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Mariani

In 1969, Austin, Texas-based Sonobeat Records was searching for another super group to replace the successes it had had with Johnny Winter and Lavender Hill Express in 1968. Sonobeat owners Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Jr.) had made a one-album deal with Johnny, had sold the album (The Progressive Blues Experiment) to Liberty Records, then watched it climb to #49 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart in mid-April '69. But Johnny had moved on to sign a $600,000 multi-album deal with Columbia Records in which Sonobeat did not participate. Sonobeat had released three successful singles with Lavender Hill Express but plans for an album with LHE had been abandoned. Although '68 had been a prosperous year for Sonobeat, with the release of 11 singles and three albums, '69 was lean. It was in this milieu that the Joseys made a fortuitous connection with drummer Vince Mariani, freshly returned from working with several bands in Colorado to his home base in Austin. When the Joseys met Vince, he was jamming around town but unaffiliated with any band.


Vince Mariani
 

Vince had developed a stunning jazz-rock style and used a larger kit -- including double bass drums -- than most rock or jazz drummers of the era. In 1968, when the Joseys had delivered the Johnny Winter master tapes to Liberty Records in Los Angeles, they had visited several Hollywood recording studios and at Wally Heider's legendary studio had met session drummer Sandy Nelson, who had released a string of successful drum solo singles and albums throughout the '60s. Back in Austin, Bill Sr. recalled meeting Sandy and proposed that Vince record a pair of drum solos for release as a Sonobeat stereo single.

   
 
Vince Mariani master tape and single

The Joseys had recently completed a drum and vocal isolation booth at their Western Hills Drive studio in northwest Austin, and there they recorded Vince performing his compositions Pulsar and Boots. Because there were no other instruments to simultaneously record, almost every piece in Vince's kit was individually miked, providing a very detailed stereo mix. Rim suggested adding effects to Pulsar and, in keeping with the song's title, gave it a light "flanging", much like he had done with Lavender Hill Express's single, Watch Out, the year before. The flanging imparted a distinctive otherworldly sound to Pulsar, and it became the "A" side of Sonobeat single R-s116, released near the end of '69. Despite what many thought after hearing Vince's single, Vince overdubbed nothing. He was just that good.

Sonobeat Sound Bite

Pulsar drum solo by Vince Mariani (Sonobeat stereo single Rs-116 - "A" side)

Although Vince's single was a commercial failure -- drum solos were already wearing thin when Pulsar was released, as Doug Hanners noted in his 1977 Not Fade Away article about Sonobeat -- Vince's remarkable talent and charismatic personality seemed the perfect centerpiece for a blues-rock band that the Joseys could custom-build around him, so they began searching for guitar and bass players. At Vince's invitation, fifteen-year-old Eric Johnson, who Vince had met a year earlier, dropped by the studio to audition and blew the Joseys away with his ear-popping guitar pyrotechnics. Bassist Bob Trenchard, a solid Austin musician, rounded out the band in its initial incarnation. The trio recorded several demo tracks in November '69, and we've included a sound bite below from their first version of Last Milestone.


Bill Josey Sr.'s November '69 notes

 
In fall '69, the newly formed trio, then nameless, began work on new material. In November, the Joseys and Vince began looking for a name for the band and planning an album. Prior to committing to the album, Bill Sr. required that the band record demo material, which ended up being two unnamed instrumentals. Shortly after recording the demo tracks, Bob Trenchard left to join Pall Rabbit and was replaced by bass guitarist and vocalist Jay Podolnick -- son of Josey family friend Earl Podolnick, who in 1968 had co-produced The Ray Campi Establishment Sonobeat single with Bill Sr.

 
 
 
Sonobeat's advance copy of the Mariani single Re-Birth Day. released in 1970, was issued in a rubber stamped sleeve

Satisfied with the demo material, Bill Sr. asked the group to record a single -- which turned out to be Sonobeat's only 45 RPM release in 1970 -- as a sort of trial balloon before committing to a full album. Re-birth Day, composed by Vince and Eric with lyrics by Sonosong tunesmith Herman M. Nelson and a double-tracked vocal by Jay, was selected as the "A" side. The song provides a solo break that shows off -- no, outright flaunts -- Eric's lightning fast lead guitar. The "B" side was a Mariani-Johnson-Podolnick collaboration, Memories Lost and Found, again sung by Jay and again providing a spectacular guitar break on which Eric shined. The single was a good first effort by the fledgling group, but it didn't quite have the "magic" the Joseys had hoped for and didn't attract much attention from reviewers or radio stations. Believing the trio needed something "more" to succeed, the Joseys began recruiting additional musicians and singers, looking to build a "modular" band that would support Vince and Eric. Jimmy Bullock replaced Jay on bass. But because Jimmy wasn't also a strong singer, the band now had no vocalist.

The Joseys recruited folk-blues songwriter/singer Bill Wilson, an airman then stationed at Austin's Bergstrom Air Force Base, and Vince brought in St. Edward's University junior Darrell Peal. The group worked up four new songs -- two vocals and two long instrumental jams and, with new versions of Re-birth Day and Memories Lost and Found, finally were prepared to go into the studio to cut an album.

 

Sonobeat's Scully 280 4-track recorder used for the Mariani recording sessions

After several practice sessions, Bill Sr. realized Sonobeat's tiny Western Hills Drive studio -- on the lower level of the Josey family home in a quiet northwest Austin neighborhood -- was too inhibiting for the group, so he rented a vacant 100 acre ranch near McDade, Texas, about 30 miles east of Austin on US 290. There, following a massive spring rainstorm that left the dirt and gravel road into the ranch as treacherous as quicksand, Vince, Eric, and Jimmy set up their equipment in an open field and prepared to record. The Joseys trucked an entire studio of equipment -- including Sonobeat's new 16-channel custom mixing console and 4-track Scully 280 recorder -- to the ranch, getting stuck in the muddy access road for hours and enlisting everyone, including Vince, Eric, and Jimmy, to free the truck. Eventually, the console, recorder, and monitor speakers were set up inside the vacant ranch house, in front of a picture window that faced the field where the trio would perform at maximum volume, and microphone and power cables were carefully run over a 60 to 80 yard stretch into the field. Over a three day period, Sonobeat burned through half a dozen 12 inch reels of half-inch tape to complete the basic instrumental tracks. The Joseys had expected that recording in an open field would yield completely clean tracks, but, surprisingly, the microphones picked up a slight delay echo bouncing off the ranch house and the thick stands of trees surrounding the clearing where the trio performed.


16-year-old Eric Johnson on stage
 

Back at the Western Hills Drive studio, the Joseys selected the best takes for vocal overdubs and began sequencing the album. Bill Sr. thought side one was disjointed and suggested that the tracks be linked with short jazz intercuts. The resulting album, that Rim named Perpetuum Mobile, with special effects, additional instrumentation, vocal overdubs, and the jazz intercuts, was completed over the month following the ranch sessions. The final version of the album is peppered throughout with audio stunts, including a frenetic performance by Bill Kolb on his one-of-a-kind synthesizer (no, not a Moog but, instead, a custom synth built by electronics engineer Barry Brooks) as the opener on side one and bizarre bubbling sounds created by suspending a Slinky from the ceiling, stapling a piece of cardboard to the end nearest the floor, taping a microphone to the cardboard, and then strumming the coils. One of the more interesting sonic treats was Eric's use of an Echoplex tape delay machine on his lead guitar; the Echoplex added discrete and continuous delayed repeats of the notes played. Perpetuum Mobile was a tour-de-force of every trick in Sonobeat's recording arsenal.

Because he had co-written Memories Lost and Found, Jay Podolnick returned to sing lead on the re-recorded album version, but Bill Wilson took over primary vocal chores, singing both new tunes, Last Milestone and I Can't Hurt Myself. Darrell Peal sang lead on the remake of Re-birth Day, with wild harmony parts provided by members of other Austin bands. Using a variety of vocalists who were not regular members of the group was an innovation at the time, something that other studio-based groups, notably the Alan Parsons Project and Mike + the Mechanics, adopted years later because of the flexibility it offered.

Sonobeat Sound Bite

First demo song -- featuring Eric Johnson on lead guitar (unreleased)
I Can't Hurt Myself, featuring Eric Johnson on double lead guitar and Bill Wilson on lead vocal
Untitled jazz song -- false start with chatter by Vince Mariani and Bill Josey Sr. (unreleased)
Untitled jazz song -- same song as above with guitar added (unreleased)
Jazz improv instrumental version of I Can't Hurt Myself (unreleased)

   
The album two-track stereo master tapes
 

Perpetuum Mobile was a recording and mixing challenge -- and occasionally a nightmare -- but the Joseys and the band ultimately were pleased with the results. Bill Sr. ordered an advance pressing of 100 copies of the album -- packaged in a plain white cardboard jacket -- for distribution to national record companies, reviewers, and the band members and their families. Band members Vince, Eric, and Jimmy signed dozens of copies that were given away. A rare surviving copy offered on eBay in 2008 sold for $2,850 and included Vince's handwritten note, "This is one of only 100 copies ever made. It has become a great collector item in certain galaxies."

While Bill Sr. was trying to sell the Perpetuum Mobile master to a national label, Vince, Eric, and Jimmy (joined on some gigs by synth player Bill Kolb) began touring throughout Texas. At one of those gigs, Mariani performed with a then-obscure Houston band of longhair hippies better known today as ZZ Top.


Eric Johnson meets Winter's Uncle John Turner (seated)
 

No national record labels bid for the Mariani masters, a disappointment to both the band and the Joseys, and Sonobeat never released the album commercially. Eventually, dubs of the master tapes leaked out, and specialty label Akarma Records issued a version of the album in 2001, with the the "B" side of Vince's drum solo single and the Mariani single (the original versions of Re-birth Day and Memories Lost and Found) added as a "bonus". But Akarma misstated song titles. Over the years, beginning even before the Akarma release, the album has engendered both critical acclaim and disdain, but it remains a testament to the strength of a manufactured but friendly collaboration of diverse talents.

After Mariani disbanded, Eric joined Austin band The Electromagnets and currently enjoys a dual career as a solo artist and as lead guitarist in Alien Love Child. Eric has made guest appearances on many other artists' albums and singles including Christopher Cross' eponymous album, and has issued many solo albums including the acclaimed Ah Via Musicom (1990) and Up Close (2010).

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