Sonobeat History • 1971
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 a second Afro-jazz album with Wali and the Afro-Caravan. The album 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 the album, since its subsidiary Solid State Records had released the Afro-Caravan's first Sonobeat album, Home Lost and Found (The Natural Sound), 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 2016.
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 known as Fast Cotton. Bill and band founder 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.
An exciting opportunity for Sonobeat arises at about the same time the Fast Cotton sessions wrap up. An embryonic group headed by avant-garde Austin musician Bill Miller comes to Bill Josey's attention through John Ike Walton, the 13th Floor Elevators' original drummer who is friendly with both Bills (we'll refer to Bill Miller as "Miller" and to Bill Josey as "Bill"). An earlier incarnation of Miller's group performs in Austin under the name Amethyst but is in the process of recasting itself as successor to the psychedelic throne once held by the Elevators, who have been through one too many drug busts (Bill testifies as a character witness for Elevators' front-man Roky Erickson at the band's 1966 drug trial). After recording a long demo tape with Miller singing his catalog of original songs, Bill feels the material has great potential. Tommy Hall gives the Elevators an otherworldly sound with his electric jug, and Miller gives his group an equally ethereal sound with his electric autoharp, which provides a challenge to successfully record. Bill spends months working with Miller's group and 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 begins with new and promising opportunities, like 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 the Sonobeat studios housed there. In the middle of his work – and breaking the momentum – of producing the Miller sessions, Bill 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 Bill 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 advance pressings to circulate demo albums to the national record labels but, instead, mails out inexpensive audiocassette copies. He sends cassettes 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 the second floor. Fortunately, 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. Bill also begins to experiment with quadraphonic recording techniques, choosing the CBS/Sony SQ format that is capable of producing quad/stereo/mono-compatible master tapes.
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 expenses. This means that he's simply providing studio facilities and acting as a recording engineer for artists who are willing to pay an hourly fee and, thus, Sonobeat has 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 in '70, Bill finds an interesting opportunity soon after relocating the studios to the KVET Building. Sessions with Austin gospel group The Royal Lights Singers yield two singles for the Sonobeat label. As it turns out, though, only one of The Royal Lights Singers' singles appears to have been commercially released and is the only confirmed Sonobeat Records release in 1971. The other single appears to have been pressed solely for The Royal Lights Singers to self-distribute. The singles may have earned 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 Synthesis and Base, both recording original songs that are never released because Bill can't find a national label willing to purchase the master tapes. But Bill uses the Base sessions to experiment with his quadraphonic recording techniques, even retrofitting his custom 16-input mixing console with quad mixer modules based on schematics Rim draws up. Bill also records Kingfish in summer '71, but the band is short-lived, which makes it impractical to release a single by the band on the Sonobeat label or sell the master tapes to a national label. 1971 ends without any financial successes for Sonobeat.