Sonobeat History • 1971
The story of Austin's Sonobeat Recording Company, Sonobeat Records, and Sonosong Music in the 1960s and '70s
Fantasy artwork for the second album by Wali and the Afro-Caravan, that Sonobeat completes in 1971 but never releases
Fast Cotton's Dwight Dow in the Sonobeat studios drum isolation booth
Bill Josey Sr., now operating Sonobeat solo following co-founder Rim Kelley's departure to attend law school, begins 1971 on an up beat by recording potential, but unreleased singles with two hot new Austin rock bands, Genesee and Phoenix, and a second Afro-jazz album with Wali and the Afro-Caravan, which includes a dramatic 19 minute, three-song suite entitled Shades of Africa and an extended remake of Afro-Twist, the "B" side of the Afro-Caravan's 1968 Sonobeat 45 RPM stereo single release. Bill offers Liberty/UA Wali's new album, since Libery's subsidiary Solid State Records distributes Afro-Caravan's first Sonobeat album, Home Lost and Found (The Natural Sound), released a year earlier. When Liberty/UA passes and no other national label expresses interest, Bill puts the album aside, intending to release it on the Sonobeat Records label later in the year, but the album remains unreleased even in 2019.
At the same time he's shopping the second Afro-Caravan album to major labels, Bill is renewing his efforts to develop the next "super group" that might attract a lucrative national record label deal for Sonobeat. In spring '71, he produces five tracks with a reincarnation and enlargement of the Sweetarts, now known as Fast Cotton. Bill and band founder and front-man Ernie Gammage select two tracks for release as a Sonobeat 45 RPM single, but Fast Cotton breaks up before the master tape can be sent to the pressing plant. Ironically, the timing of the band's breakup is a blessing, since without the band available to promote the release, it would certainly be a commercial failure. Although Bill expends his time and energy recording Fast Cotton, at least he doesn't spend money to press, release, and promote the single.
James Polk also returns in 1971 to record tracks for a potential jazz-funk album as a follow-on to his 1969 Sonobeat 45 RPM stereo single Stick-To-It-Tive-Ness, but, like the second Afro-Caravan album, Sonobeat is unable to interest any national labels in Polk's new material.
The Bill Miller Group continues sessions with Sonobeat on and off through the first half of 1971, and Bill Sr. even calls in Sonosong composer and resident mystic Herman Nelson to help with lyrics for some of the group's material.
Much like 1970, a transitional year for Sonobeat, in which its energies and resources are focused on building Mariani as a "super group", 1971 represents still another transitional year that seems to offer new and promising opportunities with Wali and the Afro-Caravan, Fast Cotton, and the Bill Miller Group. But 1971 is divided by a divorce that forces the Josey family out of the Western Hills Drive home, shutting down Sonobeat's mini-studio housed there. In the middle of his work – and breaking the momentum of – producing the final Bill Miller sessions, Bill Sr. must move his personal residence and relocate the Sonobeat studios. He finds commercial space on the ground floor of the KVET radio station building at 705 North Lamar, just south of downtown Austin, where he quickly outfits a spartan studio and finishes recording the Miller group, which now has assumed the name The Daily Planet (a nod to the fictional newspaper where Superman's alter ego Clark Kent works as a reporter). The sessions eventually yield a highly programmatic album going by the working title Cold Sun.
By 1971, Bill is no longer using expensive vinyl albums to circulate Sonobeat demos to national record labels but, instead, mails out inexpensive audiocassette copies. He sends audiocassettes of the Cold Sun album to his regular major label contacts, finding interest at Columbia, but discussions there drag on and after several frustrating months fizzle out, leaving Bill with a breakthrough album but inadequate resources to release it himself on Sonobeat Records.
Sonobeat's move from the Western Hills Drive studio to the KVET Building provides a new challenge: two radio stations occupy its second floor, one of which is directly above Sonobeat's studio space. Fortunately, one of the two, KVET, is a daytime-only AM station, but its sister station, KASE-FM, is a 24-hour-a-day fine music station. To prevent Sonobeat's recording activities from disturbing the stations' broadcast activities, Bill is forced to limit recording sessions to between dusk and dawn, although he can use the studio during daytime hours for vocal overdub and mix-down sessions which are quiet enough not to disturb the radio stations' operations. And, to muffle loud guitar amps, Bill builds five-sided baffles lined with spun fiberglass insulation into which he stuffs, inward facing, the amp speaker boxes of the bands he records, miking the speakers through a small hole cut into the back of each baffle. Bill also begins to experiment with quadraphonic recording techniques, choosing the CBS/Sony SQ format that is capable of encoding four-channel recordings into quad, stereo, and mono-compatible phonograph records.
Perhaps the combined frustration of the change in his personal circumstances, the challenges and expenses of outfitting and operating his new studio in the KVET Building, and the lack of a Sonobeat album sale to a national label leads Bill to begin accepting custom recording work to help defray his monthly expenses. This means he's simply providing studio facilities and acting as a recording engineer for artists who are willing to pay an hourly fee and, in these instances, Sonobeat retains no rights to the resulting recordings. But at the same time, Bill continues to seek out and produce recordings with promising new artists for potential release on the Sonobeat label or as demos to shop to the major labels.
Although Sonobeat's activities as a label drop off beginning in '70, Bill finds an interesting opportunity soon after relocating the studios to the KVET Building. Sessions with Austin gospel group The Royal Light Singers yield two singles for the Sonobeat label. As it turns out, though, only one of The Royal Light Singers' singles appears to get a commercial release and is the only confirmed Sonobeat Records release in 1971. The second Royal Light Singers single appears to be pressed solely for the group to self-distribute at its live performances. The singles earn back their production and manufacturing costs, but certainly don't contribute much to Sonobeat's financial picture in '71.
Other groups Bill develops in '71 include avante-garde Synthesis and country-rocke Kingfish, both recording original songs that are never released because Bill can't find a national label willing to purchase the master tapes. Worse still, Kingfish breaks up before Bill has an opportunity to release a single by the band on the Sonobeat Records label. The year ends without any financial successes for Sonobeat.