Living Legends: Conrad Sundholm

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Conrad Sundholm
Conrad Sundholm, 2008. Photo courtesy Eurotubes.com

sunn amplifiers logoIf you thought that living in Tualatin in the 1960s with a population of 359 people might have been boring, I may be able to change your mind by telling you about one of the current living Tualatin legends–Conrad Sundholm–who created Sunn Musical Equipment Company in Tualatin, which manufactured guitar amplifiers. His brother Norman, a co-founder, was a Kingsmen band member of “Louie Louie” fame.

While parents of that decade were listening to Frank Sinatra and big bands, their children were twisting and shouting to a new beat called Rock and Roll. New bands were being established, especially after Elvis Presley appeared on TV’s Ed Sullivan show and the show’s ratings soared. (Elvis also stayed in Tualatin’s Ramada Inn once while appearing in Portland.)

john entwistle, sunn amplifiers
Jimi Hendrix (left) and John Entwistle of The Who, featured in early advertisements for Sunn Amplifiers.

Back in the ‘60s, Conrad was teaching health education and physical science at Centennial High School in Portland. Conrad was an electronics enthusiast who worked projects in his dad’s shop in Lake Oswego. His brother Norman Sundholm, a bass player, had hooked up with a local Portland area rock and roll band, the now-famous Kingsmen, who had just released a nation-sweeping version of the ultimate party song, “Louie Louie.”

Sunn Music emerged when Norm Sundholm complained to his brother that while touring nationwide with the Kingsmen, his bass amp was not loud enough. Norm sought assistance from Conrad, who built his own hi-fi system and asked him to modify a bass amp he had. Conrad thought he could do more. He borrowed $1,300 from Portland Teacher’s Credit Union, bought some plywood and speakers and started building cabinets and a bass amplifier that would set the music world on its ears!

nord sundholm, sunn amplifiers, oreogn historical society research library
Sundholm (left, kneeling), Gallucci, Mitchell, Easton (standing, left), and Abbott. Photo courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Oregonian collection, Gene Rossi.

As the Kingsmen toured, a lot of musicians were coming up to Norm asking about his amp. Then these people started going into music stores asking for them at which time Conrad had to make a big decision between teaching school and going into the business of making amplifiers. Despite his father’s misgivings, Conrad started making the amps in his dad’s shop and in 1965 Conrad and Norm’s company SUNN Musical Equipment Company was born.

But before too long, the orders increased so much that Conrad ran out of space. He was forced to move into a larger space in Tualatin into a building that only recently had housed the local Olympic sized swimming pool on 89th Avenue, off Tualatin-Sherwood Road.

“At the height of the business there in Tualatin, we had about 106 employees and about 400 dealers around the country. We were shipping at the rate of about $6 million a year. We had a real tiger by the tail,” Conrad said. He was working directly with Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Buffalo Springfield, and did a custom PA system for the “Beach Boys.” And we had Sunn amps on the stage at Woodstock.”  Songs made famous by the Kingsmen can still be heard including “Louie Louie,” “Twist and Shout,” “Poison Ivy,” “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” “Quarter to Three,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “Do You Love Me.”  Rock and Roll bands came from far and wide to test the amps and could be heard in the streets of Tualatin. (Note to readers: You can still sing some of their songs, right?)

Conrad Sundholm in front of several Sunn Amplifiers.
Conrad Sundholm in front of several Sunn Amplifiers. Photo courtesy Eurotubes.com.

By 1971, Norm had sold his share of the business to Conrad, and then Conrad sold to the Hartzell Corporation, a Minnesota firm. Hartzell later sold to Fender who in time discontinued the Sunn line. However, Conrad did consulting work for Shure Bros. microphones and ElectroVoice before establishing another guitar amplifier business under the Conrad name, “Conrad Amps” which still operates in West Linn.  (Sunn Amplifiers has a website: www.sunnamps.com)

People have told me they have seen Conrad in Oregon City and West Linn recently, still doing business. Since Norm Sundholm retired, there have been several succeeding Kingsmen bands that still successfully perform Rock and Roll music throughout the U.S.  Conrad lives with wife Carolyn in West Linn. Conrad has five children, Scott, Kevin, Brandt, Kirsten, Stephen plus 14 grandchildren. Norm spends summers in Bend, Oregon, winters in Southern California and travels the country in his RV.

Back in Tualatin today, people do not realize how alive the city was back then with lots of real famous rock and roll bands coming to test and buy Sunn amplifiers and for all of us to hear and be able to be dancing in the streets.