Cloquet musician pens Duluth rock 'n roll book
December 22, 2023
As a teenager growing up in West Duluth in the 1970s, music really mattered to James Wiita, even more than school sometimes. He's been revisiting those times in recent years, as he researched and wrote his first book: "Rock On, Duluth!" It is, the cover proclaims, the story of YANQUI Productions and arena rock in Duluth from 1973 to 1978: "One promoter, one dream, the story behind it all."
Now in his 60s and a musician himself, Wiita can still recall the little details of concerts he attended in high school and afterward, catching bands like Kiss and Peter Frampton on their way up, the likes of Santana, Bob Seger, Peter Frampton, Cheech & Chong and hitchhiking to Minneapolis to see YES instead of getting his picture taken with the honor court.
In 1975, at age 19, the longhaired Denfeld Class of 1974 grad had what he calls his best year ever in terms of music.
"I saw a phenomenal number of shows," he said.
But until a chance meeting at what was then Beaner's Central (now Wussow's Concert Cafe ) in West Duluth, those were just memories.
Wiita was just hanging out at the coffee shop and music venue, talking music with a stranger, when Wiita started rattling off all the concerts he saw as a teenager in Duluth.
"My jaw dropped when I brought up YANQUI, only to hear the fellow next to me say he created it!" the Cloquet resident writes in the introduction to his book.
Over the next 10 years, Wiita said the urge to tell that story - which he calls "the motherlode of '70s rock history" kept growing.
"Trying to marry my recollections with what YANQUI could provide became an inner obsession. I couldn't let it go," Wiita said.
The book covers the many bands that came to the Twin Ports, from Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame members to lesser known groups. The man behind YANQUI Productions is never named aside from the nickname, Van, but his memories and the meticulous records he kept of performance arrangement star in the book, along with Wiita's voice sharing his own youthful memories and additional research on the rock stars who came north.
The Pine Knot News sat down with Wiita this week to find out more. Full disclosure, we didn't have to go far to find him, as Wiita works Tuesdays and Thursday in the office. He'd been popping in to talk about the book for more than a year, telling stories that did and didn't make it into the book.
PKN: Was music a big part of your life?
Wiita: Yes, all my growing up. My mom was a church organist and piano player, she sang at weddings and funerals. We had a piano at home. All the family sings, still. There were times in our youth and as adults, it was always part of every get-together. Singing was always part of every family event. We all sang at my mom's funeral - all of us.
PKN: When did your interest in rock and roll start?
Wiita: Very young [with the] Beatles. My older sisters would buy the latest records, all the current pop rock: Woodstock, even previous to that. A lot of the mid-60s rock 'n' roll.
PKN: What were you like as a teenager in the early '70s in Duluth?
Wiita: I was a hippie. I caught on to every hippie movement when it came - peace, love and happiness. We made our own flare pants, sewed the braids around. Very fashionable with that movement.
PKN: What were your Top 3 Yanqui shows?
Wiita: The top shows that I enjoyed from Yanqui would be The Blue Oyster Cult with Rush ... and Wishbone Ash, Aerosmith and Kansas. Those two shows are described in detail in the book. The other Yanqui show I really liked would be Johnny Winter and Little Richard at the Wessman Arena in 1976.
PKN: As a teenager, you were just consuming these shows, right? You didn't know about Yanqui Productions?
Wiita: Oh yes I did. Everyone kind of remembers that name as the coolest. I'm gonna go to a show and it's put on by Yanqui because they were in the news over controversy. I would look for the Yanqui logo. And I knew what Yanqui meant, it was kind of a code word for kids ... think of Carlos Castonada and all the mescaline-taking, shaman-from-Mexico kind of thing.
PKN: Did the music expand your mind?
Wiita: Yes, and the psychedelic drugs we took. The music seemed to be very related to the culture and I was embedded in that.
PKN: Why did you want to write the book?
Wiita: I was invited to be part of a PACT TV documentary about the rock scene in Duluth that eventually fizzled. So I just went on my own and said, I want this story. This story is worth bringing to light. I didn't know a lot about his struggles, you know, seeing the numbers from some of these shows where he lost his shirt. I'd known a little bit about that, but when I documented it, it just makes for a terrific story.
PKN: Who would like to read this book?
Wiita: I took a milk stool approach, with three legs. One [leg] is the big names that came to town, the rock 'n' roll that anyone who loves that era is going to know. The second part of it is what it was like when they came to Duluth, and how it affected the community. The city was against all those kids gathering, like 5,000 of them, sometimes twice a month. There was a lot of controversy, arrests for smoking pot, things like that. The third leg on the milk stool is the story of a young entrepreneur who's trying to just make his vision come [true] ... and be a businessman. But he really had a vision for bringing this stuff into town.
To purchase "Rock On, Duluth!" search for James Wiita on Facebook, email [email protected] or stop by the Pine Knot office in the new year. Cost is $25 plus shipping.
Editor's note: The online version of this story contains two minor corrections, made after the newspaper went to press.