Iconoclastic Sunblind Lion still Rocks!

SBL-9-3-14-FB-PhotoBY Michael Casper

In late 1967, five high school lads from Plymouth and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, came together to form a group known as the Love Society. The members included Dave Steffen, guitar; Keith Abler, vocals; Steve Gilles, bass; Mike Holdridge, keyboards; and Mike Dellger, drums.

“To back up a bit,” Mike Dellger said “Dave and I were in our first band together in 1966, a band called the Mystics, out of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Everyone around here said ‘you gotta hear Dave Steffen!’ He was all the rage at the time. I mean, he was 14 (laugh)! It was after that when we formed the ‘Love Society.’”

They won a ‘Battle of the Bands” in Sheboygan in January of 1968.

“Alan Posniak, who wrote a weekly feature on Wisconsin bands in the Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet called ‘Badger Beat,’” Mike said “he came to interview the band for an upcoming article. He’d heard that we were working on a rendition of Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ We performed it for him. He told us that he would like us to record the song at his studio, Target Records in Appleton, a couple weeks hence, we released the song on Posniak’s label, Tee-Pee records, to surprising (for us) acclaim. It took off, and we thought ‘wow, this is great.’ In fact, we were #1 on WDUZ in Green Bay. And we thought ‘this is so easy.’ I think at the time I was 18, and the oldest in the group, and we were just (laugh) naïve.”

They started to tour.

“We played all over,” Mike said “Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois primarily, and we signed with Scepter Records that summer. We did renditions of songs, following up ‘Dance’ with a cover of ‘Tobacco Road,’ the J.D. Loudermilk song, done by the Nashville Teens years earlier.”

The band was signed to RCA records in 1969, recording a version of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby.” The producer was Ted Daryl, who wrote “She Cried,” which Jay and the Americans performed, as did the Letterman. They next recorded an LP at RCA studios in Chicago. Although the LP was never released, one song, “Bang on Your Own Drum,” was released as a single.

“In 1970 Love Society was signed to Mercury records,” Mike said “and recorded a version of Paul Simon’s ‘America.’ In all but one case, all of the ‘B-sides’ of the aforementioned tunes were written by Dave Steffen and myself. Back then, we were starting to be known for our vocal harmony.”

The Love Society continued through the early 70’s but with a slightly different personnel lineup. Keith’s brother Duane joined the group on keyboards, replacing Mike Holdridge, and Dave Hassinger took over on drums for Mike. Eventually Steve Olschesky would replace Steve Gilles on bass, and this formed the nucleus that would eventually become Sunblind Lion.

“I went to college,” Mike said “to UW-Oshkosh, all the while keeping in touch with the band.”

Following graduation from UW-O in 1974, Dellger returned to working with SBL, but only in a lyrical capacity. Dave, Keith, and Mike Holdridge had been the primary songwriters all along, so Dellger’s coming in to write with them worked seamlessly.
By September 1975, Keith and Dellger had written a number of songs together. Some of these songs had a “lighter” rock feel to them, not really the style of Sunblind Lion. While they believed that the songs had merit, they also knew that SBL would probably not record them.

“These were songs the band didn’t want to play,” Mike said.

Not wishing to cause dissension among the musicians, Keith recruited Larry Baldock to play bass and Dellger to drum. They traveled to Sound 80 studios in Minneapolis and recorded twelve songs, an album which came to be known as Pilgrim.

“Sound 80 was a neat studio,” Mike said “Scottie Rivard was our engineer, who to this day is the engineer for Prairie Home Companion. In fact, just a few weeks before we were there (back in the day), Bob Dylan had been there recording cuts for his ‘Blood on the Tracks’ album.”

Returning with a 12-song album, made the rest of the band sit up and take notice.

“Once the rest of the guys saw we had gone up there,” Mike said “that freaked them out, and they said, ‘we got to go record,’ so they did, and two months later Sunblind Lion recorded the ‘Observer’ album.”

Observer earned the band a lot of recognition. Two songs, “Jamaican Holiday,” and “Cat Eyes,” received substantial airplay in the Midwest. It was during this time that SBL became affiliated with Ken Adamany, who also managed Cheap Trick. Adamany & Associates then began managing and booking SBL.

This is where the band and its members gets a bit convoluted.

“Because the same basic people were working different incarnations of the band,” Mike said. “The keyboardist of SBL was Keith’s brother Duane Abler. In early 1977 Duane left SBL, moving to California, and was replaced by Dick Colbath, Jr. on keyboards. At the close of that same year, Dellger, who had been replaced by Dave Hassinger years earlier, now replaced him on drums, and Larry Baldock went on to replace Steve Olschesky on bass at the same time. By 1978 we had, with the exception of Dave and Keith Abler, a totally different band. I just sort of added the drumming part after that.”

In summer 1978, SBL went to Shade Tree studios, then located on the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Playboy Club complex, and recorded Above and Beyond, the band’s second LP. The album was mixed by Dee Robb of The Robb’s at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles and mastered by Bernie Grundman. Several of the songs featured the artistic styles and intricate structures for which the band was well known.

“Billboard reviewed it very positively,” Mike said “and referred to our sound as ‘art rock’ which we description we had never heard of before.”

Finally in April of 1980, amid conflicts in both musical tastes and direction, Sunblind Lion, after recording Live Lion at a Milwaukee nightclub, disbanded. All of the members would eventually go on to perform in other musical incarnations.

“Dave, Steve and I formed the Dave Steffen Band,” Mike said “and we stayed as one unit for three years. About 1983 I decided to go back to school to get my teaching certification. Steve and Dave moved to California, all the while Dave and I kept writing songs long distance together.”

There have been several Sunblind Lion reunions through the years.

“We did our first reunion in 1989 in Cascade, Wisconsin,” Mike said “and it went over well. It was a picnic, in fact they said it was the biggest picnic crowd they ever had! We also reunited one year to perform at Summerfest.”

Sunblind Lion’s latest album is titled The Sanatorium. The songs are based on a novella written by Mike Dellger.

In September of 2012 Sunblind Lion performed for more than 5,000 people, a powerful testimony by their fans in appreciation for years of solid, original music from an iconoclastic Wisconsin band that has chosen to rock and roar for years to come.

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