Cebar holed up in his home at 44th & Capitol, transfixed by mid-’60s radio on WOKY, WNOV and WRIT. His indoctrination into top 40 heaven took on a heavier texture when a chance encounter with a family friend’s extensive record collection introduced him to a rich mine of ’40s R&B and other treasures. Bawdy and urbane figures like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Louis Jordan and Big Maybelle sang to Cebar in one ear, while the Beatles, the Temptations and Dylan fomented revolution in the other. Add to that Milwaukee’s folk-infused coffeehouse scene, where Cebar began attending open mics in the mid-’70s, and Cebar headed toward adulthood with an unusually rich musical grounding.
“The week I turned 18 [in 1974], Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee played at Teddy’s [now Shank Hall] on Tuesday, Howlin’ Wolf was there on Wednesday, and Charles Mingus played on Thursday,” Cebar says, recalling that distant time when Milwaukee bars legally and happily served teenagers. “I only had enough money to see one show, so I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. They were magnificent!”
Within a few years, Cebar would be sharing a stage with the blues legends.
College took him down to Florida, where he earned a degree in humanities with an emphasis on musicology. He and like-minded classmates spent their off hours getting deep into such seminal figures as Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Jimmy Rogers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They also liberally sampled the freshly minted Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, and the heady chaos being stirred by new wave and punk.
By the ’80s, Cebar was back in Milwaukee to stay. His immersion into American roots music and captivating world rhythms created a colorful new persona. The quiet, bookish Pius XI High School kid was now the hippest of hepcats, sporting Panama suits, saddle shoes and a closet full of threads of mysterious provenance. The look was capped off by a funky, laid-back manner that has taken on a fine burnish over the years.
“Let’s talk about the sartorial splendor of Paul Cebar,” says Raitt, who has been a friend and admirer since the late ’80s, when she came just short of recording one of Cebar’s songs for her career-making album Nick of Time. “There are cool guys, and then there are guys like Paul, who I imagine was cool even as a kid. He probably had a beard when he was 6.”
The music Cebar played and the character he forged could have likely flourished in a bigger, more musically eclectic city. But despite flirtations with New York and New Orleans, Cebar was determined to prove that Milwaukee had a musical diversity to be embraced rather than abandoned.
“My mom’s folks are from Slovakia; my dad’s folks are from Croatia. There is a world of people on my block who came from other places,” says Cebar, who lives on the outskirts of Downtown. “The American story is a story of mixture, and the story of American music is certainly that: country players singing on black records, black dudes singing country songs. Latin people moving into a community, their music playing in a grocery store, and some guy hears it and is inspired to find an instrument he had never heard before and learns to play it.
“There is a certain amount of stubborn pride” in staying here, Cebar says. “I want to prove that music with world ambitions can come from Milwaukee.”
When Cebar set out on his own in 1986, it was with the resplendently named Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans. He and his nattily attired band toured the country for years as ambassadors of this fair city, but Cebar quietly retired the name a few years ago. The tag began as what Cebar calls a “mock provincial moniker,” his attempt to defiantly slap back at the culturally unsophisticated perception of the city with his cool, cosmopolitan music. But over time, Cebar began to worry that the Milwaukee label could cause people in distant markets to reject them as a polka band. Or worse, a joke. The band’s current handle – Tomorrow Sound – reflects Cebar’s determination to be an active link in a living musical evolution rather than merely a relic of past genres.
“I don’t think the music we’ve done is rooted in any fads or bound by time,” Cebar says. “A lot of my work has intermingled eras, but I don’t think it sounds particularly dated.”
The move away from the Milwaukeeans name came with the release of 2008’s Tommorow Sound Now For Yes Music People, the twistedly titled (and yes, misspelled) disc that four years later remains the band’s most recent album. Finding the resources and industry connections to bring new music to market has exasperated Cebar for decades and across all formats, from vinyl to cassette to CD and now digital.
The Milwaukeeans’ first record (1993’s That Unhinged Thing) didn’t make it to stores until the band had been around seven years. From there, releases on a series of small labels have been infrequent. Upstroke for the Downfolk (1995), The Get-Go (1997), and the live Suchamuch (2001) complete the scant output of an artist who could easily fill an album a year with the original tunes and obscure covers he shares with his audience. (Also available are One Little Light On, featuring Cebar alone with an acoustic guitar, and a trio of spoken word albums on which Cebar and his band provide music in support of storyteller David Greenberger.)