Records with Sonobeat in 1967 & 1969
One commercial 45 RPM release on Sonobeat Records (1967)
2017 digital worldwide reissue
- Sonobeat 50th Anniversary Artist Rock
Sweetarts • A Picture of Me • "A" side of Sonobeat's first release (1967)
Original 1967 vinyl release sleeve using publicity photo supplied by band
Sonobeat's first 45 RPM stereo single, by the Sweetarts, released in 1967; all 1967 releases feature Sonobeat's yellow label background
Cover art for 2017 remastered digital reissue
July 1967, Austin, Texas. A typical toasty Central Texas summer. Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Bill Josey Jr. have been planning the launch of their record label for months, gathering recording equipment and holding practice recording sessions. Bill Jr., a deejay at Austin's KAZZ-FM, who goes by the air name "Rim Kelley", and Bill Sr., KAZZ's general manager, know all the top local music venues – Jade Room, Club Saracen, Action Club, IL Club, Swingers A Go-Go, and New Orleans Club – where they're on the lookout for the "right" rock band to record for Sonobeat's first commercial release. Two months earlier, in May, using an Ampex 354 tape deck and microphones borrowed from KAZZ, the Joseys hold practice recording sessions with Austin semi-psychedelic band Leo and the Prophets, recording the band in the parking lot at Lake Austin Inn, and recording nother hot Austin rock band, Sweetarts, at Club Saracen in downtown Austin; however, neither session produces useable tracks because of mixer distortion. By July, the Joseys are finally ready for a real recording session, again with Leo and the Prophets, this time using Swingers Club in north Austin as a remote recording studio. But the Prophets have only one finished song, so their session fails to yield a flip side for a commercial release.
Meanwhile, the Sweetarts have been waiting patiently in the wings. Rim has been following the 'Tarts for more than a year. The band has a strong University of Texas fraternity and club following. Rim plays So Many Times, the Sweetarts' 1966 release on Dallas-based Vandan Records, frequently on his KAZZ-FM rock 'n' roll program. The song stays on the station's playlist for weeks and even in June '67 continues to get rotation on KAZZ as an "oldie". The band also wins the 1966 Austin Aqua Festival Battle of the Bands, further raising its public profile (the band wins again in 1968, demonstrating its staying power). But the tipping point is Rim's February 16, 1967, live broadcast over KAZZ of the band performing at Club Saracen. KAZZ is known for its weekly live music broadcasts from a cross-section of Austin clubs, which has given the station and the Joseys reputations as strong supporters of the developing Austin music scene. At the Club Saracen broadcast, the Sweetarts demonstrate they're a tight, virtuoso unit, playing both original material and familiar Beatles and Otis Redding covers. But it's the band's crowd-pleasing performance of its original song Without You that convinces Rim to offer to record the Sweetarts for the start-up Sonobeat label.
Ernie Gammage's lyrics from A Picture of Me
Although the session with Leo and the Prophets on July 11, 1967, yields insufficient material for Sonobeat's first single, Swingers Club , where the Joseys record the Prophets session, proves to be a good make-shift studio with plenty of floor space and good acoustics, so Sonobeat returns there for a July 18th afternoon session with the Sweetarts. The session yields the basic instrumental tracks for what will become Sonobeat's first release. A week later, in a late-night session at KAZZ-FM's studios in downtown Austin, Rim combines the stereo instrumental tracks with vocal, tambourine, and shaker overdubs on a mix-down from KAZZ's Ampex 354 quarter-inch 2-track tape deck to its Ampex 350 deck. KAZZ's facilities present a challenge and an opportunity: the station's offices and studios are on the 10th floor of the Perry Brooks Building. The north and south sides of the 10th floor are divided by a tunnel-like corridor. KAZZ occupies one side of the long hallway and Austin's classical music station KMFA-FM the other. For the overdub session, Rim sets up a mike at the far end of the hallway to capture its natural reverberation and a vocal mike at the end of the hallway nearest KAZZ's office entrance. He threads the mike cords into the KAZZ production room, then coordinates with KAZZ's deejay (KMFA doesn't broadcast late at night) to avoid recording when he's announcing on-air. Between each take the band members gather in KAZZ's production room to listen until all agree on the takes that are keepers.
Ernie Gammage's A Picture of Me is an innovative and well-crafted pop tune by any standard, with a lot going for it: thoughtful lyrics, Ernie's solid lead vocal, an infectious beat, a tight band performance with an unusual four bar break – probably influenced by the Beatles' We Can Work It Out – and polished backup harmonies that dramatically end the song on a minor chord. Without You, also a Gammage original, is an equally impressive and solid rock romp with a good bit of country influence, punctuated by Tom Van Zandt's Farfisa organ riffs, Pat Whitefield's clever bass break, and a neat little hi-hat trick courtesy of Dwight Dow. As good as both songs are, though, there is never any doubt in Rim's mind that A Picture of Me will be the single's "A" side. A few weeks later, Bill Sr. drives the Sweetarts master tape – along with the master tape for Sonobeat's first jazz single, by the Lee Arlano Trio, recorded a week before the Sweetarts' sessions – to Houston, Texas, where Houston Records, Inc. masters the lacquers and presses 1,000 copies of the single. Packaged in a black and white picture sleeve, the stereo 45 RPM single is released throughout Central Texas during Labor Day week in 1967. The Lee Arlano Trio single is released a week later.
Bill Sr. is dissatisfied with the quality of the Houston Records mastering and decides to try an experiment with high-end Fine Recording in New York City. He ships the Sweetarts master tape to Fine, noted for its customized Scully lathes and high-powered Westrex cutting heads, for new lacquers to be mastered. The new lacquers then are shipped to Houston Records for test pressings. But the Joseys find no significant sonic difference between the two versions – that mastered by Houston Records and that mastered by Fine in Manhattan – so Bill Sr. lets it go for now, thinking the deficiencies may be caused by Houston Records' pressing facilities rather than by its mastering, an issue he'll revisit in 1968.
October 7, 1967, Cash Box Magazine Newcomer Pick review of A Picture of Me
Sonobeat promotes A Picture of Me as the first monaural-compatible stereo 45 RPM single in the U.S., although a few major labels previously have dabbled in, then abandoned, stereo singles. The Sweetarts' single also is the first that Sonobeat packages in a picture sleeve, an unusual extra expense that small regional labels typically eschew. Although the Sweetarts' single is sold only in Austin and Central Texas record stores, the Joseys consider their first release a success particularly because, somewhat unexpectedly, it picks up a national review in music industry trade journal Cash Box Magazine.
Ernie's first composer royalty statement from Sonosong (Sonobeat's music publishing arm), dated in February 1968, shows sales of 627 copies during the single's first four months of release. Ernie's royalty for each composition is one cent, so he receives $12.54 total, equal to about $90 in 2017 dollars. As an example of art coincidentally imitating art, country star George Jones releases a top 10-charting single in 1972 entitled, yep, A Picture of Me (Without You).
The Sweetarts return to Sonobeat in July 1969 to start recording new original material. These sessions occur during a musical transition for the 'Tarts, who in mid-'68 have added guitarist Steve Weisberg, and the group has shifted from top 40-style frat rock to rhythm and blues and experimental original material. The 1969 sessions focus on Ernie Gammage's ballad Lady, recorded in multiple versions. There's debate about a second song attributed to the Sweetarts in the July '69 sessions: Summer Sunshine is a complex, highly crafted tune and performance with instrumentation that largely parallels that of Lady, but the vocalist is not Ernie Gammage. There's evidence in the Sonobeat archives leading us to believe Summer Sunshine indeed belongs to the Sweetarts, but no one in the band recalls composing or recording it. Perhaps it's a Steve Weisberg or Randy Thornton song; Randy also joins the Sweetarts sometime in late-1968, after the 'Tarts have won the Austin Aqua Festival Battle of the Bands on August 8, 1968. We're left with an air of mystery and uncertainty about Summer Sunshine, which we can't say with authority is or isn't a Sweetarts recording but that we'll continue to attribute to the 'Tarts unless we find convincing evidence to the contrary.
In addition to the Sweetarts new sound, the 1969 sessions, recorded at Sonobeat's Western Hills Drive studio, are technically superior to the 1967 sessions. By 1969 Sonobeat has built an intimate studio with a drum and vocal isolation booth on the lower level of the Josey family's split-level home in northwest Austin. Sonobeat also has acquired a top of the line half-inch 4-track Scully 280 tape recorder and an array of professional microphones, including a matched pair of Sony ECM22 electret condenser mikes, and has built a 10-channel custom solid state mixer and massive steel plate reverb. In early January 1969, the Joseys deliver their master recordings of Johnny Winter's The Progressive Blues Experiment album to Liberty Records in Los Angeles and visit Liberty's Hollywood recording studios, where Rim grabs a stash of Liberty Recorders tape box labels. Weeks later, back in Austin, he uses one of the labels to document the Sweetarts's 1969 sessions, thinking Sonobeat may be able to sell this new batch of Sweetarts recordings to Liberty, too. But work on the second Sweetarts single ends with little completed as the band makes significant personnel changes and regroups as Fast Cotton. The timing isn't right to shift the sessions to the band's new incarnation as Fast Cotton, but it will be in 1970, so the second round of Sweetarts tapes are shelved.
Rim Kelley's intro for the band on a February 1967 KAZZ-FM live broadcast
You'll find a thorough history of the Sweetarts, beginning with the group's roots as the Fabulous Chevelles and continuing through its rebirth as Fast Cotton, and audio clips from the KAZZ-FM broadcast of the Sweetarts from the Club Saracen, at the Sweetarts retrospective site.
Sometimes great bands take long breaks: on March 13, 2013, during SXSW in Austin, the Sweetarts reunite at Tom's Tabooley/Antone's Records for only their second performance since disbanding in 1969 to form Fast Cotton. Rim Kelley introduces the 'Tarts at the 2013 event. On February 9, 2014, the Sweetarts reunite again, also at Tom's Tabooley/Antone's Records, to support Ricky Stein's book signing event (for Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the '60s). In March 2014, Sonobeat Historical Archives reissues restored and remastered versions of A Picture of Me and Without You on iTunes and Amazon MP3. The band takes a final bow with an appearance on July 26, 2014, at the Saxon Pub in Austin with fellow Austin bandmates Lavender Hill Express to help celebrate the digital reissue of all three of Lavender Hill Express' Sonobeat singles.
More great photos of the Sweetarts (and Fast Cotton) are at Ernie Gammage's website, definitely worth exploration.