Bloomsbury Popular Music - Minneapolis/St Paul, MN
Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World
Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World

John Shepherd

John Shepherd is Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (Academic) and Chancellor’s Professor of Music and Sociology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He was from 2007-2012 Carleton’s Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. Dr. Shepherd has been a member of EPMOW’s editorial board since 1990. In 2000, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his role “as a leading architect of a post-War critical musicology.” Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, David Horn

David Horn was a founding editor of the journal Popular Music and a founding member of IASPM (The International Association for the Study of Popular Music). He was Director of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool from 1988 until his retirement in 2002. Together with the blues scholar Paul Oliver he first proposed the idea of EPMOW in the 1980s, and has worked on the project since that time. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Dave Liang

Dave Laing is the author of several books on popular music and a former editor of Music Week. Former Research Fellow at the University of Westminster where he conducted research on the music industry. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2016


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Minneapolis/St Paul, MN

DOI: 10.5040/9781501329166-0002516
Page Range: 251–255

Population: Minneapolis – 382,618 (2000), St Paul – 287,151 (2000); metropolitan area – 2,642,056 (2000)

Although they mainly occupy opposite banks of the Mississippi River, Minneapolis and St Paul are commonly referred to as the ‘Twin Cities.’ St Paul was incorporated in 1849 and is the capital of Minnesota. Minneapolis, founded in 1856, has become the dominant city financially, especially since the completion in 1992 of a major tourist attraction located south of the city, the Mall of America. The area was originally important in the nineteenth century for its lumber and flour industries, but it has now become more reliant on business and technology for its economic base. One of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States, Minneapolis and St Paul saw a significant increase in the percentage of a wide variety of minority populations over the last 20 years of the twentieth century, diversifying a state that had been predominantly Caucasian.

Culturally, the Twin Cities are a focal point for several states surrounding Minnesota, including the Dakotas, Iowa and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin. A strong tradition of regional theater was established in 1963 with the founding of the Guthrie Theater. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cities boasted several large halls, including the Orpheum Theater (the oldest and best known), Northrup Auditorium, and the Ordway, the State, the Pantages and the Fitzgerald theaters. In the 1990s the additions of the Target Center Arena (in Minneapolis) and the Xcel Energy Center (in St Paul), which each seat over 18,000 people, increased the frequency of performances by major national and international concert artists. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum provide prominent homes for visual arts in Minnesota, while at the same time hosting several popular music festivals and performances. Each city presents large festivals that include music. The Minneapolis Aquatennial, the Mill City Music Festival, the Minnesota State Fair, the St Paul Winter Carnival and the Taste of Minnesota all feature both local and national musicians.

In 2002, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) chose Minneapolis as one of the ‘nation’s most vibrant music scenes.’ The distinction of being a hub of the entertainment industry in the Midwest is nothing new, however, for the city has long been a center of musical activity. By the 1870s, minstrel troupes were making regular visits to the area. Along with a quadrupling of the population in the 1880s, Minneapolis saw a rise in the number of variety theaters and saloons for traveling popular entertainers, most notably the Theatre Comique. The two cities steadily grew in both size and importance around the turn of the century and, by 1909, Minneapolis operated as the chief location for the vaudeville circuit, which encompassed eight states and some areas in Canada.

For the first half of the twentieth century, the Twin Cities continued to serve primarily as either a destination for other artists or a place where local talent remained local. Lawrence Welk was only one of a few performers to make St Paul his home during the swing era. After playing the network of ballrooms in Greater Minnesota, Welk and his band were hired at the St Paul Hotel in 1937, where their performances were broadcast every night on the radio by KSTP. His local success allowed Welk to move on to larger east-coast venues.

For much of the period from the 1920s to the 1960s, the most recognizable local swing group was the ‘Whoopee John’ Band. Formed in the second decade of the twentieth century by John Wilfahrt, Jr., the band mixed swing with European folk music, principally German polkas and waltzes. Getting its start in New Ulm, Minnesota, the group was immediately popular, making one of Minnesota’s first records in 1924 and playing early radio broadcasts by 1928. ‘Whoopee John’ was featured on WLAG radio in the 1940s and made the transition to television in the early 1950s on WCCO. John’s son, Patrick, had taken over the band by the late 1950s. From that era into the 1970s, the ‘Whoopee John’ Band regularly performed at the Medina Ballroom, just west of downtown Minneapolis. Now called the Medina Entertainment Center, the venue is considered one of the primary places for older audiences to go for live popular music. The ‘Whoopee John’ Band has continued to perform.

The most famous group from this era to receive national attention was undoubtedly the Andrews Sisters. LaVerne, Maxene and Patti Andrews began their professional careers around 1932 in Minneapolis, where their father owned a Greek cafe (next to the Orpheum Theater). In 1933, the Andrews Sisters began touring the Midwest with a succession of small-time band leaders, until they were finally discovered in 1937 while trying to find work in New York. Their tightknit vocal harmonies were first recorded in that year, but it was not until 1941 that their best-known song, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ was released.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, many bars, clubs and ballrooms featured live music. An important deviation from this type of venue was the 10 O’Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse in the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis – an area that has continued to serve as the main business area for the University of Minnesota campus (60,000 students in 2000). The Scholar became the focal point for folk music in the Twin Cities in the early 1960s. Some of Minnesota’s early folk performers, such as ‘Spider’ John Koerner, John Kolstad and Dave Ray, played at the café. It was at the Scholar that Robert Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan, performed his earliest shows. Dylan came to Minneapolis as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1959 from Hibbing, a small town in northern Minnesota, but he dropped out to pursue his music career.

Rock music was the most important popular music of the 1950s and 1960s in the area, however, and the local scene provided many musicians with opportunities to play. One of the most notable of these early groups was the Augie Garcia Quintet, active during the period 1954-62. The band cut four singles, played regularly at Duffy’s Bar (which has continued to operate) and opened for touring performers like Chubby Checker, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. One of the first number one hits to come out of Minneapolis was ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ recorded by the Trashmen in 1963. Another well-known local group to have a Top 40 song was the Castaways with ‘Liar, Liar’ (1965). While only a few groups found national recognition, bands such as Crow, the Hi-Spirits, Michael’s Mystics and TC Atlantic brought the area an abundance of live rock performances and a few albums on local labels like Kay Bank, Soma and Northstar Records. Bobby Vee traveled from Fargo, North Dakota to record ‘Suzie Baby’ for Soma in 1959. For the most part, the rock sound of the 1960s in the area remained heavily inclined toward the styles introduced by the ‘British invasion.’

Although the Twin Cities remained the main location for up-and-coming artists, some musicians depended on the intricate web of small venues based in the small towns across the rest of the state. For example, in southern Minnesota, some of these groups, including the Epicureans (aka Highway) and Michael Glieden and the Rhythm Kings, were able to provide young musicians with opportunities not only to play in bars and at dances, but also to record albums privately. Notably, it was on this circuit that Minnesota’s first all-girl rock combo, the Continental Co-ets, got their start. Much like that of the ballroom musicians during the early part of the century, the nature of this network of musicians has yet to be thoroughly investigated.

It was not until the 1970s in Minneapolis/St Paul that some distinctive voices, veering away from more accepted styles, began to be heard. Curt Almstead, also known as Curtiss A, teamed up with Bob ‘Slim’ Dunlap to form Thumbs Up in the early part of the decade. Their unusual mix of rhythm and blues with pop has been described as early new wave. The first major punk band in Minneapolis was the Suicide Commandos, fronted by Chris Osgood. The group’s Make A Record (1978), released on PolyGram’s Blank label, was to become the inspiration for many Twin Cities bands of the 1980s. The Suburbs, formed in 1977, are often considered Minnesota’s version of Talking Heads. The band soon signed with Twin/Tone Records, a local label formed by Paul Stark, Charley Hallman and the most important man in the 1970s Twin Cities music scene, Peter Jesperson. The Suburbs’ 1980 album, In Combo, was recorded at Twin/Tone’s Blackberry Way studio.

The rise of these bands coincided with the opening of several important small venues. The Oarfolkjokeopus record store (known by many as Oar Folk), which opened in 1973, was a meeting place for many local producers and musicians, including Jesperson and, later, the members of the Replacements. The Longhorn was a key club during the late 1970s, serving as home of the Suburbs and hosting many international groups, including Elvis Costello and the Police. Allan Fingerhut opened the Depot in 1970 with a concert featuring Joe Cocker. Eventually, the Depot’s name was changed to First Avenue, and the nightclub (which can hold 1,200 people) has remained the primary destination in the Twin Cities for many national acts. The 250-person 7th Street Entry (owned by and adjacent to First Avenue) was opened in 1981, adding a place for local or lesser-known bands to garner recognition. Since 1978, the club has been managed by Steve McClellan, and his commitment to promoting Twin Cities-area artists has been instrumental in forging a positive, racially integrated, experimental environment. First Avenue was made nationally famous as the central setting for Prince’s 1984 film, Purple Rain.

Perhaps the most important period for the Twin Cities in terms of the international music scene came in the 1980s. The critics would later label the ‘Minneapolis sound’ as one that incorporated funk rhythm and bass with more pop sounds, blending guitars with synthesizers. Prince Rogers Nelson, known later simply as Prince, was the artist most responsible for this style. Growing up in mostly-white South Minneapolis, Prince was an accomplished musician even through his years at Minneapolis Central High School, yet he felt that there were few locations in the city for a black band to play. Prince sought out other teenagers to work with, finding Morris Day (later of the Time) and André Anderson (André Cymone). Inspired by his father’s musical talent and encouraged by Pepé Willie, a relative with music industry connections, Prince worked with Willie’s 94 East before recording with local Chris Moon, who ran Moonsound Studios. After he received a major contract from Warner Brothers, Prince’s first major hit was Dirty Mind (1980), followed by 1999 (1983) and Purple Rain (1984). His quasi-biographical film, also entitled Purple Rain, catapulted Prince (and images of Minneapolis) into the mainstream. Prince immediately set to work building Paisley Park Studios, just south of the Twin Cities, working closely with former bandmates-turned-producers Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and Terry Lewis. Prince recorded Parade there in 1986. Harris’s and Lewis’s Flyte Time Productions has played host to an international group of musicians, including Janet Jackson and the Fine Young Cannibals. Harris, Lewis and Prince have all pointed to the development of an underground music scene in the uptown area of Minneapolis during the late 1970s as an important stage in their artistic growth. Uptown has maintained its popularity and has become a major site for live music.

Two other bands, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, found a place in the national spotlight during this time. Fronted by Paul Westerberg, the Replacements met at Oar Folk during the late 1970s. The group (which also included Chris Mars and brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson) fused punk sounds with pop and rock, releasing Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash in 1981 on Twin/Tone. Let It Be (1984) brought the Replacements critical acclaim, but their reluctance to espouse the ‘star’ role in the media barred them from greater fame. St Paul’s Hüsker Dü was formed in 1979 by Bob Mould, Greg Norton and Grant Hart. Incredibly loud yet still melodic, Hüsker Dü was the chief hardcore punk band in the Twin Cities at the time. SST Records released Zen Arcade in 1984, though the band had recorded on its own local label, Reflex, before that. Both Mould and Westerberg would go on to have solo careers, though Mould formed Sugar briefly in 1990. The Replacements and Hüsker Dü are widely considered to have been essential for the sound and the look of the alternative rock movement in the 1990s, notably influencing Minneapolis band Soul Asylum, which appeared in 1983 but would not become well known until the end of the decade.

With their newfound renown in the 1990s, the Twin Cities contributed to the US music scene on a national and international scale. The trend for artists to congregate and attract industry attention continued, though not simply in the rock genre. Blues singer/guitarist ‘Kid’Jonny Lang relocated to Minneapolis from Fargo, North Dakota in 1995 to record and promote Smokin’. The Jayhawks and the Gear Daddies (from Austin, Minnesota) brought together rockabilly and alternative rock sounds. Tina and the B-Side Movement, the Magnolias, Mint Condition, Trip Shakespeare and Babes in Toyland all contributed to the rock scene of the late 1980s and 1990s, each approaching the genre from a different angle.

Local venues and radio stations have continued to be important for the dissemination of popular music in Minnesota, and the Twin Cities have remained the center of the entertainment industry in the Upper Midwest. Radio stations like KFAI, KBEM, KMOJ and Radio K (University of Minnesota) have remained independent and support local artists on the air. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, media conglomerates had become the primary force behind the music scene. Clear Channel, one of the largest media companies in the United States, owned seven of the 38 radio stations in the Twin Cities. The company also had four lobbyists working in Minnesota. Many clubs, such as the Quest, used Compass Entertainment (owned by Clear Channel) to schedule acts.

The lack of an explicit ‘Minneapolis sound’ was noted by local rock journalist Dave ‘Doc Rock’ Hill, who felt that no one sound can suffice to explain the diversity of popular music styles in the Twin Cities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the group Atmosphere, fronted by Slug (lyrics) and Ant (production), had become popular nationally. Its members had refused offers to move from their local, self-created label, Rhyme Sayers, choosing instead to remain in the vibrant Twin Cities underground hip-hop scene. Rock band Semisonic, on the other hand, had found a home at MCA and had released Feeling Strangely Fine in 1998. Low, based in Duluth, Minnesota, played ultra-slow, sparse pop, frequently performing for audiences in the Twin Cities. The Dakota, a St Paul bar, was home to the Twin Cities jazz scene, supporting local groups like Happy Apple as well as international stars. Dillinger 4 was the most widely acclaimed punk band in the area. Even novelty acts, like Sean Tillman’s Har Mar Superstar (named after a local mall), had found a place in the national spotlight. Mark Mallman, Lifter Puller and 12 Rods each significantly shaped what has become a continually transforming rock scene in the Twin Cities.


Eisenbeis, H. 2002. ‘Desire Revisited .’ The Rake (April).

Dunn, J.T. 1974. ‘A Century of Song : Popular Music in Minnesota.’ Minnesota History 44(4) (Winter): 123–53.

Hill, L. 1979. A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from Its Beginnings to 1900 . Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Minnesota.

Tourville, T.W. 1996. Minnesota Rocked! The 1960s: An Illustrated Discography . 4th ed. Fairmont, MN: Midwest Publications.

Weingarten, M. 1995. ‘Left of the Dial .’ Guitar (August): 62–80.

Discographical References

. ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.’ Decca 3598. 1941: USA.

. ‘Liar, Liar.’ Soma 1433. 1965: USA.

. Zen Arcade . SST Records 27SST2. 1984: USA.

. Smokin’ . Oarfin 9523. 1995: USA.

. Dirty Mind . Warner Bros. 3478. 1980: USA.

. 1999. Warner Bros. 23720. 1983: USA.

. Parade . Paisley Park 25395–2. 1986: USA.

. PurpleRain . Warner Bros. 25110–2. 1984: USA.

. Let It Be . Twin/Tone TTR-8441. 1984: USA.

. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash . Twin/Tone TTR-8123. 1981: USA.

. Feeling Strangely Fine . MCA 11733. 1998: USA.

. In Combo . Twin/Tone TTR-8014. 1980: USA.

. Make A Record . PolyGram/Blank 532878. 1978: USA.

. ‘Surfin’ Bird.’ Garrett 4002. 1963: USA.

Vee, Bobby. ‘Suzie Baby.’ Soma 1110. 1959: USA.

Discography, AL

. God Loves Ugly . Fat Beats 35001. 2002: USA.

Big Hits of Mid-America: The Soma Records Story, 1963–1967 . Twin/Tone TTR-7907. 1979: USA.

. What Time Is It? . Warner Bros. 2–23701. 1982: USA.

. Split Personalities . V2 27015. 1998: USA.

. The Whoopee John Story . Polka City 1004. 1997: USA.


Purple Rain , dir. Albert Magnoli. 1984. USA. 113 mins. Musical Drama. Original music by Michel Colombier, Dez Dickerson, Prince.