Sonobeat History • 1964-'66
Sonobeat co-founder Rim Kelley interviews pop-folk artist Judy Collins at the KAZZ-FM radio studios in Austin, Texas (circa 1966)
Cover of a KAZZ-FM Starline Survey, issued weekly through 1966 and bi-weekly beginning in 1967 (1967)
Sonobeat (rhymes with "oh-no-beet") Recording Company is founded in Austin, Texas, by Bill Josey Sr. and Bill Josey Jr. at the beginning of 1967, but its roots date from October '64, when Bill Jr. begins working as a deejay at KAZZ-FM in Austin. Notably, and tied to Bill Jr.'s arrival at the station, KAZZ (which no longer exists in Austin) is credited by Billboard Magazine as the first FM station in the U.S. to regularly program rock 'n' roll music. In 1964, KAZZ offers an alternative to Austin's dominant top 40 AM station, KNOW (now the AM flagship station of KOKE-FM with call letters KTAE). Although hardly a serious competitor in the Austin market – broadcasting with only 840 watts, about the same power as a dozen household light bulbs – KAZZ is the only Central Texas radio station to showcase local and regional musical talent in regularly-scheduled live remote broadcasts from Austin night clubs, including The 11th Door, New Orleans Old World Night Club, Jade Room, Club Saracen, and The Club Seville at the Crest Motor Inn (now The LINE Hotel). Among the local acts appearing on KAZZ's live broadcasts are the 13th Floor Elevators (Elevators' front man Roky Erickson and Bill Jr. are high school acquaintances in the early '60s), the Sweetarts, Janis Joplin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Allen Damron, Ernie Mae Miller, and Don Dean. KAZZ also plays the occasional records by local bands, including The 13th Floor Elevators, Leo and the Prophets, and the Sweetarts, something KNOW rarely does.
The formation of Sonobeat is influenced by and a natural extension of the KAZZ-FM live remote broadcasts, if not of KAZZ itself. Bill Josey Sr. is KAZZ's general manager. Bill Jr. (who goes by the name Rim Kelley on the air, a name he'll continue to use as a Sonobeat co-founder and record producer) is its afternoon and weekend deejay and, in 1967, its program director. Beginning in 1965, Bill Sr. and Rim alternately host most of KAZZ's Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday remote broadcasts. The live remotes introduce the Joseys directly to a broad cross-section of talented Austin musicians and their managers. And when the Joseys decide to start Sonobeat, KAZZ offers access to equipment and facilities the Joseys can't otherwise afford.
But even giving due credit to KAZZ's influence, Sonobeat really begins as a dream that pre-dates the KAZZ remote broadcasts: one of Bill Jr.'s high school classmates composes sacred music – primarily hymns and chorales – and is frustrated by his inability to attract established music companies to publish his works. Desiring to help his friend promote his music, Bill Jr. forms a music publishing company in 1965 that later morphs into Sonobeat's publishing affiliate, Sonosong Music Company. Conceptually, Bill Jr. envisions that his publishing company will record and distribute albums of Austin church choirs performing his friend's works, and the recordings will be used to publicize their availability. Although Bill Jr.'s music company never does record or actually publish any of his friend's compositions, it seeds in both Bill Jr. and his father, Bill Sr., the idea for a combined recording studio, record label, and music publishing company that will serve the rapidly growing Central Texas music scene.
At the time Bill Jr. begins working at KAZZ-FM, the station is owned by Monroe Lopez, who also owns Austin's Big 4 Mexican Restaurants (no longer in business). The Big 4 sponsor the music hit lists that KAZZ distributes weekly to the public through record stores in the Austin area. The hit list distribution mechanism introduces the Joseys to the owners and managers of every Central Texas record shop, including the music departments of larger department stores, such as Kresge (which in 1962 spawns K-Mart) and Sage (an early Texas discount department store chain similar to Target). These relationships will prove invaluable when Sonobeat launches in 1967.
KAZZ-FM is outfitted with Ampex 350 and 354 professional quarter-inch 2-track tape recorders that the Joseys can borrow. Although KAZZ has a portable audio console used at the station's remote broadcasts, the console is designed for playing records and not for recording music. Professional mixing consoles are far too expensive for a modest startup, so Rim enlists KAZZ's chief engineer, Bill Curtis, to design a compact portable stereo mixer the Joseys can use to record local acts. Curtis starts researching audio mixer circuit designs at the end of '66, but will not begin building the mixer until March 1967. In the meantime, the Joseys have an opportunity to make practice recordings using KAZZ's studios and equipment; the first recording is See See Rider by Austin folk duo John and Cathy. Bill Jr. plugs ElectroVoice 665 microphones directly into KAZZ's Ampex 354 two-track tape deck to record John and Cathy playing and singing simultaneously, then makes a mono mix by bouncing the stereo tracks down to KAZZ's other Ampex 354. KAZZ evening deejay Kirk Wilson features the recording on his Folkways program in November '66. This propels the Joseys' plans to launch a record company forward.