Sonobeat Seasons - Autumn 1968
Austin and the artists Sonobeat recorded from September 23 to December 20, 1968
Sonobeat's first release in autumn '68 is the limited edition advance pressing of Johnny Winter's blues-rock album
Sonobeat's first true country release is by Austin swing band Ronnie and the West Winds
Diversity marks Sonobeat's autumn '68 release schedule with this single from international pop singing sensation Bach-Yen
The third and final Sonobeat single from Austin supergroup Lavender Hill Express gets an autumn '68 release
As autumn 1968 arrives in Austin, Texas, colorful leaves from the pecan, ash, maple, and live oaks have begun to carpet the Central Texas landscape. And, as is custom in autumn, many a kid begins the weekend chore of raking the front lawn, piling and bagging what seems a neverending supply of crisp and crunchy leaves... with a portable transistor radio tucked in a jeans pocket, tuned to the local top 40 station. If that kid's in Austin, Lavender Hill Express' Watch Out! might be playing on KNOW radio.
Sonobeat's seven vinyl record releases – one album and six 45 RPM stereo singles – during autumn 1968 are the most the still-fledgling Austin-based label releases in any season. One autumn '68 release in particular thrusts Sonobeat into the national spotlight.
Perhaps the most influential artist in Sonobeat's repertoire is Johnny Winter. He arrives on the Austin music scene in early '68 from his home base in Houston, Texas, with a progressive blues-rock sound that takes Austin high school and college students by storm. Sonobeat records Johnny's trio at The Vulcan Gas Company in downtown Austin and at Sonobeat's Western Hills Drive studio in summer 1968, first issuing a single in early September followed by the autumn '68 release of a limited edition, white jacket advance pressing of Johnny's ten-track album. The album features an equal mix of Johnny's original songs and covers of songs by the blues greats that have influenced Johnny – McKinley Morgenfield, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Blind Willie McTell, among them. Although the album features an impressive cross-section of blues-rock tracks, the signature cut is probably Johnny's Tribute To Muddy, which, as the title implies, is a tribute to another of Johnny's influencers, Muddy Waters. The Progressive Blues Experiment is significant – and influential – for multiple reasons: it's Johnny's first album release and to this day garners positive reviews, it's Sonobeat's first national release via a sale of the masters to Liberty Records (which releases the album on its Imperial Records label in March 1969), and it's a financial godsend that helps Sonobeat pay for desperately-needed equipment and facilities upgrades as the tiny Austin-based record company looks ahead to 1969. Sonobeat co-founder and album producer Rim Kelley, who also engineers the Winter sessions, recalls that most tracks on the final version of the album are "first takes", remarkable by any standard and a mark of the raw musical energy the album captures.
Ronnie and the West Winds
There's only one true country single Sonobeat releases, although over its nine year history from the mid-'60s to mid-'70s, Sonobeat records many Central Texas country artists. Admittedly, the flip-side of Lavender Hill Express' Sonobeat single Watch Out is a solid country rocker, but because Country Music's Here To Stay is the "B" side, we don't count it as Sonobeat's first country single. So, Sonobeat's first true country single is Can't Win For Losing backed with the instrumental Windy Blues by Austin western swing band Ronnie and the West Winds. Both represent the shortest tracks Sonobeat releases, and both are performed with a high level of technical proficiency that belies the fact that Ronnie and his bandmates are all high school seniors when the single is recorded. Sonobeat records Ronnie and the West Winds at Austin's iconic hippie music hall, The Vulcan Gas Company, during the hall's off-hours, where, oddly enough, the West Winds feel right at home.
Adding an air of international intrigue to Sonobeat's repertoire is Vietnamese songbird Bach-Yen's single This Is My Song backed with French-language Magali. Both are covers of well-known European pop standards of the mid-'60s. Although Bach is born and reaared in former French colony Vietnam, she spends formative musical years in Paris, learning what's called the Continental singing style. During the height of America's unpopular involvement in the Vietnam conflict, 22-year-old Bach is tapped as a musical emmisary to the U.S. and in 1965 begins what is supposed to be just a two-week visit to New York City to make an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. But that appearance makes her an instant star in America, and her U.S. stay extends not merely for weeks or months, but for 12 years! Sonobeat records Bach-Yen at The Club Seville at the Sheraton Crest Inn in downtown Austin in January 1968 but puts aside the master tapes until mid-year, when Sonobeat co-founder/producer Bill Josey Sr. finally decides to add a string and horn section to thicken up the tracks. Bach's single finally gets its release in autumn '68.
Lavender Hill Express
The trophy goes to Lavender Hill Express for recording the most singles Sonobeat releases by any artist. In '67, Sonobeat releases the group's inaugural single, Visions, followed in summer '68 by Watch Out, and, then, in autumn '68 by the band's final Sonobeat single. The three LHE singles are each incredibly different, but that's no surprise since the band is the proverbial phoenix arisen from the ashes of two other great '60s Austin rock bands, The Wig and the Baby Cakes, each contributing two of Lavender Hill Express' five members (the fifth is a transplant from another solid Central Texas rock band, The Reasons Why), giving the band diverse musical interests. The "A" side of this LHE single, Outside My Window by band co-founder Layton DePenning, is an experimental rocker, and the "B" side is Rusty Wier's lyrically enigmatic Silly Rhymes, recorded in a style that today would be called "unplugged". Although Sonobeat issues Lavender Hill Express' first two singles in picture sleeves to help promote the band, Outside My Window is packaged in a plain paper sleeve because, by this third release, the band is well-known throughout Texas. An additional track, Trouble, is recorded at the same time as Outside My Window and is intended as the single's "B" side until Rusty demoes Silly Rhymes. Trouble finally gets a release as part of the digital reissue of all three Lavender Hill Express singles on the digital "album" Visions in 2014.
Ray Campi Establishment
America's reigning King of Rockabilly, Ray Campi, records Sonobeat's only novelty release, Ray's own Civil Disobedience backed with the Irving Berlin standard He's A Devil (In His Own Home Town). The autumn 1968 Campi session is conducted at Sonobeat's Western Hills Drive studio in northwest Austin. We're not sure why Ray picks the name "Ray Campi Establishment" as the band name, but it works, ironically, against the backdrop of the Vietnam anti-war, anti-establishment lyrics of Civil Disobedience. Ray brings a bunch of his regular back-up musicians to record the session, and Sonobeat producer Bill Josey Sr. even records one version of Civil Disobedience with neighborhood kids laughing on cue at the end of each clever lyric. But it's the "clean" version, without laughter, that's released as Sonobeat stereo 45 PV-s111. Perceived as neither fish nor fowl, the single is a commercial failure but remains one of our favorites, especially Ray's New Vaudeville Band-esque version of He's A Devil. Yes, Ray's still kicking around at age 83, regularly performing and recording new rockabilly material.
Early in 1968, Sonobeat co-founder/producer Bill Josey Sr. is assembling an album of original songs by Sonosong composer Herman Nelson. Sonosong is Sonobeat's music publishing subsidiary, and Herman's album is intended to attract covers of his pop, country, and folk songs by national recording artists rather than as a commercial release on the Sonobeat label itself. During the selection process, Bill Sr. begins a search for musicians and singers who can perform the songs for the demo recordings. At the time, Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) is a University of Texas student, sharing a couple of classes with Jim Chesnut, who, like Rim, also is a radio deejay, but on competing Austin stations, so they strike up a friendship. Rim suggests that Bill Sr. and Herman audition Jim, who performs regularly at Austin's well-known downtown folk cabarets. As they say, the rest is history. Jim records two Nelson compositions, About To Be Woman, a modern love song, and Leaves, a plaintive commentary on everyday life, that Sonobeat releases as a stereo 45 RPM single in autumn '68. Jim's clear and strong vocals make standouts of Herman's simple, straightforward songs. Jim is a talented songwriter in his own right and following graduation from The University of Texas ends up in Nashville, signed for many years to multiple national record labels.
Back before Sonobeat Records is founded in 1967, its co-founder, Bill Josey Sr., hosts weekly live remote broadcasts on KAZZ-FM from Austin-area nightclubs. Toward the end of 1966, at a live broadcast from The 11th Door, a popular folk cabaret in downtown Austin, Bill meets up-and-coming folk-pop singer/songwriter Fran Nelson (who's unrelated to Herman Nelson), a University of Texas drama major. Fran's specialty seems to be torch songs, but she also covers popular songs, like the Beatles' Yesterday, giving them her own unique spin as a solo artist. The first official Fran Nelson session with Sonobeat is in July 1967, soon after Sonobeat launches, and is held at The Club Seville at the Sheraton Crest Inn in downtown Austin during the club's off hours. But Bill Sr. uses a backing band on the session that ends up overpowering Fran's vocals, so Sonobeat shelves the tracks. It's not until autumn '68 that Bill Sr. reboots with Fran, recording her bossa nova take on Yesterday and her simmering original, No Regrets, switching to The Club Seville's house band, The Michael Stevens IV, to provide, this time, able backing. Fran's single is the last of Sonobeat's 1968 releases, bringing a close Sonobeat's most ambitious year of releases.