- Associated Press - Sunday, July 16, 2017

GALESBURG, Ill. (AP) - During a recent fish fry at the Galesburg Masonic Lodge, Lomac Payton was approached by two attendees asking if he used to sing. He confirmed this suspicion and explained that he used to be a part of the sextet called The Pilgrim Wonders. The moment led him to call the only other living member of the group, John Mims, and have a chat about the days gone by when they would fill churches and sing their hearts out.

Payton and Mims grew up together and went to the same school. Payton would later join the military after finishing school and, after completing his deployment, he came to Galesburg, but didn’t plan to stay. Payton was on the fast track to California and never expected to fall in love with the town.

During a Sunday church service, Payton and Mims discussed getting the band together and setting The Pilgrim Wonders back in action. The duo had previously attempted at starting this band, but it never came to fruition.

The original band consisted of five members, but they didn’t click. Payton and Mims decided to rearrange the lineup and then things started to groove. The band performed locally and continued to grow. By the time they had fully established themselves, they were a six-piece a capella band full of many vocal ranges. The members included John Mims, lead singer’ James Smith, bass’ Lomac Payton, tenor; Elbert Dickerson, baritone; Henry Shaw, soprano; and later AC Pennington on guitar.

The band worked together for three years before turning professional in 1964, focusing on spiritual songs. The group recorded only one demo that didn’t turn out as well as they would have liked.

“We really couldn’t get many disc jockeys to play our music,” Payton said. “During that time, a lot of radio stations would tell us they didn’t have the black audience to listen to our music.”

Payton explained that, although the time period of the ‘60s was a turbulent time for African-Americans, the band had no big issues with finding friendly atmospheres to play in. He remembers playing many of their shows with other African-American bands and coming together to fill every seat in the house with both black and white audience members.

They ended up sending the music to a station in Chicago called the Gospel Songbirds, who played their music on Sunday mornings. The opportunity led to an audition request for recording, but due to scheduling conflicts with upcoming shows, the band was never able to go.The Pilgrim Wonders continued to play throughout the Midwest in states including Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Arkansas. The group focused mostly on playing in churches, though dabbled in some sponsored school shows. Payton recalls some of their most popular songs being “I Have the Love of Jesus Down in My Heart” and a song written by Payton himself called “I Was Lost in Sin.”

Along their travels, the band played shows with many famous acts, including opening for the Staple Singers, who were fronted by Mavis Staples from Chicago. Payton loved to open up for other groups because it gave him and the band the opportunity to do what he called “putting the pressure on.”

“We would pick out two of our most popular songs and give them all we had,” Payton said. “It put the pressure on the next act to try and do better than us.”

This camaraderie with the other bands led to many strong relationships that Payton remembers dearly. The Staple Singers became good friends with the band and continued to play music together.

The Pilgrim Wonders remained together until 1975. On a particular performance in Arkansas, Dolly Parton heard the group and called the radio station asking who the group was. She was referred to the manager and wanted them to be back up singers on one of her songs. Though the opportunity would have been their big break, a disjointed effort in passing information throughout the entire band and getting everyone on the same page proved to be the downfall.

As previously mentioned, the band only has two remaining members. Payton still does some singing from time to time and enjoys Galesburg still to this day. Mims lives out of town now, but still contacts Payton on a regular basis to chat. Though the band itself is now over, the legacy of The Pilgrim Wonders remains in the veins of Galesburg.

“There really isn’t one moment that I can pull from my time with The Pilgrim Wonders and call it my favorite,” Payton said. “I really loved it all.”

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Source: The (Galesburg) Register Mail, https://bit.ly/2uLzYUP

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Information from: The Register-Mail, https://www.register-mail.com

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