Sonobeat Artists: Before & After
Yes, there was life for Sonobeat artists before and after Sonobeat
Leo and the Prophets
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
In spring 1967, as Austin’s fledgling Sonobeat Records is cobbling together its recording equipment, it also is looking for its first act to record. Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. knows many band managers around Central Texas and through one arranges 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 releases a single on Austin's short-lived Totem label. That single, Tilt-A-Whirl, gets airplay on KAZZ-FM, where Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley works as a deejay, but the single is 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, is produced by J. O. Glass and J. C. "Scat" Hamilton. The single garners positive reviews in local and regional press and enjoys impressive sales in Texas through 1967. In part, it's the Totem single that leads Sonobeat to the Prophets. Sonobeat’s first Prophets session is in May 1967, but the tapes are unusable because of recording equipment distortion. Two months later, Sonobeat tries again with the Prophets, hoping the band can provide Sonobeat with its first 45 RPM single release, but this time the band doesn’t have two complete songs, so Sonobeat shelves the Prophets tapes once again. Tilt-A-Whirl is 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 is Sonobeat's inaugural commercial release, issues a well-produced single on the Dallas-based Vandan label a year before the band's Sonobeat sessions. That single, So Many Times, tracks on the KAZZ-FM Fun Fifty hit list in Austin for several weeks in 1966. Its popularity, songsmanship, and strong instrumental and vocal performances are major reasons Sonobeat wants to record the group. Not only is So Many Times a local Austin radio hit, but the flip side, You Don't Have to Hurt Me, also attracts 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, composer of both sides of the Sweetarts' Sonobeat single as well as both sides of the Vandan single, is miscredited on the Vandan release as "E. Cammage" and the band itself is credited as "The Sweettarts". Tom Brown (owner of Vandan Records) and Don Brooks produce the Sweetarts' Vandan single, which is 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
In 1967, Lavender Hill Express rises from the ashes of popular Austin rock bands The Wig and the Baby Cakes. The Wig, managed by radio station KNOW deejay Paul Harrison, features Rusty Wier (drums and vocals), Benny Rowe (lead guitar), Johnny Richardson (guitar), Jess Yaryan (bass), and Billy Wilmont (keyboards). The Wig puts out two regional singles that get 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 is Rusty's composition, and, a couple of years later, as a founding member of Lavender Hill Express, he'll pen the Sonobeat singles Watch Out! and Silly Rhymes. Although it's good for Sonobeat that The Wig and Baby Cakes break up to give Austin Lavender Hill Express, both The Wig and the Baby Cakes are exceptionally talented bands, each with a strong and loyal fan base throughout Central Texas, where they perform 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 home 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 shares the band's secret for creating the effect with Rim, who adds that to the list of moments that collectively lead to the decision to start Sonobeat. More about The Wig is over at GarageHangover.
Shiva's Headband records an unreleased single for Sonobeat in early 1968. The single, Kaleidoscoptic backed with There's No Tears, is recorded at Austin's iconic Vulcan Gas Company music hall and is 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 schedules Kaleidoscoptic for release, ongoing debates with the band about the sonic qualities of the recording delay its release, and the band and Sonobeat producers discuss the possibility of re-recording the vocals. Eventuall all release plans are scrapped and the master tapes shelved. Shiva's Headband is a major influence in hippy music circles across the U.S., and it's inevitable that the band's music eventually makes it to commercial release. Founder and electric violinist Spenser Perskin releases his composition and the band's anthem, Take Me to the Mountains, on the band's own Austin-based Armadillo label (named in homage to Vulcan Gas Company's successor, Armadillo World Headquarters, which Perskin co-founds in 1971). The Armadillo single in turn begets a nationally-released album on Capitol Records.
In the mid-'60s, Vietnamese songbird Bach-Yen begins touring the U.S. by invitation from the U.S. government as a musical emissary. She first appears 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 even has a minor role in the 1968 John Wayne Vietnam war epic, The Green Berets, in which she performs as a Saigon singer, harkening to her own roots. In 1968, Bach-Yen records two soulful ballads produced by Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. that are released on the Sonobeat label as a stereo single. This Is My Song and Magali (which Bach-Yen performs in her native language, French), are among Sonobeat's more sophisticated early productions, featuring string and horn sections overdubbed months after the basic instrumental and vocal tracks are recorded. Bach-Yen's Sonobeat single is hardly her first recording: while living in Paris in the mid-'60s, she has a successful European recording career, releasing several French-language albums on the Polydor label. In 1965, three years before the Sonobeat single, Bach-Yen records 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 releases a single on the one-shot Poupée label. That single, featuring the Spanish ballad Malaguena and French ballad What Now My Love (Et Maintenant), is produced by Dick Kravit.
Ray Campi Establishment
There's none more rockabilly than rockin' Ray Campi, who in 1968 records Sonobeat's only novelty release, Civil Disobedience backed with He's a Devil (In His Own Home Town) under the band name Ray Campi Establishment. Most Sonobeat artists are one-shots, recording a single for Sonobeat but who have no other commercial releases, either before or after their Sonobeat release. Ray, however, is the most prolific of those who record for Sonobeat. His recorded output is yards long, dating from 1949 when he performs in Austin, Texas, as Ray Campi & His Camping-Out Cowboys. Coming forward into the '60s, Ray records 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 – is recorded at Roy Poole's Austin Recording Company, but an equally large catalog is recorded in Houston, Dallas, Hollywood, and New York. Though his roots are in Austin (he moves there in 1944), Ray travels the country and leaves 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, at age 83, and is known the world over as the King of Rockabilly. Most recently, Ray releases 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 records a single and an album with Sonobeat – though neither is ever released – over a span of three years beginning in 1969. Cody, a welder by day and musician by night, helps build Sonobeat's massive steel plate reverb in 1968 and is a constant friend to Sonobeat co-founder and producer Bill Josey Sr. Although Cody's Sonobeat material is never released, Cody records before his Sonobeat sessions and goes on to record and release several singles and albums for other local and regional labels after his Sonobeat sessions. He also appears as himself in Willie Nelson's 1980 feature film Honeysuckle Rose. Notably, Cody's signature composition, Hooley, which he records twice for Sonobeat – first as the "A" side of the unreleased Sonobeat single and a second time for the unreleased album – is also recorded and released in 1968 on Austin Records' Dixietone label, this first version produced by Paul Bearden.
These are a small sampling of the dozens of Sonobeat artists, including individual members of bands Sonobeat records, that have 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.