Phil Humphrey, the last-surviving half of Madison duo The Fendermen, which gained fame in the early 1960s, died from heart failure in a Minnesota hospital March 29. He was 78.
Humphrey, who was born in Milwaukee, teamed up with fellow Wisconsin native Jim Sundquist in 1958 to form The Fendermen. The band went on to record “Mule Skinner Blues,” a remake of a Jimmy Rodgers song, which eventually reached a national audience and topped out at No. 5 on the Billboard charts. Sundquist, who shared the same birthday as Humphrey on Nov. 26, 1937, died in June 2013.
Living in Stoughton and working as a bread truck driver, Humphrey met Sundquist, and the two formed the rockabilly band named for their guitar brand of choice, Fender.
“Mule Skinner Blues” was originally released by Sauk City-based Cuca Records and became a hit after Soma Records in Minneapolis released it.
Their newfound fame even earned Humphrey and Sundquist an appearance on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
But the band did not produce another hit song, and by 1962, the two split up and went their separate ways.
According to a Wisconsin State Journal article from 1995, Humphrey, The Fendermen’s lead singer, started a six-piece Canadian band after the break-up, eventually quitting and moving to California.
Daughter Sheba Cote said her father, his second wife and their children moved around Canada and California over the following decades, spending most of their time in Vancouver.
He became deeply religious and worked with troubled juveniles for a time, Cote said. He also ran a home renovation business.
Described by Cote as a free spirit, Humphrey had a passion for bringing happiness to his fans, she said. But over time he gained a distaste for the music industry, which he felt was withholding profits from the group, he told the State Journal in 1995.
Sherry Simon, Humphrey’s daughter from his first marriage, described her father as an interesting and funny man who maintained a love for music. Simon said Humphrey had been living in Albert Lea, Minnesota.
Humphrey is survived by his wife, six children, two stepchildren and two grandchildren.