Roy Head & the Traits

Legendary first album on TNT, one of my favorite LP covers ever.

Roy Head bustin’ some moves.

Roy Head with stick pin and hankie.

Looking for a lost contact lens, 1964.

The Traits (left to right): Gene Kurtz, Tommy May, Ronnie Barton, John Clark, Jerry Gibson, Frank Miller, Roy Head in the front.

Who needs a microphone? Shindig, ’65.

2008, still bustin’ moves (oddly enough, nine months later, the stage gave birth to an oak floor board that bears a strange resemblance to Roy Head.

Roy Head is crazy, and as anyone who has ever seen him perform can attest, he may be the greatest white soul man of all time. One of the many, strange ironies in American music, is that what we know of as deep Soul music, the sound of Stax and Muscle Shoals, the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement, is in great part the invention of white musicians and producers who cut their teeth in rockabilly. Even many of the best known soul labels, the obvious example being Stax started life issuing rockabilly discs (as Satellite Records, one of their first discs was Don Willis’ Boppin’ Highschool Baby, as echo drenched slice of hot boppin’ vinyl as you’ll ever hear). Which brings us back to Roy Head, best known for the chart topping 1965 classic Treat Her Right (Back Beat), who also began his career as sort of frat party rockabilly, if I may use the term as a noun. Roy Head was birthed on September 1, 1941 in Three Rivers, Texas, south of San Antonio, to George Head, a transplanted Chicagoan and Ellen, a full blooded Indian from Oklahoma. From there the family headed to Crystal City, Texas, the spinach capital of the world (there’s a statue of Popeye in the center of town), where he first came into contact with music– black and white. His childhood friends were all black kids who turned him onto Elmore James, Bobby Bland and Little Junior Parker, his mother loved the Louisiana Hayride, the country music live radio broadcast where Elvis got his start but where one was more likely to hear Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. A third family move brought the Heads to San Marcos, Texas and this is where he formed his first band– The Traits, originally numbering up to twenty four members, all resplendent in spangled shirts with their logo on the back (paid for by the parents of member Bill Pennington whose folks owned a funeral home). Eventually they brought the unwieldy band down to a more manageable line up that included future Sly & the Family Stone drummer Jerry Gibson. The Traits played their take on black rock’n’roll, Roy himself taking his cues from Little Richard and Little Willie John. Sometime around 1958 a local disc jockey caught their act and cut a demo tape which he took to Bob Tanner’s TNT Records, the San Antonio label that was then issuing amazing records by bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, R&B stompers Big Walter Price & the Thunderbirds, and white rocker Jimmy Dee (of “Henrietta” immortality). There they started cutting sides, TNT would issue six singles, and the above pictured LP, none of which sold much to speak of. The Traits would also make discs for labels like Renner, Suave, and Big Beat. Their sound, on wax anyway, is reminiscent of such bands as the Nitecaps (Wine Wine Wine), and the Rivieras (California Sun). Highlights among these early recordings are One More Time (which they’d cut three times in a decade, this being the best version), Live It Up, My Baby’s Fine, Walking All Day, Don’t Be Blue, Yes I Do and the instrumental Night Time Blues (my copy of which ends with a gigantic scratch, sorry, I’ve had it so long I almost like scratch). Quite credible early blues- garage rockers, which of course refute the ridiculous line they always give us in the rock history books that American teenagers needed to be fed back our own black musical heritage by the ignoble limey. That’s utter bullshit, every town in the U.S. had a group of white kids playing their version of black rock’n’roll in the years 1958-63, groups like the Jesters (Memphis), Tony Joe & the Mojos (East Texas), the Wailers (Tacoma, Washington), Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders (Miami), etc.
Anyway, while these sides didn’t sell squat, the Traits kept working, building up a sizable local reputation, mostly based on the antics of front man Roy Head who would do back flips, splits, handstands and all manner of stage acrobatics. A wild man offstage as well as on– “Every weekend we’d wind up in jail” he remembered.* After a short hitch in the Army Reserve (1963), local promoter Charlie Booth brought him together with record man/hustler Huey Meaux, the Crazy Cajun (currently doing time in p.c. aka protective custody or punk city, for among other crimes, homemade kiddie porn), and together they came up with the classic soul shouter–Treat Her Right.
The song took the riff from (Do The) Mashed Potato, the instrumental soul workout hit that James Brown and his band released on Henry Stones’ Miami based Dade label as Nat Kendrick & the Swans and matched it to some x-rated lyrics known locally as Talking ‘Bout A Cow (“if you don’t treat her right/you’ll get no milk and cream tonight”). Bass player Gene Kurtz takes credit for cleaning up the lyrics, and the tune was cut at Houston’s Gold Star studio where Lightnin’ Hopkins had made his best sides. Meaux and Booth brought the song to Don Robey, the black-Jewish gangster who ran a club called the Bronze Peacock as well as the R&B/gospel labels Peacock and Duke. Robey was known for playing rough. One urban legend has him crushing Little Richard’s testicles while administering a beating when Richard questioned his royalty statement. Released in 1965 on the Back Beat subsidiary, Treat Her Right rose to #2 on the pop charts, kept out of the top slot only by the Beatles’ Yesterday. Treat Her Right changed Roy Head’s life considerably– “the biggest event in my life (up to that time) was when I screwed the town whore and the whole football team got the clap from her”. Robey bought Head a Cadillac and he hit the road– “I worked my butt off and they went wild….I took advantage of it. I blew it”.
Soon lawsuits were flying left and right. The six members of the Traits sued Roy, who had to give them 6/7th’s of the tune. To make matters worse, they refused to give up their day jobs and would only gig on weekends. Meanwhile, Henry Stone, publisher of (Do The) Mashed Potato initiated a plagiarism suit, which he would eventually lose when “expert witness” Huey Meaux managed to pry a $40,000 pay off out of Robey after a meeting in which each man kept a gun within reach. Roy Head would later lose his small share in the song in a divorce settlement. A considerable loss when the tune showed up in the film The Commitments, not to mention cover versions by Otis Redding, Roy Buchanan, Jerry lee Lewis, George Thorogood, Lee “Hellhound On My Trail” Atwater (!), even Bob Dylan who recorded the song in the eighties but never released his version.
To cash in on the hit, Back Beat issued an LP, which included a version of James Brown’s arrangement of Night Train obviously learned from the one Brown cut Live At The Apollo as well as R&B standards like Little Walter’s My Babe (done as an instrumental) and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Workin’. It’s a pretty good album as far as these things go, most of it was culled from rehearsals that Huey Meaux secretly recorded. But Head and Back Beat couldn’t follow up Treat Her Right and in ’67 he signed with another mob infiltrated label– Mercury out of Chicago, where he cut a few good sides, but his offstage behavior caused many doors slam in his face– “I beat up club owners, choked disc jockeys, and did a lot of things I wish I hadn’t done. Just just screwed up”. In the early 70’s had a few minor country hits on Dot, by that time a subsidiary of ABC-Dunhill. He was thrown off the label when he phoned up president Jay Lasker one night, drunk and disorderly, demanding to know why his discs weren’t stocked at a record store in Cut and Shoot, Texas. From there he signed to Elektra where he made two unspectacular country LP’s, and then the tiny Texas Crude label where his Break Out The Good Stuff inched up to #93 on the country charts. The entire time he kept up a regular gig schedule, and given his wild performances, he could still pack clubs all over Texas. I mean, how many lead singers can do the Camel Walk while standing on their hands? He’s managed to making a living, no mean feat in the world of music, especially since the early 80’s when the morons in Washington tied a national 21 year old drinking age into Federal highway building money (if you didn’t raise the drinking age, you don’t get any highway money), a move that basically destroyed the middle class in the music business. And rock’n’roll in the process. You can get a credit card and run up a six figure debt at 29% interest a month, or join the Army and get your balls blown off in the middle east, but God forbid you want a beer. No wonder kids take drugs, they can’t get booze. In recent years Roy Head has performed at the Ponderosa Stomp, SXSW, and a better level of shit hole than he started out in (the first clubs he played in had chicken wire in front of the bandstand to keep the musicians safe from flying glass). Reflecting on his life in music and general philosophy there of to Colin Escott, Roy Head is quoted– “Hell, I’ve screwed up. I’ve got thrown off tours because I was having a little more fun than some of the other acts. I bit Elvis Presley on the leg when I was drunk one night and his bodyguards leaped on me, man, I had to go to the chiropractor for three weeks to get straightened out. I’m still not through. If there’s one son of a bitch in the room that’s paid to hear me, I’ll work my butt off for them”. To which I can only add, in a day and age when many so called musicians think that entertaining an audience somehow involves singing about their “feelings”, amen brother, a-fucking-men.

* All quotes come from Colin Escott’s Tattooed On Their Tongues– A Journey Through The Backrooms Of American Music (Schirmer Books, 1996), as fine a book as you’ll ever find on the subject of biting Elvis leg.

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