Sonobeat Seasons - Summer 1968
The artists Sonobeat records from June 21 to September 22, 1968
Prolific '60s Austin songwriter Herman Nelson helps build Sonobeat's music publishing arm, Sonosong Music, with dozens of his original songs
Wali King and the Afro-Caravan (University of Texas Daily Texan newspaper photo)
Ray Campi Establishment's novelty single for Sonobeat
The golden sunshine is just starting to warm up Central Texas as summer 1968 arrives. Austin, home of Sonobeat Recording Company, is a pleasant 78° on Friday, June 21st, a positive sign for Sonobeat as it enters its second year of operations, which also will be its busiest year. In spring '68, Sonobeat releases a stereo 45 RPM single by Austin hippie favorite The Conqueroo and an album of pop jazz tracks by the Colorado-based Lee Arlano Trio, and by the end of the first week of summer, Sonobeat picks up reviews of both in national record industry trade journals: first, Cash Box names The Conqueroo's single, 1 To 3, a Best Bet, saying "good guitar work highlights the production on this vocal outing... danceable beat is never lost in the improvisational fireworks." Then Billboard awards the Arlano album, Jazz To The Third Power, four stars. These reviews are encouraging to Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.), who have an aggressive slate of recording sessions scheduled throughout summer.
Sonobeat studio expansion
During its first year of operation, Sonobeat has had no permanent recording studio of its own, instead renting Austin night clubs during off hours for its recording sessions. There's benefit to this approach, since it gives Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley an opportunity to study the acoustics of different physical spaces as well as to focus on recording techniques rather than spending time and money building their own studio. Eventually, however, it becomes a necessity that Sonobeat have a permanent facility of its own. In spring 1968, Sonobeat begins converting the ground-level bedroom suite in the split-level Josey family home in northwest Austin into a small "mixing" and overdub studio. As summer '68 begins, the Joseys complete their home-based studio by erecting a drum and vocal isolation booth in part of the ground-level garage that shares a common wall with the converted bedroom suite. At the same time, they build a steel plate reverb, also housed in the garage, and invest in new recording equipment. It's an ambitious expansion designed to help make tiny Sonobeat competitive with larger recording studios and record labels.
Mild mannered traveling salesman Herman Nelson, based in Austin, has a secret second life as a songwriter, and it turns out he's prolific. Beginning as a hobby while he's "on the road" selling, Herman creates a significant oeuvre of original material over the years. Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr. knows Herman dating from the early 1960s and is aware of Herman's songwriting talents. Desiring to build a repertoire for exploitation by Sonobeat's fledgling publishing affiliate, Sonosong Music, on and off during summer '68 Bill records demos of Herman's songs that Sonosong uses to attract nationally-known singers to record cover versions. But impatient while waiting for reaction from national record company A&R departments, Bill decides to release two of Herman's songs on the Sonobeat label. Bill and Herman choose Jim Chesnut, an aspiring country-pop singer/songwriter himself, to record Herman's About To Be Woman and Leaves. Although the single isn't released for several months, the sessions launch a multi-year association between Sonobeat and Sonosong, on the one hand, and Herman, on the other, that will lead to Sonobeat issuing three song demo albums of Herman's folk, country, Americana, and pop tunes.
Originally from the Bronx in New York, Wali King is serving in the military at the Bergstrom Strategic Air Command base in Austin when he forms The Afro-Caravan with a group of fellow African-American airmen. The group presents an engaging percussion-based Afro-jazz sound, performing both covers and original compositions at venues throughout Central Texas. Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley catch The Afro-Caravan at Austin's downtown hippie music hall, Vulcan Gas Company, and immediately arrange a recording session. As fate would have it, the only convenient time for the recording session is when the group is performing live at the San Antonio, Texas, world's fair, HemisFair '68. The Afro-Caravan single, Comin' Home Baby backed with Afro-Twist, is Sonobeat's only commercial release of a live recording. The single is released in September.
Ray Campi Establishment
Texas-based rockabilly legend Ray Campi is a well-established recording artist when he comes to Sonobeat in July 1968 to record Sonobeat's only novelty single. The "A" side of the Ray Campi Establishment's single is Ray's original Vietnam war protest song Civil Disobedience, and the flip side is a, well, campy cover of the Irving Berlin pop standard He's a Devil (In His Own Home Town). Notably, the single is recorded in the living room of Sonobeat co-founder Bill Josey Sr.'s northwest Austin home, but by using close-miking techniques on the instruments, Sonobeat gets clean stereo separation with almost no room sound reflections, making it almost impossible to distinguish the acoustics of the living room from those of a large professional recording studio. For the record, Ray is still kickin' it as the King of Rockabilly.
By far the best known act Sonobeat records is albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter, who crashes the Austin music scene in early 1968. Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley are wow'd by Johnny's high energy performances at the Vulcan Gas Company music hall in downtown Austin. Sonobeat's mid-summer sessions with Johnny's trio yield the stereo 45 RPM single Rollin' And Tumblin' backed with Johnny's original Mean Town Blues plus eight additional tracks that round out an album of hot, driving blues. At the end of 1968, after Johnny gets high praise in a Rolling Stone magazine article about up-and-coming Texas talent, Sonobeat sells the album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, to major national label Liberty Records for release on its Imperial label in March 1969. The Progressive Blues Experiment is Sonobeat's first national release.
Although Sonobeat records Vietnamese songbird Bach-Yen in January 1968, during one of her tour stops at Austin's Club Seville in the Crest Motor Inn, her recordings sit on the shelf for months as producer Bill Josey Sr. ponders their fate. Beginning in 1965, Bach-Yen tours the U.S. as a musical emissary from war-torn Vietnam, landing a minor role in the John Wayne film The Green Berets, which is released on the 4th of July in 1968. The film's success prompts Bill to complete the single with string and horn sections dubbed over the otherwise simple backing tracks. Richard Green, who scores and conducts the string and harpsichord overdub for Sonobeat's first Lavender Hill Express single, Visions, returns to arrange the strings and horns on Bach's tracks. Although the overdub session occurs in August, Bach's single isn't released until autumn '68.
Ronnie and the West Winds
Sonobeat's first and only pure country single is by popular Austin swing band Ronnie and the West Winds. Ronnie's family owns a neighborhood grocery store in Austin, where Ronnie works by day, but by night, he and his high school buddies play at local dives, honky tonks, and country clubs. Sonobeat records Ronnie's band at Austin's hippie music hall, Vulcan Gas Company, which may seem a little out of character, but the Vulcan contributes as much to the birth of Austin's outlaw country music movement as it does Austin's progressive rock and psychedelic music scene, so the West Winds feel right at home. The Vulcan's acoustics are massive, which thickens up the band's sound on their two original songs, Can't Win For Losing and the instrumental Windy Blues. At 85 seconds in length, Windy Blues is the shortest 45 RPM single Sonobeat releases.
Lavender Hill Express
Lavender Hill Express is one of Austin's bona fide '60s supergroups, born from the collapse of two other great Austin '60s bands – the Baby Cakes and The Wig – with the addition of a defector from popular Central Texas band The Reasons Why. Every member of Lavender Hill Express is a talented singer, four of the band's five founding members contribute original songs to its repertoire, and the band's musicianship is polished even when veering off into the experimental. Lavender Hill Express records three singles for Sonobeat over the span of less than a year, and Outside My Window backed with Silly Rhymes, which comprise LHE's third Sonobeat single, are the final tracks Sonobeat records in summer '68; however, the single won't be completed and released until autumn.