Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Sangralads / Sun Lightning Inc. (Whap)

   The Sangralads were a group of young men who resided at the Sangralea Valley Home For Boys in the 1960's. They performed at a variety of events from 1965-1969. As their popularity grew, this lead to the recording of two 45's on the Whap record label. The song "Mary's Kidd" from their first release in 1968, was a minor hit in southern Michigan. The band would change their name to Sun Lightning Inc. for their follow up record in 1969. Sangralads band member Phil Armstrong was kind enough to write me to share his memories and thoughts of his time with the group, which I feature for you today.

Phil Armstrong
   In the 1960’s I was a resident at a small boys home for wayward/troubled youth called Sangralea Valley Home For Boys in north central Indiana. Sangralea Valley was a Christian based boys’ home. They had 6 boys in residence when the home constructed a dormitory that was able to accommodate 16 boys. I was 3 months away from turning 15 years old upon my arrival in June, 1962.  I was sullen, moody and did not talk much. After about a year at the home, I began to fit in and settled down well to the very positive home life and atmosphere that I found there. There were no fences. There were no guards.  We attended public school and church as did most anyone else. None of the other future band members were there, yet. Now, because I liked to plink around on a piano that was in the activities den of the dorm, I was asked if I wanted to take piano lessons.  I said “yes” and began taking lessons sometime in 1963.
     The boys’ home would continued to expand and add more boys over the next several years. By 1965, I had been taking piano lessons for nearly two years.  A couple guys, Mark Biddle who played guitar and wrote songs, and Rick Ingle, who had a good voice and loved to sing along with songs on the radio and records, was watching me at one of my piano plunking practices. I must have been getting a decent sounding noise out of it because the two of them thought it would be neat if we could learn some songs and maybe even form a band. When they first talked to me about it I was quite immersed in classical music and disdained most other forms of music. I told them it really wasn't my idea of fun and I had no desire to be a part of it.  I wished them luck with it on their own.  Not finding anyone else with any seeming music skills, they continued to plead with me for a few days or so until they finally cajoled me into at least trying it for a few times to see if anything might come of it. We began practicing in the middle of September, 1965. We soon roped in one more fine fellow, Aaron Birnell to play drums. He seemed to have a reasonable sense of timing and we acquired a set of old drums adequate to our new enterprise. We practiced as frequently as time would allow in the old barn that was at the boys’ home. There also happened to be an old beat up, out of tune, white grand piano that didn't even have a lid on it that I used.   After about 6 weeks of practice on a handful of, basically easy songs, we decided we were marginally adequate enough to attempt to play in the barn for a Halloween party.  Wrangling over what to call ourselves, we finally decided on "The Black Bats" as being appropriate to the occasion.  I don't even know what we wore; probably all black, for the most part, I would guess. With me pounding on the piano, Mark plucking on his guitar, Aaron beating away trying to keep up as best he could, and Rick yowling in his best fashion while banging on a newly-acquired tambourine, we proceeded very quickly through the dozen songs that we knew. We had to try to slow down and not race through them as we played them again for the second time.  I guess that worked out O.K. because at least one or two souls were still in the barn listening to us when we finished.  The rest took off on a hayride. As we put the Black Bats/ Halloween venue behind us, the other guys decided we might actually make a 'go' of it, even though I was still not overly enthused by it. We continued to practice intermittently, trying to gain on the quality and number of songs in our repertoire. 
    In the spring of 1966 we had progressed sufficiently in our skills that Jack Laymon, began to take notice of us and our potential. Before coming to the boys’ home, Jack had been at Kansas State University and served as the booking agent for the talent that appeared there.  At the request of his father (“Pop”), he took over the operations of Sangralea Valley in October of 1962.  When it was decided that if we were to proceed, it would be necessary to acquire some kind of a portable keyboard for myself and a basic PA system. Jack made it possible to acquire our needed musical equipment. He also purchased our first simple matching band outfits: paisley shirts and black pants. Gosh, we were even going to look like a real band. We decided on a simple Wurlitzer electric piano, a Harmon-Kardon amplifier and speakers, along with 3 microphones and stands. All the equipment probably only amounted to a few hundred dollars total at the time.  We began the inevitable battle of learning 'sound balance' as opposed to seeing who could be the loudest.  I doubt if we ever really mastered that, but we did make strong inroads towards that goal over the four-year history of the group. I was also able to add a Farfisa organ within a few months of our beginning. Many groups seemed to have Farfisa organs.  After a couple years (probably by late 1967 or so), I traded in my Farfisa  for a Hammond T-22 organ.  It wasn't quite as beefy as the vaunted B-3 Hammond. We got a separate Leslie Speaker (beautiful wood cabinet) with the multiple-speed swirling horn built in to it that gave us a pretty similar sound at a better cost.  We installed good, solid roller wheels so that we could block it to keep it from moving around while playing. We put the Wurlitzer piano on top of it. I was always, first and foremost, a piano player, far more than an organist.
    The name of the group was simply decided from the name of the boys' home: Sangralea Valley, therefore: The Sangralads. In 1966, it still did not seem too out of fashion yet, as it was to seem to us 2 or 3 years later with predominately odd or weird sounding band names becoming so dominant. All the key ingredients were falling into place at this time: band members, equipment, outfits, repertoire, and name of the group. We had not played many other dates, if any, as of yet. We did bring Danny Oberlander on as bass player.  I do not recall the exact time he came on board but he was diligent and persistent in his practicing. He was new to it and not able to contribute much in vocal back-up for much of his tenure with the band. Danny acquired a Moserite bass and amp and proved out very well after a while.  Surprisingly, for me, after the initial beginning (the 1st few months), I can't seem to remember what all went on in much detail throughout much of 1966. I was quite busy with high school band , chorus and writing classical music, as well as striving to be an honor-roll student. I was still not completely thrilled with pop music, But, as I said, we were getting to sound like a band, or the makings of one at least. I do recall a highlight or two for that year. If my memory serves me correctly, that was the year we entered a battle of the bands at the nearby Air Force Base which was 4 miles away from the boys' home. I don't recall how many other bands competed, maybe 6 or 8. To our surprise we won. Good progress! The next major event I recall is of a 2-song moment at the Merchant's building in Indianapolis. We represented the 2nd congressional district of the state in a 12 band shindig billed as "$100-A-Plate Republican A-Go-Go". Many state political luminaries were present.  Richard Nixon gave the main speech. Afterwards, we had time to pose for a picture with him along with Fred Boyer, a politician from our district. We didn't win anything, though we did sound decent enough. It was certainly an exciting moment early in our history. 
 Photo of the group with Richard Nixon at the Republican A Go Go
 Standing: Mike Biddle, Phil Armstrong, Rick Ingle. 
  Kneeling: Danny Oberlander, Aaron Birnell
   By September, 1966, after about 1 year from band's start, Aaron Birnell (Drummer) was replaced by Rick Ingle. Rick had expanded his talents to drums as well as vocals. We did begin to improve over the next few months. I found myself slowly and steadily having more and more of the lead vocals thrust upon me.  This was especially true after Rick Ingle took on the task of drumming and needing to focus more on that. It was not so much that I had a great voice, but rather that no one else wanted to do it at the time. I didn't think any more of singing than I did about most popular music at that time. I did find the wonderful harmonies of groups like the Beach Boys and Four Seasons to be of more than passing interest. We started to get occasional bookings for dances and such.
Rick Ingle,   Danny Oberlander,  Phil Armstrong,   Mike Biddle
   As 1967 got underway, we continued to progress.  I recall a small TV station from Marion, Indiana sent over a cameraman and a reporter to the boys home to get our story and tape us playing one of own songs for a later airplay on their station. It was an instrumental song we had thrown together that we simply called "That Theme". We never recorded it. In June we drove our van 700 miles out to Manhattan, Kansas and played at a couple of venues that Jack had arranged for us.  Nothing spectacular came of it, but we were slowly honing our skills and developing our talent and showmanship.  It was fun and invigorating to us all. 
Kansas Tour
    When we returned home, Mike Biddle played out the few remaining gigs on our docket.  He left the boys home after having just graduated from high school in late May. I should mention at this point that the usual cause of a member replacement in the band was due to that person graduating from high school. One of the key tenets of the boys home was that if he was to be placed there the courts would agree to leave the boy in Sangralea Valley until he graduated from high school.  At that time they were free to leave the boys' home to make their way in the world at large. The band member usually would finish out any remaining band engagements that were forthcoming, while the new member was being brought up to speed to fill that instrument slot.  So closed out one major member of the group and then entered the next one, Rocky Lillard who was 14 years old.  He would remain through to the end of the band. Rocky was about as unlikely a candidate to become a Sangralad as I might imagine. He was enamored with such music as Jimi Hendrix and heavy metal, with a somewhat childish look to him.  Rocky wasn't much of a vocalist, but he did seem to take to the guitar fairly well and proved to be reasonably adept at imitating the record guitar parts if shown how. Rocky turned out to be pretty good. We continued to pick up more bookings for school dances, proms, and the like, as the year progressed. Most of our play-dates were spaced out reasonably much of the time.  That was necessary since we were all in school and had other things that needed doing, and the day-to-day living of any average person in their mid-teens. 
Rocky Lillard
   Another key person to become a member of the Sangralads was Bill (Homer) Thompson. He was one of those that I would call a 'natural'. I have a feeling he could probably do well at most things he might have tried.  His voice was solid and as good or better than what the rest of us were capable of on most songs.  He also picked the drums up from scratch and built quite rapidly into as good of a drummer than anyone else we ever had in the group. I was amazed at his dexterity, versatility and natural flair.  Not that he didn't need a certain amount of grooming into it (showmanship, etc.). He was also very easy and amenable to work with in practice sessions, on the stage or studio. I marveled and envied how easy he made some things look.  He was really good. We practiced at various places over the next couple of years, but all of them were in or near the boys home. The group was able to put in about an hour or more a day of practice on a fairly regular basis by this time.
Bill Thompson

        Back:  Rick Ingle, Phil Armstrong, Bill Thompson 
           Front: Rocky Lillard, Danny Oberlander

     One of the founding members of the band, Rick Ingle, graduated from high school in 1967. Lloyd Amos replaced Rick and began drumming and singing with the group. Lloyd was very active, a good drummer, decent support vocals, easy-going and had a pleasant personality. I was the oldest member (20 in Sept. 1967) at this time, and beginning my senior year in high school. We began working and practicing with the idea of making a recording growing larger in our minds  as 1967 was wending its way towards 1968.  The next year and a half would see us brushing at the edges and flirting with a moderate chance at something akin to fame and fortune.
Lloyd Amos, Danny Oberlander , Bill Thompson, Rocky Lillard, Phil Armstrong

Rocky Lillard , Lloyd Amos, Bill Thompson, Phil Armstrong, Danny Oberlander
    The first half of 1968 was a continuation of whatever play-dates we were getting, working in the ever-frequent new top 40 hits into our repertoire, and spending time working out the instrument and vocal parts for our two songs we had slated for recording when we were ready. Rick Ingle would returned on drums shortly after Lloyd left the boys’ home after his graduation from high school in May 1968. I also graduated high school in 1968, and was scheduled to attend college less than 20 miles away from the boys' home. By prior agreement and arrangement, I became a staff member at the home. I moved to a farmhouse on the property that served as staff quarters for 3 or 4 people. This allowed the prime continuation of the band, as well as other duties and functions for me to fulfill until college started up in mid-September. In the summer we played at Indiana Beach. It was a showcase for bands of fame and some wannabes like us. We appeared on one stage for 45 minutes then the main feature group would perform on their stage nearby for 45 minutes, then us again.  The feature band that night was the Lemon Pipers. They were pretty good and very personable too us during break times.  I remember they played their hit "Green Tambourine".
Indiana Beach
Our First Record: Mary’s Kid / Think of What You're Sayin
   The recording session was scheduled to take place in July or August at the RCA custom studio in Chicago, Illinois, about 120 miles from where we lived.  Studio rental time was $75 an hour at the time with one A/R man (artists / repertoire) and his assistant at the sound control board.  We set up our equipment and the sound pros baffled them and adjusted them until the sound checks showed us to be at our optimum for beginning to record.  Once the session started, we decided to do a take on Mary Had A Little Lamb which was in the public domain, meaning no one owned copyright to it.  We spruced it up a bit and called the song Mary’s Kid.  I sang lead. We went through the song doing various takes until we were pleased with the result. It was fairly simple and offered us a good 1st effort for recording purposes. It was intended as the "A" side since bubblegum music was fairly popular at this time. I think we had a different session for the flip side, “Think of What You’re Sayin”. Bill sang lead on that song.  We band members liked it better than "Mary's Kid", naturally, because it didn't sound so kiddy-ish. You know, we wanted to be cool. It was somewhat grueling, but probably the most exciting and fun we had experienced up to that time in our lives. After all the recording stuff was behind us, the studio gave the masters of our recordings to Jack to have them pressed at the pressing facilities in Indianapolis. When we received the 45’s from Indy, Jack set about trying to get them out to the public via radio, jukebox, as well as selling them at each play-date where we appeared.  Ironically, it was the "A" side that made a certain commotion in Michigan on some college campuses, for which I remember receiving a royalty check for $14 a year later.    

    Our manager Jack Laymon was truly instrumental in our growth and without him we would have never risen to the pinnacle of accomplishments that we did attain. Jack’s knowledge and grasp of some of the key ingredients of the music business such as copyrighting, publishing, recording, distributing, and promoting our music was immeasurable. He was responsible for getting us copyrights for our recordable songs. He had made the arrangements for the recording studio times and attended to the numerous details concerning that part of the music industry business. Jack also took care of most of the group’s bookings (probably all of them). He made sure we were all ready to go and loaded up for traveling to every play-date. He also worked with us at frequent intervals on such things as stage presence, polishing our showmanship and precision. In other words, he tried to turn us into professionals as much as possible. 
    Rick Vidal replaced Danny Oberlander on bass after Danny left the boys' home. At some point, in late '68 or early '69, we were becoming dissatisfied with our band name. It seemed dated and old-fashioned. so we began scratching our heads, trying to come up with something better and more fitting. This took us a while, actually, because it was difficult for every single band member to agree on a final selection. Where we came up with Sun Lightning Inc. is beyond me. It may have come about as a result of the song “Quasar 45,” of which we had been recently creating and refining.  The heavy trend of the times was towards weird, outlandish names which often had no obvious meaning. The name sounded good enough. so, that is how that new name came about.  I was never quite rectified to it completely, even though I also felt the need for an update in that department.                   
  As 1969 got underway, the band, performed at various events. Rick Ingle and Rick Vidal left the group. Mike Sisson took over the bass.  Mike was a 17-18 year-old that we knew in high school. He was not a resident of the boys' home. The final band member line-up was: Phil Armstrong (keyboards/vocals); Rocky Lillard (guitar/vocals); Bill Thompson (drums/vocals); Mike Sisson (bass/vocals). We continued to perform at a variety of play-dates, but the main focus was on turning our attentions to planning a follow-up 45 to try to keep the momentum going.  Somewhere along this course we decided to try to expand these efforts into an album, if we could come up with enough original ideas or material. 

      Our 2nd Record: Quasar 45 / There Must Be  Light  
                                                            Quasar 45 Picture Sleeve
 We again traveled to the RCA Studios in Chicago for the recording of our next record. It was our goal to record an album and that two songs from this album would be released on a 45. Side 1 selections (not necessarily in their order of play) were: Quasar 45, There Must Be Light, Rainbow Blues, I'll Die Alright, Loving You So and Who Really Cares? The first two selections as they are listed above, were slated to be the A and B sides of the 45 record.  The first four songs listed were written primarily by me. Rocky Lillard and myself co-wrote Loving You So. Mike Sisson contributed Who Really Cares? from his own song compositions. All the songs were 2 to 4 minutes long. I believe I ended up singing lead on all of them except Who Really Cares? (Mike Sisson sang on his own song).  The other side of the album was not well-defined or developed at this point (Summer '69).  The concept I had in mind was to return to and continue to expand on the theme of Quasar 45 with some cosmic-sounding space music.  This was based on some classical music that I had composed a couple of years earlier. I had some interesting ideas for combining a modified reverse-tape of one or more of my pieces with the band's modern instruments (drums/bass/guitar/keyboards). They may have included vocals on some of it, but this had not been determined for sure.  At any rate, these were my hopes and plans for side 2.  I do not remember how many sessions we had in the RCA studio, but I do remember at one point, after the first side of the album was just about in it’s completed form, Jack and I flew up to Chicago in his Piper Cherokee to put some final touches on it with the A/ R man so it could be wrapped up and put in the "Master Tape' form. When Jack and I arrived at the RCA studios we were a bit early for our 'tweeking' work that we had come there for. I went out of the control booth area and into the recording room, which was separated by big glass panels. Looking around in there, my eyes caught a few instrument cases and drums that were there. On one guitar case and a drum head was the words “Guess Who”. I knew it couldn't be that famous group that were from Canada. For a moment it took me by surprise, at any rate. To fritter away a little more time before our own 'mix-down' session. I strolled slowly down the hall. There was several different rooms. As I approached the room at the end of the hall, the door was open. I could see an A/R man sitting around with 3 some what hefty guys and 1 thin fellow.  They were listening to a tape play-back of "Laughing", and giving it the 'thumbs-up' as being satisfactory.  WELL!  So it was the Canadian Guess Who, after all!  As I did not wish to intrude, I ambled back to the control booth. My mind was filled with awe to find such a group in the studio. Side 1 of the album was completed. The two songs slated for the 45 release was sent to the record pressing facilities in Indianapolis. After the 45’s were pressed they were given to us for distribution. I think only 1000 copies were pressed. Our album was supposed to be totally finished within a couple more months.

   This was the pinnacle of our potential close brush with fame and fortune. In late 1968, I started acting out of character. I did not go 'crazy', per se, as much as just enough to display my rebellion.  I began smoking and drinking. I didn’t really care about anything.  I wasn't totally unmindful of the band situation and especially of all of the tremendous effort and energy that had been put into the album by Jack and the other band members. I hobbled on with the band for the better part of another year, trying to not let them down completely.  My lifestyle choices were beginning to run more and more contrary to much of the principles of the boys' home as time went on. It became obvious to Jack.  He loved me and wished he could help me get off the path that I had chosen. He gave some mature wisdom and some plain common sense. He let me know that it was just not working out. He could see no point in continuing the band as it had become, much less the completion of the album, or pushing the recent 45 into the market place any longer.  My lifestyle had simply become too divergent from what the home represented. Sad to say I withdrew from the band totally. By my 22nd birthday in September, 1969 (at the latest) the Sangralads/Sun Lightning Inc. totally ceased to exist. The album was never finished. I’m not sure what happened to the master recordings of the remaining songs that were supposed to be on the album. I do recall having several boxes of both the 1st and 2nd 45s. Each box had 100 records in them.  I disposed of them in a big dumpster, probably in the summer of 1976. I took out only two copies of each for my own.  I just got tired of lugging them about whenever I would relocate.
    I only wish to add a couple more thoughts. What if?  If only?  Oh, the times through the ensuing years I so wish that I could have held the line, been a little wiser, more mature.  It is one of the biggest regrets that I have had in my life.  Now though, it is not so much for the glory that might have been, or the fame or fortune that may have been realized.  Instead, it is for the simple, honest, straight forward trust, regard, respect and  love that was always there.  The marvel and wonder of it all is, that it is still there shining larger than ever from both sides now.  Maybe 42 years late and a band short, but it is alive and well.  Thank you, Jack and Dodie for never giving up on me.  Love Lives!

I would  like to thank Michelle Allen and Jack Laymon of Sangralea Valley for their time and effort  to provide the photo’s of the group for this story.  Also a special thanks to Lil Hummel for all her efforts as well. Phil, it was an amazing story.                   JohnnieO

Below are some more photo's of the group that were not included in the above story

Cyclops Club North Judson Indiana 1967
Post Prom Monticello Indiana Country Club 1967
Rick Ingle on drums 1967
Sangralads 1967
Grissom Air Force Base   N.C.O. Club
Bill Thompson
 Rick Ingle
Rocky Lillard,  Phil Armsrtong,  Rick Vidal