Wisconsin is home to the world’s largest music festival. And Milwaukee’s Summerfest might not have grown into the gigantic, spectacular and renowned celebration of music that it has become without its long-time curator.
Bob Babisch, vice president of entertainment for Summerfest, has annually led the momentous task of filling 11 stages through 11 days. Creating a festival lineup that draws in upwards of one million people each year means bringing in a little something for everybody. There’s also the matter of working in the midst of tight competition for top acts.
Babisch, the festival’s lead talent buyer since 1978, has shown a tremendous dedication to music in this state.
As much as Summerfest is known for bringing in the biggest names in music year in and year out, it’s also been a one-of-a-kind showcase for Wisconsin music.
While the top names draw the headlines, top bands from across the state have gotten big exposure and earned new fans from Summerfest stages. Hundreds of local acts have taken part in the Big Gig.
Babisch is a member of WAMI’s advisory committee and its Founder’s Club.
There are few musicians woven into the community fabric of Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin as extensively as Eddie Butts.
Most everyone has seen the Eddie Butts Band and they’ve become synonymous with celebration in the region whether it’s the wedding reception, community festival or a day at Summerfest or the Wisconsin State Fair.
The drummer and vocalist established his band in 1974. They’ve sustained an audience over more than four decades with skilled musicianship and a blend of R&B, pop and jazz.
Throughout his long tenure, Butts’ strong reputation has extended beyond music due to his deep dedication to community.
He’s played countless fundraisers throughout the years for a wide variety of groups from the MACC Fund to The Milwaukee Ballet. He participated in Milwaukee Guarantee, a city-wide campaign to motivate students to attend college.
A perennial favorite, Butts has received a number of WAMI Awards through the years in categories including adult contemporary artist, R&B artist, pop artist, blues artist and percussionist.
The national acclaim gathered by Milwaukee’s Summerfest is a testament to its leadership’s dedication, knowledge and love of music.
No one has demonstrated those traits quite like Vic Thomas, who serves as associate entertainment director for the 11-day festival.
Thomas, a Milwaukee native, worked his first Summerfest on the grounds crew in 1974. It was right after he graduated high school as a means to earn money for college. Through college and a stint in the Air Force, he returned home for Summerfest and took on roles including hospitality and security.
Since 1986, Thomas’ role has included booking acts, negotiating contracts and coordinating entertainment staff. During the festival, he’s ever present on the grounds from open to close, managing entertainment from street performers to the main stages.
Thomas has shown his love of music beyond the festival.
He’s a former WAMI president and continues to serve as a member of its advisory committee.
She has one of the few voices that most anyone in Milwaukee would recognize.
Marilynn Mee, who most recently served as the midday personality on 96.5 WKLH, has served up the rock and kept listeners company via the airwaves in Milwaukee for more than 30 years.
Mee previously spent 18 years with the former Lazer 103, having joined the station at its inception. Her roles there included midday host and musical director. She was part of the Bob and Brian morning program.
Off the air, Mee is well known for her animal advocacy, having lent her name and time to humane societies and animal rescue groups. She’s the founder of MPD K9 Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising organization that provides support to the Milwaukee Police Department’s K9 Unit.
She’s known for her love of music and serves as proof that listeners tune into local radio for more than their favorite songs. Mee has earned dedicated fans over the decades.
She has also earned national recognition from the likes of Billboard magazine and Radio & Records.
If you’re from the Fox Valley and love live music, it’s more than likely you’ve come across Gary Shaw. If you’re a guitarist in the Fox Valley, chances are you’ve gotten some support and made some purchases from him.
Shaw has long been regarded as a brilliant guitarist and he’s been a regular player in the region for decades. He was most recently nominated for a WAMI in the guitarist category in 2018.
But for all Shaw accomplished with the instrument, he’s just as much known for the assistance he’s given others along their musical paths.
Shaw was manager of Henri’s Music of Appleton from 1977 through its closure in 2010.
Through Shaw’s efforts, Henri’s was a major contributor to a growing Fox Valley music scene.
As other stores focused on pianos and band instruments, Shaw set Henri’s apart as the region’s rock and roll music store and it became a gathering point for players. Shaw, meanwhile, was tireless in meeting the needs of working musicians.
He later went to work for Island Music in Neenah.
The nonprofit organization has honored and supported Madison area artists for nearly two decades while simultaneously planting the seeds for the next generation.
The Madison Area Music Association began in 2003 as the Madison Area Music Awards. It was founded by Rick Tvedt as a means of acknowledging the extensive music talent in the Madison scene. Their first Grammy-style awards show was held on March 28, 2004 and the Orpheum Theater and has continued annually.
In following years, the MAMAs grew into an active nonprofit with a mission that extended to putting musical instruments into the hands of children. They’ve donated more than $150,000 in funds and gear to Madison area youth music programs. Their goal is a future in which any child will have the chance to play music regardless of race, sex or economic background.
The organization has sought to support musicians in ways beyond recognition of their art. Its MAMA Cares program has raised and donated more than $50,000 to musicians and their families during time of medical need. In 2020, they raised and donated an additional $60,000 as part of their COVID Relief Fund.
The organization changed its name in 2009 to reflect a mission that was broader than an annual awards show. Its annual awards show nonetheless remains an important part of Madison’s music scene. Its awards are points of pride for those who receive them.