April 14, 2022
By David Nordby
The Brillion News
Please see the complete version of this story in the April 14, 2022 print edition of The Brillion News.
The night before Michael Bailey got married in April 1987, his soon-to-be wife, Connie, asked him to make a promise about his first love.
Bailey was just 24-years old, and music had been a key cog in his life to that point. It started when he was young with church music then progressed to fandom for music likely not played near churches then to Bailey forming his own bands.
“What I really enjoyed was listening to my mom play church music and a lot of classical, the great Western European artists and then I kind of grew into soul music and then you get those teenage angst years and I really started getting into metal,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s metal years were filled with Iron Maiden and Motorhead.
“All the real heavy-duty bands that you would get grounded for listening to … It was like they were taking all their angst out through a microphone and through their instruments, so it was pretty cool. I really dug it,” Bailey said.
Even with all that, when the question came from Connie for him to promise not to play in a band ever again, it was a quick answer for Bailey.
“I went, ‘Yeah, I can live without it.’” Bailey recalled. “I lasted six whole months.”
By March 1988, Vic Ferrari, the band that Bailey was the front man for and helped start, were on a musical journey.
Bailey provokes the thoughts of Neil Peart, the famed drummer and lyricist of Rush, and the band’s 1975 “Fly by Night” album.
“For us, we kept building it and then that piece of the spaceship would kind of break off and we kept flying, and we’re still flying,” Bailey said.
The flight ends for Vic Ferrari after 35 years at the end of October. The group is in the midst of a retirement tour.
The celebrated band with Calumet County roots, including Bailey who was born in Chilton, has played in 12 states and 10 countries in five different decades. The band is known for its offshoot Symphony on the Rocks, a high-powered rock symphony show playing the classic rock ‘n’ roll songs.
The farewell tour started on March 5 at the Meyer Theater in downtown Green Bay in front of 1,000 people. Bailey said he had a thought on stage that night.
“Man, this is the coolest thing in the world. It never got old. Not one day. Never. Not one day,” Bailey said.
With Vic Ferrari, Bailey will have performed about 3,000 shows in his life. The band has performed at least 2,500.
The shows have been wide-ranging. At an REO Speedwagon show in Michigan in 1991, the band performed in front of 12,500 people. They performed in front of 15,000 in Green Bay. The size of the crowd didn’t always impact the joy of the show.
“If there were 300 people out there and they were enthusiastic, that was a great crowd, and I never forgot that,” Bailey said.
Crowds could be sparse in the band’s earliest days, but it wasn’t always a negative.
“There were some really good nights that we played in front of smaller crowds when we were
first starting and man, they were great. That was fun because we were motivating people and we were just sitting there like a bump on a log,” Bailey said.
Bailey says he learned from area bands who came before him who offered advice not to do drugs and go farther than Northeast Wisconsin.
“Their crowds basically went away because they didn’t go out there and plant more seeds, and we planted seeds all the time,” Bailey said.
They traveled as far as Clear Lake, Iowa to the Surf Ballroom just to play in front of 83 people.
“You lose money, and then you have to drive seven hours. That’s hard but that was 1996 and two years later in 1998, we’re packing the place,” Bailey said.
“Would most bands have that fortitude to go back and get their faces slapped for a couple years? Probably not. That’s hard. Those were tough days but if you don’t go plant seeds, you have nowhere for the crops to grow," Bailey adds.
The seeds were planted, and the Surf Ballroom became one of Bailey’s all-time favorites. It’s the same venue that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson gave their last performance on Feb. 2, 1959, before they died in a plane crash (the day the music died) on their way to Moorhead, Minn. (The group had played in Green Bay the night before Clear Lake).
“I think what makes it cool is that we beat, I don’t know what it was, probably Tommy Dorsey’s record or Glenn Miller, I think it was. We played down there more times than anyone else. I think I played four New Year’s Eves there and about 20 other times, and we just had a great demand, and it was fun,” Bailey said.
Bailey even became owner of the last record that Holly, Valens and Richardson signed.
“It was really neat. I had it for about 11 years and sold it in Dallas. Out of 1,500 items, it was number two. Elvis’ velour jacket from “Viva Las Vegas” was number one,” Bailey said.
Bailey picked up other pieces of memorabilia along the way, including a base from The Rolling Stones.
On-stage the band became a local fixture in Calumet County.
“One of those was Welcome Neighbor Days in Brillion, Wisconsin … I’ll never forget … It was Father’s Day weekend or the weekend after that and it was really cool because one of the volunteers said, ‘We sold the last beer that we had in our tanks on your last note.’ … I’ll never forget that someone told me that. I thought, that was really cool, so we did our job,” Bailey said.
Most of the members of the band have lasted since 1988, a group of Calumet County kids.
“Our parents really knew each other more than us,” Bailey said. “Everybody kind of knew each other a little bit … For us, I think it was important for us to find our chemistry.”
They did find chemistry.
“We laughed all the time. We would tell stories or do impressions with each other. There wasn’t really any hard times. My wife had cancer about 13 years ago. That was a tough day, but we all got through it together. You always had that support system. Parents when they’d pass. But I think the most important thing that we did was laugh because it became fun, and we made a career out of having fun and we had a forward business plan. Have fun. Period. Make money. That’s it,” Bailey said.
And they did have motivation, too.
“Borrow more money than you can ever think of repaying back and you’ll go out there and you’ll find work real quick. We relied on ourselves and that’s where longevity became a company, a corporation, but if I was going to take us back to ’87 or ’88 right now, we’re the same people that we were back then. Same jerks. We never really changed,” Bailey said. “It never became an ego thing or somebody else had more success than everybody else. Nah, none of that.”