Coffee & More Memories with Sunderland…..
Had a nice reunion with former Denver rocker, Denver Post Staff Photographer and soon-to-be Colorado Press Club Hall of Fame Inductee John Sunderland.
We met out on East Colfax appropriately enough – at Starbucks which John pointed out had started off back in the day as a “Red Barn” fast food establishment – We were also noot far from where John spent many of his growing up years as well close to a venue where his 1960’s group “The Roadrunners” appeared often – Le Bistro A-Go-Go located at 3100 East Colfax (today is “Annies”). That venue went through several name changes including “The Bandbox” and “The Mad Russian”.
For an historical narrative of John’s Colorado garage groups visit this “Garage Group” page and scroll down to “The Fabulous Roadrunners” listing and then “Denver’s Super Sonics” page (with Bobby Swanson). John had come to Bobby Swanson’s Sonics after his earlier group disbanded “The Emeralds”.
Notice that this newspaper does prefix the band’s name with “The Fabulous”. They were then backing a local soul singer – Kenny Jay. Le Bistro featured a large glass window facing Colfax where the owner would place a live Go-Go Dancer to attract the attention of passing motorists (notice “In the Window”) listed in the ad. John told me that he still knows the dancer’s name – She is now in her mid 70’s and we both agreed it would be fun to locate her and revisit Denver’s 1960’s Go-Go Scene!
The Denver night club scene was very competitive and a rivalry among bar owners was not always that friendly according to Sunderland. “We must have been evacuated 10 or more times in the midst of a nightclub appearance due to a phone in bomb scare” Sunderland recalled. Though nobody was ever identified – John knew the scare call had to come from a competitor.
Another time John remembers two very large tough looking guys entering into the nightclub where the Roadrunners were playing – both taking a seat near the stage – then glaring up at the band or rather threateningly scanning the club. “Then just like that, one of them stood, grabbed a chair and flung it through the bar”, John exclaimed. A knockdown drag out fist fight instantly broke out between the ‘messengers” and the night club’s bouncers – clearing the club – a little more proactive than a bomb scare – but effective all the same.
Fireman’s Hall – Surf’s Up in Aurora!
John related another tale – His group – The Emeralds, were playing at Aurora’s “Fireman’s Hall” a small venue in the east Denver suburb – When they entered the hall and were about to set up they were approached by the manager who casually informed them they would be performing on the same bill as Jan and Dean! “We just looked at him thinking – Jan and Dean? We don’t play surf music!” Before the could regroup – out walk two blond haired – young – surfin’ types. They were introduced – stepped up to club microphone – and then commenced to lip sync one of their songs.
(Note that the “Fireman’s Dance” was yet another Pogo Poge production)
“It was horrible”, recalls John. “The speaker broadcasting from the microphone was inferior, crackling and difficult to hear. Kids in the hall just sort of sat on their hands, looking rather embarrassed.” They only ones who should have been embarrassed were Jan and Dean and the Fireman’s Hall manager – The two certainly were not Jan and Dean – just two blond haired locals – impostors!
Another local venue – which had served Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood located just off East Colfax as a roller skating rink, was Mammoth Gardens. In early 1960, KIMN’s very popular Pogo Poge began presenting a weekly teen dance at the venue – probably in April of 1960 which was billed as the “Pogo Poge Teen Dance”.
John remembered that Mammoth was still functioning as a roller rink during the week and then would be set up on Saturdays for the Teen Dance. “The kids all had to take off their shoes to protect the skating rink surface”, he remembers. John said that typically a couple of local acts would play each Saturday and that Swanson’s Sonics were more or less regulars. John said there was another four-piece local garage group which played several times on the same dates as the Sonics. “They were really good. They had a great tight rock and roll sound” he remembers. “They all wore slick blue jackets. After the Mammoth, I never ran into them again.
On occasion the Sonics would be on the same bill with a national act – John recalls playing on the same date as Johnny and the Hurricanes one time and another time with Gene Vincent. The troubled rocker had very recently just made his comeback after being involved in a horrific automobile accident which damaged his ribs, collarbone and further damaged a bad leg which plagued him throughout his brief career. The accident also claimed the life of rocker Eddie Cochran and severely injured Cochran’s song-writing girl friend Sharon Sheeley.
“I remember going down into the basement of the Mammoth – a rather bleak depressing catacomb-like area where acts changed – and there was Vincent. He wasn’t accompanied by the Blue Caps at this point. He just sat there all alone on a little wooden bench with holding his head in his hand, lost in thought. It was sad.”
Into the Hall
John Sunderland enjoyed a long career with the Denver Post serving as a staff photographer and because area musical events generally took place on weekends and nights he was tapped as the music photographer. This provided John with many opportunities to see some great talent and to meet many of the stars. Bob Dylan, Elton John, Fats Domino were among the many he met up with. The Denver Press Club is located at 1330 Glenarm Place in downtown Denver. The club opened in the 1860’s and today is protected by the National Historic Register
This coming October, John will be inducted into the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame – a tremendous and well-deserved honor indeed!
“I have been so fortunate”, John exclaims. I got to play rock and roll in Denver during a great time in this city, and then I landed my dream job as a photographer.” Truly a wonderful life.
The Rathskeller with The Fabulous Roadrunners
John told me the white Corvette below belonged to the photographer who took the picture.
L-R: Hernandez – Swanson – Sunderland – Corrigan