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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010

Topping Brought The Beatles

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Saturday, Sept. 4, is the 46th anniversary of the day The Beatles performed their one and only show for Milwaukee. The Fab Four made it to our city because of Nick Topping, a local activist and promoter, who brought them here during their 25-city tour of the United States.

Topping was born Nick Topitzes in 1918, the son of Greek immigrants who operated a grocery store at South Fourth Street and National Avenue on the city’s South Side. Topping attended grade school in the neighborhood and went to Bay View High School. Before entering UW-Madison as an undergraduate, Nick Anglicized his last name to avoid the rampant ethnic discrimination facing many Greeks at the time. After graduating with a degree in history and communications, Topping was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, where he served in counterintelligence in the Mediterranean.

When Topping returned to Milwaukee after the war, he invested in what he knew best, and opened a general/grocery store, Topping and Co. International House. Until Topping opened that shop, Milwaukeeans were hard-pressed to find imported food and goods from the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (think goat cheese and red wine), books from all over the world, and music from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.

As an eyewitness to the struggles immigrants faced, Topping became a strong proponent for peace and social justice. He was active in civil rights as well as the peace movement, marching with Father James Groppi across the 16th Street Viaduct in the name of citywide open-housing policies and publicly protesting the Vietnam War. During a time before cell phones and the Internet, connecting with others meant physically meeting up with people of like mind, and Topping’s shop, which had moved to Walker’s Point, became a welcoming, comfortable gathering place for citizens involved in Milwaukee’s progressive movements.

During the 1950s, Topping started to bring ethnic and folk musicians to Milwaukee to perform, beginning with blacklisted artists such as Pete Seeger and continuing with South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, folk stars Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan (at the Oriental Theatre in November 1964) and, of course, The Beatles.

According to Shepherd Express A&E Editor David Luhrssen, Topping would “smile when asked about meeting The Beatles, comment on the loud, screaming crowd at the Milwaukee Arena and move the conversation to subjects of greater importance to him—topics that might include political upheavals in Latin America, the foolishness of the news media, the enduring hold of racism on American society.”

A 1995 robbery of his store, during which Topping was stabbed, didn’t intimidate him into closing. He maintained his post behind the register, where some of the services he offered were listed: public notary, income tax service, travel service, money orders and translation. Topping continued to support social justice until he passed away at the age of 89 in May 2007.