50 years ago, in 1969, the members of a garage band from Montello, a small town in south-central Wisconsin, went on the ride of their lives.
Early that year, Underground Sunshine was playing teen dances, roadhouses and clubs across the southern half of Wisconsin. Jack’s, along U.S. Highway 12 in Baraboo, was one such place. The Airway Bar in Marshfield was another. The Oconomowoc Teenage Republican Club dance at the Oconomowoc High School gym was another such gig.
But by summer, Underground Sunshine’s cover of the Beatles’ “Birthday” was all over the radio. The rocket was lit.
Wednesday, May 28, 1969
Underground Sunshine signs a recording contract with Mercury Records, which plans to release “Birthday” on its Intrepid label.
Tuesday, June 3, 1969
“Birthday” is released on Intrepid. (The 7-inch, Intrepid 75002, is out of print, as are all of Underground Sunshine’s recordings.)
Here’s the flip side. “All I Want Is You” is an original by band members Berty Koelbl, Frank Koelbl and Rex Rhode, all classmates at Montello High School. It’s clearly influenced by the Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me.” There’s also a pleasant enough pop-psych jam in the middle.
Single version, stripped down
LP version with a more polished sound
Thursday, June 26, 1969
Underground Sunshine plays the first park teen dance of the summer at the Vilas Park Shelter in Madison.
Sunday, June 29, 1969
Underground Sunshine plays a midday show — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — at the Gimbels store at the Hilldale Shopping Center in Madison. (The top photo is from an ad for that gig.)
The first week of July 1969
Underground Sunshine plays a week-long stand at the Club Sahara, a nightclub on the east side of Green Bay. Warren Gerds, the young entertainment writer for the local paper, the Press-Gazette, profiles the band for the lead item in his column. He also writes a feature story on its light man.
What follows are Gerds’ column lead and excerpts from his feature story on the light man, published two days apart.
Thursday, July 3, 1969
What has happened to the Underground Sunshine is what all young rock and roll groups dream about: Quick success.
Two years ago, the Montello, Wisconsin, band didn’t exist. Come August, it will be pulling in $1,000 a night.
How come? “We’ve got a fabulous manager,” leader Berty Koelbl said during a break at Club Sahara. Berty said [Jon Little of WISM radio (Madison)] considerably changed the fortunes of his group.
“He gave us places to play. He knows a lot of club owners.”
It was also Little who suggested the rock quartet record “Birthday,” a Beatles song. The Underground Sunshine version hasn’t made the Green Bay charts yet, but it’s No. 30 in Milwaukee.
Berty said “Birthday” is helping bolster his band’s pocketbook. “Before ‘Birthday,’ we were getting $150 a night. Soon we’ll be up to $1,000,” he said. The band is getting $800 a week at the Club Sahara because it signed for that figure three months ago, Berty said.
Underground Sunshine’s “Birthday” is also bolstering the Beatles’ till at the rate of two cents a record. That’s the price for rights to the song.
Berty said his group’s version is different from the Beatles’. “First, there’s the organ lead, which the Beatles didn’t use. We also brought the singing up louder.”
Berty said he has qualms about “Birthday.” “People have been hearing another version of the Beatles,” he said. “It’s always better to record your own material.”
That’s what Berty intends to do at the next record cutting session, which will be held in a few weeks. Berty’s composition “Take Me, Break Me,” will be cut then. He also wrote “All I Want Is You,” which is on the flip side of the current record.
It is Berty’s aim to add more original songs so the group can create its own image.
“Right now, we don’t play much original stuff — only two songs. But within a month, we’ll be doing two-hour routines, and probably 90 percent of it will be our own material … except for “Birthday” because that’s what gave us the start.”
Aside from Berty on bass guitar and vocals, the band consists of Berty’s brother, Frank, drums; a relation of manager Jon Little, Janie Little, organ; Rex Rhode, lead guitar; and Bruce Brown, lights.
The idea for the light man came from watching Milwaukee and Chicago groups, Berty said. “I got tired of pushing my foot down on the floor for lights,” he said.
Saturday, July 5, 1969
Bruce Brown, 18, operates the unique switchboard for the lighting system.
As sort of visual accompanist, Bruce manipulates light switches to the tempos of rock music. The result of his effort is like watching a miniature, rhythmic, multicolored lightning storm.
Other rock groups have lighting systems, but none quite so complex that they need a special man to run them.
Brown is in charge of $600 worth of electrical equipment. The custom-made switchboard controls the strobe (quick-flashing) and black lights and 16 multicolored lights in four banks.
Two of the four-light banks flank the band, and the other two face it. Brown sits off to one side, behind an amplifier.
“I work with the feeling of the song most of the time,” Brown said. “Sometimes I work with the rhythm of the song, and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the song.”
Brown said he got his job by hanging around the Underground Sunshine players while they were practicing. “They just wanted more lights on them, and I was always around them.”
“They used to practice in the lead guitarist’s basement, and I used to work their lighting system, just to get them in the mood,” Brown said. “It was something to do, rather than be on the street.”
The switchboard was built with the aid of Brown’s father, who is an electrician.
“We all got together and worked out what we wanted. It took an afternoon to do that and two other days to make the switchboard.”
He has been doing his light work for a year.
Saturday, Aug. 2, 1969
Underground Sunshine appears with Dick Clark on ABC’s “American Bandstand,” having flown to Hollywood to tape an appearance earlier in the week. They play “All I Want Is You” and then “Birthday,” of course.
[If the video doesn’t queue up properly, start it at 26:10.]
Underground Sunshine’s main lineup appears on the show. The Koelbl brothers — stage names Berty Kohl and Frank Kohl — are on bass and drums, respectively. Berty is just about to turn 20. Frank is 21. Chris Connors, whose real name was John Dahlberg, plays lead guitar. He’s 22. He’d just joined the band, having auditioned after answering an ad in the Milwaukee Journal. They needed a lead guitarist because Rhode had quit in a dispute over equipment. Jane Little, whose real name was Jane Whirry, plays keyboards. She’s 18 and just out of high school.
“The group was outfitted by The Hub in Madison before their trip to the ABC color studios,” the Capital Times newspaper of Madison reported. The Hub was a clothing store.
That night, Underground Sunshine plays a gig at the Armory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. After that, the band heads to Chicago for recording sessions.
Saturday, Aug. 9, 1969
In July, the Green Bay writer reports: “Because of the success of the record, the band has signed a contract to play with the nationally-known Vanilla Fudge in an August concert at Pittsburgh.”
The Shower of Stars show, part of the KGV Summer Music Festival, takes place at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
Underground Sunshine gets third billing behind Vanilla Fudge and Illusion but is listed ahead of Andy Kim, Joe Jeffrey and “other acts.”
Wednesday, Aug. 13, 1969
Underground Sunshine plays the “Dance of the Summer” at Memorial Hall in Racine.
Saturday, Sept. 6, 1969
Underground Sunshine’s cover of “Birthday” peaks at No. 26 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It’s a big hit in the late summer of 1969. It reaches No. 2 on the Hit Parade at WLS radio in Chicago in mid-August, but can’t displace the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”
Thursday, Sept. 18, 1969
Underground Sunshine’s follow-up single, a cover of Bread’s “Don’t Shut Me Out,” backed with “Take Me, Break Me,” an original, is out this week. It peaks at No. 102.
Here’s that single.
Here’s the LP version of the flip side, 11-plus minutes of jamming, rambling and noodling.
After the single’s release, the group sets out on a tour of the South, then plans to take a little time off.
Underground Sunshine releases its only album, “Let There Be Light,” on Intrepid. Only two of its eight songs are originals. On the rest, they cover the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival twice, along with Bread and the Spencer Davis Group. It was recorded at Ter-Mar Recording Studios — more commonly known as Chess Studios — at 2121 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.
Friday-Saturday, Dec. 5-6, 1969
Underground Sunshine is back at Jack’s on Highway 12 in Baraboo.
Tuesday, Dec. 30, 1969
Underground Sunshine plays at a teen dance at the Cow Palace at the Fond du Lac County Fairgrounds Park in Fond du Lac.
The rest of the story
“Birthday” was the only hit for Underground Sunshine, which in late 1969 and sometime in 1970 released two other singles that went nowhere in the charts.
Their third single was an original, “9 to 5 (Ain’t My Bag),” written by Dave Wayne (real name Dave Waehner), who’d replaced Jane Little on keyboards.
The last of their singles was a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” which was covered by the Byrds in 1969 and by the Doobie Brothers in 1972.
Underground Sunshine broke up in 1970. The rocket had flamed out.
Why? When Wisconsin music historian Gary E. Myers interviewed the band members 26 years ago, in 1993, there was no consensus. Money problems, with some making too much and others not enough. Too much weed being smoked. Boy-girl problems, including too many groupies.
Some 20 years after the breakup, the Koelbl brothers and Rhode revived Underground Sunshine for a short time.
“(Underground Sunshine) gave us a lot of opportunities and I had a lot of great experiences. Got to see a lot of the country. Got to see a lot of different things,” Frank Koelbl told Myers in 1993.
“It’s been a very, very good learning experience. Even the way it was done, I would not trade anything for it,” Bert Koelbl told Myers in 1993.