The North Sisters, Jan & Patti, were Minnesota’s all-time greatest country music duo. A prolific pair, the duo recorded thirteen 7-inch 45RPM singles (eight that I’ve heard), and performed for decades starting in the late 1950s. They chose to forego national touring to stay right here in Minnesota and the surrounding region, and made their base at The Flame Café on 16th & Nicollet in Minneapolis (where Greatapes is now) as did many other Minnesota country acts. Jan & Patti were earlier part of Ardis Wells’ Rhythm Ranch Girls, considered by many to be the first all-female country band where the instruments were all played by women- and all of them sang too.
I recently talked to Jan North (nee Northrop, nee Sherman) over some Mama’s Pizza on Rice Street in St Paul along with her grandson Jon Sherman.
Jan worked with many country music superstars, and even toured the region with a few. Here is a short list of some of the names that came up during our pizza dinner: Wanda Jackson (“a good friend”), Roy Drusky (“helped record the North Sisters’ second single on Decca subsidiary Briar Records”), Hank Garland ( “a really great guitar player”), Floyd Cramer (“he played on our recordings a few years before his own success”), Owen Bradley, Porter Wagoner, George Jones (“we toured the Midwest with George”), Chet Atkins, Loretta Lynn, Little Jimmie Dickens, Hank Thompson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jerry Reed, Tex Ritter, Sherwin Linton, Marvin Rainwater, Ardis Wells, Texas Bill Strength and Jim Wells.
It’s so great to learn all about the country music scene here in the Twin Cities from back in the 50s, 60s, & 70s. Thanks to Jon Sherman for introducing us. Most of all, thanks to Minnesota Country Music legend JAN NORTH!
“I knew that I wanted to perform music since I was four years old. I went to Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville, and was in the first sophomore class there. I grew up in Little Canada, and I still live there.”
“I always went under the name Jan North. Northrop seemed too long, and when I joined Ardis Wells in The Rhythm Ranch Girls, I used the name Jan North. Patti & I sang a lot of duets, and when Marvin Rainwater heard the harmonies that we had, he took a dub down to Jim Vienneau, A&R man for MGM. We went to Nashville, and while we were discussing contracts and percentages, he suggested the name The North Sisters. There hadn’t been a country sister duo since The Davis Sisters. We said ‘That’s fine, we don’t care, all we want to do is record’.”
Recording in Nashville and Minneapolis:
“We recorded in The Owen Bradley Studio in Nashville. In Minneapolis, George Garrett recorded the singles on Twin Town, and he came in the studio with us. We cut records in Minneapolis at Kay Bank Studio (26th & Nicollet), and we recorded at Sound 80 Studios (27th Av & 25th Street) later on.”
Ardis Wells and The Flame Cafe:
“I met Patti at The Flame when we were in The Rhythm Ranch Girls, she was already part of the group when I joined. Patti was also a good songwriter. I had been on the road previously with another girl, and we were booked by Consolidated Artists Agency out of Milwaukee, We played from the Northern peninsula of Michigan all the way down to Miami Beach, Florida. I got lonely for my family and tired of the road, so I came back home. Mr. Torp of Torp’s Music Store (also on Rice Street in St Paul) was a friend of my parents; he said country singer Ardis Wells was looking for a lead musician who could sing. I wasn’t 21, so we went over and met with her and Mr. Perkins who owned The Flame and they said ‘We don’t care if she’s not 21 as long as she doesn’t drink, we’ll take care of her, don’t worry about it’.”
“Ardis was a professional woman wrestler in the 1950s, and used to ride the elephants in the circus for a long time. She has pictures of her life all over the walls of her place now- a virtual museum. We had six girls at one time in The Rhythm Ranch Girls with Ardis. Fern Dale, the great banjo player, had worked with The Andrews Sisters in the vaudeville days. Guitarist Marcy & I still get together with Ardis, she’s 95 years old now. Marcy still plays really well.”
“Sometimes we get together with Jimmy Jenson. Ardis had a hit record with “The Roly poly Polka”. Ardis’ husband was Jim Wells, he had a group The Dakota Round Up, a big group in the back room of The Flame. The floor would rise up with the push of a button and become a stage. Ardis Wells and The Rhythm Ranch Girls worked the front lounge of The Flame, our stage was up high above the bottles (see photos). Ardis would perform a trapeze act in The Flame while we sang, but the City Of Minneapolis shut that down because it was too dangerous. The Flame was the home of the $3.25 16-ounce steak. I still have their menus!”
Texas Bill Strength
“I knew Bill very well. He recorded for Capitol Records & Sun Records; he was a good friend of mine. He worked at KEVE Radio out in Golden Valley, and also booked all of the talent and was also the MC in the back room of The Flame. Bill also had a record store on the corner of 10th & Marquette downtown Minneapolis. He had a huge guitar on the awning like at Ernest Tubb’s store in Nashville. Bill did live remote broadcasts on Saturday afternoons from the record store on the radio, featuring the acts that were playing at The Flame that week. He also had a TV show on Channel 9 (I think), which was very successful. He had a good thing going.”
The North Sisters performed at The Ozark Opry in Osage Beach, Missouri, and Jan also worked with a group called The Texas Play Girls in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Bassist Paul Tobako recently shed some light on this enigmatic record. Paul and drummer Tim Flaherty were both from Brooklyn Center, the other band members were from various parts of town. Roxx were based on a farm on the east side of the Twin Cities metropolitan area for awhile, some members lived there from time to time. Paul claims he auditioned for the band there, when there was three feet of snow on the ground. The farm was “run down, but still nice enough”. They played quite a bit in Canada, traveling Highway 1 all the way from Thunder Bay to Edmonton. During a residency in St Louis, the band stayed in a condominium-like complex, and the songs for ‘Get Your Roxx Off’ were written in the pool room there. The band eventually got a vehicle for transport, a used Old Dutch Potato Chips delivery truck.
Thanks to Paul for giving me the go-ahead to present this stuff. Paul and Tim put out a CD in the early 1990s under the name Coldfire, here is some to check out on YouTube.
Everyone knows about most of the great Minnesota compilation records. There’s ‘Big Hits of Mid-America Vol. I-IV’, ‘Barefoot & Pregnant’, ‘Kitten’, ‘No Slow All Go’. Some of you may have even heard of ‘Burger Corpse’ or ‘Lung Cookies’. ‘Hypnotic Tornado’ is thee best Minnesota compilation you’ve never heard of. It is St Paul-centric, which means a lot to us at GJG.
Thanks to Paul Dickinson for releasing this great cassette. Paul was in Manifest Destiny, Pax Americana, Poetry Grenade, and you can still see him perform with FRANCES GUMM. Paul wrote one of Minnesota’s greatest anthems “I Will Not be Destroyed”. Sonic Boom Records would go onto release the first Tiltawhirl 7″ single “Pint of Blood” b/w “Define My Life” a couple years later. Tiltawhirl then became Arcwelder.
Herein lies Snag, a short-lived band featuring the debonair Patti Walsh on gtr and vocals, Jeffrey Hermann on bass, and Mike Huber on drums. A couple of these songs ended up on a 7″ single released on Jeffrey’s OXO Records label. I saw ‘em live a few times; they did not disappoint.
Thanks to Patti for the green light for letting me put these on the blog.
GJG is certainly the best place to buy a ton of records. We have 470,000 of them, and have been selling 'em for 29 years. GJG is also a blog: I like lo-fi analog sound (cassettes and vinyl, please) and lo-rez/highly-pixelated/blurry photographs of (mainly) Minnesota music and its related ephemera.
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