The Ralph Y. Michaels Elevators Collection
Ralph opens up his 50-year-old archives with treasures from Austin's psychedelic past
The Spades are first to record future Elevators front man Roky Erickson's original songs You're Gonna Miss Me and We Sell Soul, both compositions credited – as a typical Roky joke – to the made-up name Emil Schwartze
Photos of the 13th Floor Elevators appearing in Doug Hanners first issue of Not Fade Away include those from Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr.'s personal archives
Three of Ralph Y. Michaels' candid photos of the band appear in a 13th Floor Elevators follow-up in issue 2 of Not Fade Away, which also featured the Sonobeat story
When the Elevators re-record You're Gonna Miss Me you hear the distinctive electric jug played by Tommy Hall that isn't in the Spades' version; the Contact recording, which is the same as the International Artists release that follows, is cleaner and purges Roky's long harmonica intro that you hear in the Spades' version
Elevators front man Roky Erickson performing at (most likely) Swingers Club in north Austin (1965)
courtesy Ralph Y. Michaels
How it begins
It's 1965 in Austin, Texas, home of the University of Texas and center of Texas government. A scrappy local garage band, The Spades, plays all the college town's regular night clubs – among them Jade Room, Club Saracen, and Swingers Club. But the band is plagued from the beginning with constant personnel changes and struggles to stay together. Just before being kicked out of William B. Travis High School in Austin only weeks before his graduation, Roky Erickson joins the band as lead singer and rhythm guitarist, along with his classmate, guitarist George Kinney. The band soon records I Want a Girl and Do You Want to Dance at Austin Custom Records for release on Austin music promoter Gary McCaskill's Zero Records. On the heels of the single's release, another of Roky's classmates, drummer John Kearney, joins the unit as it returns to the studio to cut its second single, Roky's original screamers We Sell Soul and You're Gonna Miss Me. It would be fair to say 1965 marks the beginning of Austin's rock band explosion (fueled mostly by hot frat bands The Wig, the Baby Cakes, and the Fabulous Chevelles), but it's also the year in which The Spades finally succumbs, due in large measure to the arrival of a south Texas band, the Lingsmen, on the Austin scene late in the year. Hearing both The Spades and the Lingsmen perform and sensing an unfilfilled promise in each of the bands, University of Texas philosophy and psychology student Tommy Hall proposes some novel if not odd musical ideas to both bands, and the core members of the Lingsmen (Stacy Sutherland, Benny Thurman, and John Ike Walton), Tommy, and Roky decide to form the 13th Floor Elevators to explore those ideas, which will become the roots of psychedelic rock. The Elevators' story is amazingly deep for its short life span and is the subject of dozens if not hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and books over the past 50 years; the Elevators' story is nicely condensed at the Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas Music but is given definitive treatment in Paul Drummond's 2007 narrative Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound and his 2020 pictorial 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History.
Enter Ralph Y. Michaels
At the same time the Elevators form, Ralph Y. Michaels, an avid amateur photographer and dedicated Austin radio and rock music fan, is serving as an Information Specialist in the VIII US Army Corps. He works in the Brown Building in downtown Austin, only a few blocks west of KAZZ-FM's studio and offices in the Perry Brooks Building. When he's off-duty evenings and weekends, Ralph frequents Austin's live music venues – New Orleans Old World Night Club, Swingers Club, Jade Room, Club Saracen, and Vulcan Gas Company. And he visits KAZZ, where he befriends the deejays, including Rim Kelley, who will become a co-founder of Sonobeat Records in 1967. In 1966, KAZZ-FM is notable for its eclectic – even eccentric – block programming format featuring discrete segments of soundtrack and Broadway cast albums, pop standards, folk, jazz, and... rock 'n' roll. When KAZZ begins its rock block in 1964, it's an anomoly in American FM radio, where rock music is shunned. But KAZZ is even more unusual than most radio stations: it programs half-hour remote broadcasts three, sometimes four nights a week from Austin-area night clubs, featuring dozens of Austin and Central Texas musicians and bands performing live. Ralph makes "air checks" of KAZZ frequently, including of many of the live remote broadcasts.
In '66, Ralph takes candid photos when he visits KAZZ-FM deejays, a selection of which you can see at his KAZZ collection, but he also takes candid shots at many Austin night clubs, particularly when the 13th Floor Elevators perform. We're honored to present a selection of Ralph's photos from the Elevators' performances at an Austin-area night club – a well-educated guess is that the location is Swingers Club – and on March 12, 1966, at Austin's Methodist Student Center benefit for Austin fiddler Teodar Jackson, who at the time is in Brackenridge Hospital suffering from a severe heart ailment. At the Teodar Jackson benefit, the Elevators share the stage with many other Austin music icons, including headliner Mance Lipscomb, Janis Joplin, Kenneth Threadgill, and Powell St. John.
13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History
Many of Ralph's Elevators candids, including many on this page, appear with his permission in Paul Drummond's magnificent new book 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History, published by Anthology Editions (2020). We give you our take on Paul's book over at Our Bookshelf.
The New Orleans Club photos and recordings
Ralph catches a March 1966 Elevators' performance at New Orleans Old World Night Club in Austin, where he takes photos and makes surreptitious recordings from the back of the house. Continue on for these treats.