Sonobeat Artists: Before & After
Yes, there was life for Sonobeat artists before and after Sonobeat
Leo and the Prophet's self-released Tilt-A-Whirl, recorded and released a few months before the band's May 1967 Sonobeat recording sessions
The Sweetarts' (or Sweettarts, as the band's name was originally spelled) 1966 single So Many Times, released by the Dallas-based Vandan label
The Wig, which collapsed in 1967 to form Lavender Hill Express with former members from Austin contemporaries, the Baby Cakes, recorded Crackin' Up in 1966 for its manager's BlacKnight label
Leo and the Prophets
In spring 1967, as Austin’s fledgling Sonobeat Records was cobbling together its recording equipment, it also was looking for its first act to record. Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. knew many band managers around Central Texas and through one arranged for Leo and the Prophets, de facto house band at Austin's Ozone Forest night club, to be Sonobeat's first guinea pig. A month before Sonobeat’s first session with the Prophets, the band released a single on Austin's short-lived Totem label. That single, Tilt-A-Whirl, got airplay on KAZZ-FM, where Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley worked as a deejay, but the single was banned from Austin's #1 top 40 AM station, KNOW (now Spanish-language station KFON), because of its obscure "banana peel" lyrics, presumably oblique drug references. Tilt-A-Whirl, written by band leader Leo Ellis and his bandmate Ron Haywood, was produced by J. O. Glass and J. C. "Scat" Hamilton. The single garnered positive reviews in local and regional press and enjoyed impressive sales throughout Texas. In part, it was the Totem single that led Sonobeat to the Prophets. Sonobeat’s first Prophets session was in May 1967, but the tapes were unusable because of recording equipment distortion. Two months later, Sonobeat tried again with the Prophets, hoping the band could provide Sonobeat with its first 45 RPM single release, but this time the band didn’t have two complete songs, so Sonobeat shelved the Prophets tapes. Tilt-A-Whirl was Leo and the Prophets only commercial release.
One of Austin's top '60s rock bands, the Sweetarts, whose 1967 stereo 45 RPM single A Picture of Me was Sonobeat's first commercial release, issued a well-produced single on the Dallas-based Vandan label a year before the band's Sonobeat sessions. That single, So Many Times, tracked on the KAZZ-FM Fun Fifty chart in Austin for several weeks in 1966. Its popularity, songsmanship, and strong instrumental and vocal performances were major reasons Sonobeat wanted to record the group. Not only was So Many Times a local Austin radio hit, but the flip side, You Don't Have to Hurt Me, also attracted airplay on Texas radio stations, including KAZZ and KNOW in Austin, KONO in San Antonio, KILT in Houston, and KLIF in Dallas-Ft. Worth. Oddly, Ernie Gammage, who wrote both sides of the Sweetarts' Sonobeat single as well as both sides of the Vandan single, was miscredited on the Vandan release as "E. Cammage" and the band itself is credited as "The Sweettarts". The Sweetarts' Vandan single was produced by Tom Brown (who owned Vandan Records) and Don Brooks, directed by Gene Garretson, and recorded at Vandan's Dallas studios. Today Ernie performs regularly in Austin as Ernie Sky and the K-Tels and as a founding member of The Lost Austin Band.
Lavender Hill Express
Lavender Hill Express was formed in 1967 from the ashes of popular Austin rock bands The Wig and the Baby Cakes. The Wig, managed by radio station KNOW deejay Paul Harrison, was composed of Rusty Wier (drums and vocals), Benny Rowe (lead guitar), Johnny Richardson (guitar), Jess Yaryan (bass), and Billy Wilmont (keyboards). The Wig put out two regional singles that got plenty of airplay and sales: Crackin' Up and Drive It Home, both produced by Paul Harrison and released on his labels BlacKnight and Goyle, respectively. The hard-driving Crackin' Up was written by Rusty, who, a couple of years later, as a founding member of Lavender Hill Express, wrote the Sonobeat singles Watch Out! and Silly Rhymes. Although it was good for Sonobeat that The Wig and Baby Cakes broke up to give Austin Lavender Hill Express, both The Wig and the Baby Cakes were exceptionally talented bands, and each had a strong and loyal fan base throughout Central Texas, where they performed pretty much non-stop through the mid-'60s. Lavender Hill Express producer Rim Kelley recalls visiting The Wig during a practice session at Paul Harrison's house off Manor Road in Austin; there's an imaginative and, for the mid-'60s, quite unusual vibrato-like effect performed by Billy Wilmont on keyboard at the end of Crackin' Up. Paul shared the band's secret for creating the effect with Rim, who adds that to the list of moments that collectively led to the decision to start Sonobeat. More about The Wig is over at GarageHangover.
Shiva's Headband recorded an unreleased single for Sonobeat in early 1968. The single, Kaleidoscoptic backed with There's No Tears, was recorded at Austin's iconic Vulcan Gas Company music hall and was completed and mastered for release as Sonobeat single Rs-103. The Sonobeat archives even contain copies of the test pressing of the stereo single. Although Sonobeat had already scheduled Kaleidoscoptic for release, ongoing debates with the band about the sonic qualities of the recording delayed its release, with the possibility of re-recording the vocals, but eventually all release plans were scrapped and the master tapes shelved. Shiva's Headband was a major influence in hippy music circles across the U.S., and it was inevitable that the band's music would eventually make it to commercial release. Founder and electric violinist Spenser Perskin released the band's anthem, Take Me to the Mountains, which he composed, on the band's own Austin-based Armadillo label (named in homage to Vulcan Gas Company's successor, Armadillo World Headquarters, which Perskin co-founded). The Armadillo single in turn begat a nationally-released album on Capitol Records.
In the mid-'60s, Vietnamese songbird Bach-Yen began touring the U.S. as a musical emissary on invitation from the U.S. government, first appearing on the Ed Sullvan Show on CBS in January 1965, later in '65 on the musical variety show Shindig, and in November '66 on NBC's Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre. Bach-Yen had a minor role in the 1968 John Wayne Vietnam war epic, The Green Berets, in which she performed as a Saigon singer, harkening to her own roots. In 1968, Bach-Yen recorded two soulful ballads produced by Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. and released on the Sonobeat label as a stereo single. This Is My Song and Magali (which Bach-Yen performed in her native language, French), were among Sonobeat's more sophisticated productions, featuring string and horn sections overdubbed months after the basic instrumental and vocal tracks were recorded. Bach-Yen's Sonobeat single was hardly her first recording: while living in Paris in the mid-'60s, she had a successful European recording career, releasing several French-language albums on the Polydor label. In 1965, three years before the Sonobeat single, Bach-Yen recorded Johnny Hold My Hand and You And I Have Found Love for producer L. Lamont Phemister on the Accent Records label. And, within a year after recording with Sonobeat, Bach-Yen released a single on the one-shot Poupée label. That single, featuring the Spanish ballad Malaguena and French ballad What Now My Love (Et Maintenant), was produced by Dick Kravit.
Ray Campi Establishment
There's none more rockabilly than rockin' Ray Campi, who in 1968 recorded Sonobeat's only novelty release, Civil Disobedience backed with He's a Devil (In His Own Home Town) as Ray Campi Establishment. Most Sonobeat artists were one-shots, recording a single for Sonobeat but who had no other commercial releases, either before or after their Sonobeat records. Ray, however, is the most prolific of those who recorded for Sonobeat. His recorded output is yards long, dating from 1949, performing in Austin, Texas, as Ray Campi & His Camping-Out Cowboys. Coming forward into the '60s, Ray recorded for Dot, Domino, Colpix, and at least half a dozen regional labels. Much of Ray's early output – whether as a solo act or in bands with names like The Slades, Ray and His Ramblers, or the McCoy Boys – was recorded at Roy Poole's Austin Recording Company, but an equally large catalog was recorded in Houston, Dallas, Hollywood, and New York. Though his roots are in Austin (he moved there in 1944), Ray traveled the country and left behind, quite literally, a golden trail of rockabilly and country singles and albums. And, of course, his Sonobeat single doesn't even represent the middle, much less the end, of his career. Ray's still rockin' and recordin' today, in his 80s, and is known the world over as the King of Rockabilly. Last year, Ray released the album Still Rippin' It Up, recorded in Torrance, California, with his long time buddy Rip Masters. We hope Ray keeps on rockin' into the 2020s.
Austin folk-rock troubadour Cody Hubach recorded a single and an album with Sonobeat – though neither was ever released – over a span of three years beginning in 1969. Cody, a welder by day and musician by night, helped build Sonobeat's massive steel plate reverb in 1968 and was a constant friend to Sonobeat co-founder and producer Bill Josey Sr. Although Cody's Sonobeat material was never released, Cody had recorded before his Sonobeat sessions and went on to record and release several singles and albums for other local and regional labels after his Sonobeat sessions. He also appeared as himself in Willie Nelson's 1980 feature film Honeysuckle Rose. Notably, Cody's signature composition, Hooley, which he recorded twice for Sonobeat – first as the "A" side of the unreleased Sonobeat single and a second time for the unreleased album – had been recorded and released in 1968 on Austin Records' Dixietone label, this first version produced by Paul Bearden.
These are a mere sampling of the dozens of Sonobeat artists, including individual members of bands Sonobeat recorded, that had pre- or post-Sonobeat recording careers. Others include Johnny Winter, Eric Johnson, Rusty Wier, Layton DePenning (who's current bands Denim and Sons of Slim perform regularly in Austin), Leonard Arnold, Jim Chesnut, James Polk (who also performs regularly in Austin), and Bill Wilson.