How a Santa Rosa Psych Ward Nurse Became One of the Bay Area's Most Unique Bandleaders

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A woman stands outside with purplish hair and wearing a black jacket with a necklace.
At 78 years old, Jane Sorensen manages two popular cover bands in Sonoma County and sings with a third.  (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

When Jane Sorensen was a kid growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1940s and '50s, she loved to sing.

"When I was young, my mom taught me all the World War II songs," said Sorensen. "And then all the romantic songs from that era."

She dreamt about singing professionally — maybe even on Broadway. So at the age of 11, Sorensen's parents took their daughter to see a voice coach for advice.

"[My parents] said, 'Does she have any talent?' And so I did some singing for him," said Sorensen. "And he said, 'Unfortunately, no, she does not.'"

Jane Sorensen (left) at the age of 11 or 12 with her sisters and the family dog. (Courtesy of Jane Sorensen)

Now 78, Sorensen is a bandleader and vocalist in two popular retro-rock cover bands in Sonoma County: The Poyntlyss Sistars Rockin' Show Band and Suzi's Last Resort. She also sings in a third group, Memory Lane Combo.

The Poyntlyss Sistars have won numerous awards from the local press, and their appearances at events and venues like the annual Citrus Fair in Cloverdale and the Main Street Bistro in Guerneville have earned them a loyal fan base.  Even if oldies like The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and The Chiffons' "One Fine Day" aren't your jam, it's hard not to feel inspired by the group’s infectious sense of fun. They sound tight. They have coordinated dance moves and coordinated outfits.

In short, they make you want to bop along.

All of this is remarkable when you consider the fact that the bandleader's career got off to such an inauspicious start.

"I just kept singing, albeit mostly to myself," Sorensen said, as we sat talking at her bass player’s airy, knick-knack-filled garage in Santa Rosa, where the Poyntlyss Sistars rehearse on Monday nights. The petite, smiling bandleader rocked hip purple highlights in her pixie-cut gray hair.

Find more on the band's music here.

Sorensen said that, as a young woman, she particularly enjoyed harmonizing with whatever song was playing on the radio while driving in her car.

"From 'Wake Up Little Susie' to 'Hound Dog,' I harmonized to everything," said Sorensen. "That's how I trained myself to sing backups, which I must tell you is more difficult than singing leads." She mostly sings harmony parts with her bands to this day.

In the 1960s, Sorensen flew across the country with her former husband, a doctor, to start a new life in California. She was a trained nurse and got a job at the now-defunct Norton Center psychiatric unit in Santa Rosa.

She and her spouse were rock music fans and had friends in the music industry. Sorensen said they attended many live concerts. They even moonlighted as medical staff for big live music events, like the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival held in Livermore in December 1969. Sorensen was a nurse at the event, which most people remember today for its descent into chaos and violence.

"When someone came in in bad shape, I was to calm them down, and then see what I could tell the doctor about their situation," Sorensen said. 

For years, Sorensen's passion for music remained a hobby. She said her day job on the psych ward was all-consuming. She had gotten divorced and remarried. And she was raising two kids. (Sorensen also had a son from her first marriage who mostly lived with his father after the divorce. She added that all three of her sons remained close.)

One day in the early 1980s, when Sorensen was nearly 40 years old, things started to change for the music-loving mother and nurse.

Sorensen said she was in the nurse’s station on the psych ward in Santa Rosa, filling out her end-of-shift charts as usual, when the radio started playing one of her favorite songs: The Shirelles' “Will You Love Me Tomorrow."

Sorensen said she started singing along. "And the next thing I know, someone is singing behind me in a harmony part," she said.

She turned around and saw it was one of her colleagues from the ward. "And then there's a third voice and a fourth," she said.

Now there was a quartet of hospital workers singing along to The Shirelles in four-part harmony, completely off the cuff.

"And so we have this little chorus going on," Sorensen said.

Just then, a male colleague walked by.

"He said, 'Oh, it's the Pointless Sisters!' — you know, making a joke about how we're not The Pointer Sisters, we're just The Pointless Sisters," Sorensen said. "And we said, 'Right! We are! And we're pretty good!'"

Little did that wisecracking colleague know how seriously Sorensen would take his joke. "I said, 'How about we get together and do something with this?'" she recalled.

And thus the Poyntlyss Sistars were born. ("We spelled it with Y's to make it pretty," Sorensen said.)

The original lineup consisted of three psych ward techs and a nurse, plus, after about 18 months, a backing band led by one of Sorensen's medical interns.

It wasn’t long before the Sistars started performing occasional benefit gigs around Sonoma County to raise money for causes like a local women's shelter and the AIDS crisis. Sorensen said it was exciting to get to sing on stage in public instead of in her car, just to herself.

"It was a dream," she said. "It was really a dream when I look back at those days."

Even so, right from the start Sorensen faced setbacks.

The first one came after just a few shows, when the Sistars’ backing band quit. "They got tired of us," Sorensen said.

The singers went their separate ways. But Sorensen wasn’t ready to give up. She found new vocalists. And deciding she didn’t need a band, she bought backing tracks from a local karaoke studio, loaded them onto cassette tapes and started gigging again: just the singers and a boombox.

The Poyntlyss Sistars pictured during their "Karaoke period". Jane Sorensen wears the blue vest, second from left. (Courtesy of Jane Sorensen)

"We didn't have CDs yet," Sorensen said of her karaoke days. "And so when you started the cassette tape, you couldn't say, 'Well, let's jump to this song or that one.' No, you had to keep going."

Eventually the Sistars managed to find a great new live band to play with, The Simplistics. Their charismatic leader, who passed away in 2006, went by the stage name of Muddy Rivers.

Sorensen said they got to open for some well-known musical acts like The Drifters and The Coasters. "That was big-time for us," she said.

Unfortunately, Sorensen said, Rivers wasn’t very reliable. He had a tendency to treat his singers like amateurs.

"Muddy, I loved him so much," Sorensen said. "But when it came to paying the singers, there was no money left."

When the vocalists eventually started to receive their long overdue checks, Sorensen said they all bounced.

"And that was that," she said.

Sorensen said she and the other singers walked. And much to her surprise — to say nothing of Rivers' so did all the instrumentalists. "They said, 'We're going to support the women in this band,'" said Sorensen of the walkout. "So his whole band followed me."

Longtime former Poyntlyss Sistars' guitarist and music director Davey Go was a member of The Simplistics at that time. He said he didn't have firsthand knowledge of how Rivers treated his vocalists. But he said Sorensen's story makes sense. "The money was funny with Muddy sometimes," he said. "So I would not be surprised if that happened. We started a group without him and made sure Jane was the leader and handled the money."

The Poyntlyss Sistars pose for a publicity shot in the mid 1990s. Jane Sorensen is in the front row on the left. (Courtesy of Jane Sorensen)

It was the mid 1990s. Sorensen was not only singing in a professional show band, but now also running it. Plus, she was a mom and working a full-time job at the hospital. She said running a psych ward made her uniquely qualified to manage a group of musicians.

"Having a background in mental health, particularly on a locked psych unit for all those years, really prepared me to lead a band," she said, with a chuckle.

Musicians who’ve worked with Sorensen over the years said the bandleader has always done right by them.

"She would — and she has — done it for no money," said lead vocalist Cathy Slack, who joined the Poyntlyss Sistars 12 years ago. "She will forgo her compensation to make sure that the rest of the band gets compensated in a fair manner."

Slack also admires Sorensen's professionalism and powers of organization.

"In January, she had to do all the 1099s," she said. "She's got to herd all of us kittens."

A Poyntlyss Sistars rehearsal in Santa Rosa, April 2022. Pictured left to right: Shay Jones, Jane Sorensen, Susan Copperman. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Fellow Poyntlyss Sistars lead vocalist and music director Shay Jones, whose relationship with the band goes back to the mid-1990s, said Sorensen pays attention to all the details.

"She tells us how to dance. She tells us what to wear," Jones said, laughing. "She tells me what to say or what not to say."

While Sorensen said she thrived under all the pressure, she also said her musical activities took a toll on her family life. “Looking back,” she wrote in an email, “I have regrets about how I balanced both jobs and family responsibilities.” None of her grown-up children wanted to be interviewed for this story. Sorensen's husband, John Sorensen, said he realized early on in their marriage that he’d have to go along with his wife’s musical ambitions. So he became her sound engineer. 

"I was either going to get on board or the train was going to leave without me," he said.

Sorensen has long had a way of rallying people. A recent example occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic when local restaurateur and music promoter Suzi Feehery was in the middle of a musical emergency.

It was a spring morning in 2021, and a band was scheduled to appear at the venue Feehery owns, the Main Street Bistro in Guerneville. After three musicians tested positive for COVID-19, they had to cancel just hours before showtime.

Main Street Bistro owner Suzi Feehery. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"Having something last-minute, especially if it's a full band, is almost impossible to find," Feehery said. "I'd be lucky to get a guy coming in here to play guitar."

Feehery was desperate. And Sorensen was on her list of local musical contacts. So the restaurateur gave the bandleader a call.

"I was just so thrilled that she said, 'Well, let me see what I can do,'" said Feehery.

Somehow, Sorensen managed to rustle up a handful of her colleagues from the Poyntlyss Sistars to perform at the Main Street Bistro with just a few hours' notice.

When the band's guitarist went up to the mic and introduced the band as the Poyntlyss Sistars, Sorensen thought she’d have a bit of fun. It had, after all, been a stressful day.

"So I get to the microphone and say, 'We're not the Poyntlyss Sistars,'" Sorensen recalled. "'We are Suzi's Last Resort!'"

She went on to explain to the crowd that night: "'It's because Suzi Feehery called me this morning and asked me to put something together. We were her absolute last resort!'"

Suzi's Last Resort performing at the Main Street Bistro in Guerneville, Dec. 10, 2021. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Feehery was tickled by the fact the band was named after her. She said the show was a hit.

"They came in and they just blew the house down," she said. "Everybody just loved them, and I have them as regulars now."

Sorensen decided to launch Suzi’s Last Resort as a new band — a more compact version of the Poyntlyss Sistars. They perform at the Bistro once a month, usually on Sundays. For now, both groups play the same retro-rock songs, more or less. But the bandleader said she's working on developing a distinct repertoire for each.

Over the years, Sorensen said she's seen many musicians come and go. Some have passed away. Of the original Sistars lineup, she’s the only one left.

"Both Judy and Elizabeth passed on from cancer years ago. Cindy died, too. She was in an accident," Sorensen said of her original bandmates. "In my house I have photos of them everywhere, memories, and I love them so much. We were really close. We had so much fun."

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the roughest periods Sorensen faced in her long showbiz career. Many venues where her bands normally played shut down. She and several other musicians got sick.

"The pandemic really threw us for a horrible loop," she said. "In 2020, I had 56 gigs on the books. We did one."

And then in 2021, when vaccines offered the opportunity for live music to start up again, Sorensen had to grapple with health and safety issues.

"There were some reluctant vaxxers in my band and I couldn't really deal with that," said Sorensen.

In recent months, Sorensen's been working on getting the schedule filled again. It’s been tough to find musicians and venues for all the gigs she’d like to book. And she's mourning the loss of her lead guitarist and music director, Davey Go, who moved to the East Coast at the start of this year to be with his partner after nearly three decades with the band.

The Poyntlyss Sistars Rockin' Show Band pictured at the Citrus Fair in Cloverdale, April 23, 2022. (Courtesy of Jane Sorensen)

But figuring out this stuff is just part of the deal for this go-getting bandleader. And she’s showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to all of her musical activities, Sorensen said she also runs a private counseling practice, and volunteers with a couple of animal nonprofits: Save the Turtles, and the Redwood Empire Veterinary Medical Association.

"It's a wonderful group," she said of the latter, a local pet-loss support organization. "I've been doing it for 32 years every week."

And although she’s technically retired from her longtime job as a psych ward nurse for Sonoma County Mental Health, Sorensen said she also keeps her nursing license active. Just in case.

Sorensen said her mother lived to nearly 102. So she feels like she still has plenty of musical years ahead.

"I'm just a girl who's trying to bring this all together and make people smile and laugh and have fun," Sorensen said. "That's the success of a band. If you have a dance floor full of people who are happy, you know you did it. That's why we do it. That's what you want to do."