Steve Kramer, the onetime frontman of ’80s punk-polka band the Wallets who went on to pursue a decades-long career in the commercial music business, passed away in his sleep yesterday in Park City, Utah, where he was attending the Sundance Film Festival. He was 59.
Kramer began his music career in the early ’80s in New York as a member of James Chance and The Contortions, and later became the leader, songwriter, and accordionist for popular Minneapolis band the Wallets, who were active throughout the ’80s and released three full-length albums on Twin/Tone.
Their biggest hit was the catchy “Totally Nude,” a song that captures their unique blend of new wave, polka, and synth rock.
After disbanding the Wallets in 1989, Kramer went on to form jingle-writing company Hest & Kramer with his band’s manager, Bob Hest. The pair have remained in business creating commercial spots and jingles ever since, taking on large clients like Samsung and Target.
Though he has remained active musically Kramer has mostly remained off stage since his time spent in the Wallets. He did return to performing briefly in late 2011, however, when he collaborated with Kevin Kling on the holiday-themed show “Of Mirth and Mischief,” which also included performances by Haley Bonar and James Diers.
Kramer’s craftsmanship with sound was also getting a lot of attention on stage at The Fitzgerald Theater last fall. After long-time A Prairie Home Companion sound effects man Tom Keith passed away in November, 2011, Garrison Keillor’s show was without a Twin-Cities based sound effects person. Kramer stepped up, admirably adding texture in the form of clicks, whirrs and crashes for the show’s September and October 2012 run in Saint Paul.
Kevin Kling says that he and Kramer were at work on a new production for the Children’s Theater Company.
“He made things live anew and make you feel like you’re hearing a kind of music for the first time,” Kling told MPR News. “All across the board — his breadth — like the four songs he’d written for our new piece — all of them, just completely different from the next. All of them, just a mastery of each form.”
Kramer is survived by his life partner Cathy Young, his stepdaughter, Bobbie Young, his parents, Margaret Shryer and step-father Davis Shryer, and two nephews, Jonathan and Cutler Dozier, all of Minneapolis.
“It’s a serious loss for everyone,” business partner Bob Hest said in a written statement. “Steve always took care of himself and was very health conscious, especially of late. He was diligently doing Bikram Yoga, or Hot Yoga, and he was really looking forward to completing the new show with Kevin Kling at Children’s. In many ways, he had come full circle going back to writing songs for the stage and capturing it all splendidly after years of penning 30-second pieces and capturing it all splendidly in that setting as well. He would be the first to tell you how the discipline of writing short, very focused musical strokes made him a better songwriter in the long run. I don’t know what I’ll do without him personally or professionally.”