Merced band releases album 40+ years in the making

Record release party with original members scheduled for Saturday

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comJune 22, 2012 

Jim Sanders gazed over the throng of 300 or so teenagers gathered at the downtown Merced American Legion Hall on a cool April evening back in 1966, as he nervously pondered what the electric night would bring.

Earlier that day, Sanders and his five band-of-bros in Merced's cover band The Morelochs had been scrounging up gear for the gig -- their biggest since forming in 1965.

Failure wasn't an option.

Case in point, they were on the same bill as a happening Bay Area band called The Golliwogs, with a young guitarist by the name of John Fogerty. Nevertheless, Sanders, who at the time was 19, strapped his Gibson SG Junior over his shoulder and faced the eager crowd.

"It was a big venue, we didn't want to make mistakes, and we didn't want to look foolish," Sanders laughs, looking back 46 years later. "That was the biggest event we'd played at. As I recall, we were pretty well received."

The gig with The Golliwogs, who later emerged from their mid-60s cocoon as Creedence Clearwater Revival, would be the first of many high points for The Morelochs, who took on the name Crystal Syphon in December 1966 after they began writing their own material.

Several appearances around the state, including three at San Francisco's Fillmore West, would follow. Notable heavyweights they shared the stage with included Bo Diddley, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Santana, among others.

But life happens, and by 1970 the band had called it quits, sailing over the horizon into the pages of local rock history.

But fans of music from that era don't have to turn back the clock to hear the psychedelic rock of Crystal Syphon, as they sounded to crowds from San Francisco to San Clemente.

Roaratorio Records, a Minneapolis-based independent label, recently released Crystal Syphon's "Family Evil," an album of 10 songs compiled from studio recordings, in addition to live takes from Fillmore West and rehearsal tapes.

To celebrate the record's release, Sanders and members of the band will hold an album preview 7 p.m. Saturday at the Partisan in downtown Merced.

Sanders, who sang and played guitar with Crystal Syphon, will be joined by Bob Greenlee (bass), Tom Salles (vocals and guitar), Dave Sprinkel (vocals, organ and percussion) and Jeff Sanders (vocals, organ and percussion). Drummer Marvin Greenlee died in 1999.

An exciting find

Crystal Syphon's music for the most part disappeared after the band's breakup in 1970. About three years ago, however, several of their recordings from 1967-68 made it into the hands of James Lindbloom, owner of Roaratorio Records.

Lindbloom said the sounds were reminiscent of psychedelic bands such as Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service. He was excited by what he heard.

"These guys really seemed to have it: great combination of good

songs and excellent musicianship," Lindbloom said. "I am amazed that music this good is still being uncovered."

After the recordings were cleaned up, the band signed an agreement with Roaratorio Records to release "Family Evil."

The album's cover is taken from a 1960s Fillmore concert poster for the band, drawn by legendary artist Norman Orr. Orr gave the band permission to use the drawing of an old American Indian chief on their album, Sanders said.

"Family Evil" is available online at iTunes and Roaratorio Record's website (www.roaratorio. com), revealing the band's fuzzy guitar riffs and psychedelic sounds to a whole new generation. Lindbloom said the album is selling well. "The response has been fantastic," he said.

Early beginnings

Crystal Syphon emerged from a burgeoning Merced music scene, which had been founded during the 1950s by early rock 'n' roll acts such as The Merced Blue Notes and Roddy Jackson.

Salles and Sanders, ages 14 and 18, respectively, first crossed paths in 1965 at Record Rendezvous on Main Street -- back then it was known as 17th Street. The two teens happened to be looking for the same Beatles record, "Rubber Soul."

"Tom and I just had an instant rapport. He was a little bit better guitar player than I was. I was just kind of learning," Sanders said.

Sanders and Salles hooked up with Jim's younger brother Jeff, and buddies Andy Daniel, Roger Henry and Dave Sprinkel, which led to the formation of The Morelochs -- named as a nod to the futuristic ghouls from H.G. Wells' novel "The Time Machine."

As The Morelochs, the band played mostly cover tunes from The Rolling Stones and other popular bands of that time.

Playing at high school dances and venues such as the American Legion Hall, Women's Club and Italo-American Lodge, the band gained a steady following.

After the band began writing their own material, the Morelochs changed their name to Crystal Syphon. The origin of the name is still a topic of discussion. "I don't know," laughed Salles. "I don't even know what it means."

Sanders said the name probably came about because siphons were commonplace in agricultural communities such as Merced.

Drummer Andy Daniel eventually left the band, replaced by Marvin Greenlee, while Roger Henry was replaced on bass by Bob Greenlee.

The band started to gain recognition beyond Merced, including a mention in the San Francisco Chronicle. In true "Footloose" fashion, they were even shut down in 1967 at a Sonora High School gig, after the principal determined they were "too loud," Sanders recalled.

By 1968 the group was playing gigs throughout Northern and Southern California, and even played before thousands in Golden Gate Park with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

"Anybody that came out of San Francisco or LA, we played with: Canned Heat, Buffalo Springfield, Big Brother and the Holding Company," Salles said.

Fading out

Despite the band's successful attempts during the late 1960s to gain exposure beyond Merced County, the dream of a record contract eluded them.

Although Salles and Sanders acknowledge there were numerous reasons why mainstream success never struck, the primary reason was that no companies would allow them artistic control. "We had some offers and we turned them down," Salles remembers.

Some members were tired of the group's management turning down record deals. Other members were starting families.

Had the band decided to move to Los Angeles or San Francisco, a mainstream run may have been closer to becoming a reality. The six members ranged in age from 14 to 19 when the band formed in 1965. With some of the musicians still in high school, moving to the big city was pretty much an impossibility.

Jim Sanders left the band in 1969, followed by Dave Sprinkel. The remaining members carried on, playing a final gig at Fillmore West in 1969. By 1970, however, Crystal Syphon's well had run dry, and the band called it quits.

"We did what we did, and we did it well up to a certain point," Salles said. "I think we had just kind of hit the wall."

Despite the breakup, most of the band members remain friends today. As most Mercedians know, Jim Sanders, 65, went on to serve from 2001-09 on the Merced City Council.

He and Salles also play together in a tribute band, "The Beatles Project," in honor of the Fab Four. "I left music, but the music never left me," Sanders said.

Although it took more than 40 years for Crystal Syphon to get around to getting a record deal, Salles and Sanders said they have no regrets. Sanders said the "metaphysical lesson" for garage bands is to save all of their old recordings, and to never give up.

"All we wanted to do was get a recording contract. This is what we hoped for in 1969, but it took until 2012 for it to happen," Sanders said. "We had a longer gestation period than most bands."

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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