Friday, March 19, 2010

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.


Cavorting with Nudists said...

Nice one, Hound. WFMU's Michael Shelley did an interview with Mr. Head in which he expanded upon his motives for legbiting the Elvis, available in the archives at

Unknown said...

Best blog EVER!!

Nads said...

I bought his first record in 2000 at The Leadsled Spectacular in Parsippanny, NJ back in 2000 simply because of the cover and the awesome name, I had no idea who Roy Head was, I was not disappointed.

sleepy cactus slim said...

Great post on ROY HEAD; Saw him performing at the rock and roll festival in GREENBAY 3 years ago. a real wild child indeed! BTW, the album you mention (with 'night train'did come out on SCEPTER, not on BACK BEAT;

Anonymous said...

Here's the Scepter LP if anyone's interested.

I posted this at the Twilightzone some time back. I added the front and back cover and some other of his 45's bacause the LP is so damn short. Bought this in some record store @ 30yrs ago and thought I'd scored because I thought I'd had bought the Treat Her Right LP. The LP was called "Treat Me Right" which was obviously to take advantage of his hit the year before. I didn't notice it till I got home. Oh well it's still good. Funny Hound this doesn't have I Got My Mojo Workin' that you mention in the article.

It's in a Winrar file so you'll need a unzip app to open it.


The Hound said...

"the album you mention (with 'night train'did come out on SCEPTER, not on BACK BEAT;"
" Funny Hound this doesn't have I Got My Mojo Workin' that you mention in the article."

It seems there's two versions of said LP, one on Scepter and one on Back Beat, although they have the same cover (red & black) but a slightly different track listing, the Back Beat version having Mojo Working on it, I don't have the Scepter one so I'm not sure what the other track differences are.
I still like the TNT album better, although the TNT 45 versions are different (most are better in the 45 versions).

Anonymous said...

Scepter tracklist
1. Just A Little Bit
2. One More Time
3. Money
4. Get Back (Instr)
5. The Feeling's Gone
6. Treat Me Right
7. Get Back (V)
8. Convicted
9. Night Train
10. My Babe (Instr)

MG said...

Didn't he regularly demo songs for Elvis? I thought he died years ago.

The Hound said...

"Didn't he regularly demo songs for Elvis? I thought he died years ago."

Not that I know of although P.J. Proby did. Both are very much alive (check the archives for my PJ Proby posting in Feb. 2009). Perhaps biting Elvis' leg was some sort of follow up to Houng Dog?

Jumpy said...

Need I tell you Roy is one of my faves? He wowed the hipster squares in Brooklyn a few years ago.
Thank you for saying there were rockin' teens all over the U.S. pre-British Invasion.

Bruce said...

Thanks for another spectacular post! Both of the videos of Roy performing are amazing - no man should be able to contort himself like that and still get off the floor.
I appreciate the link to Colin Escott's book. Picked up a used hardcover copy from Amazon for a mere $3.99
I highly reccomend the Michael Shelley interview.

Anonymous said...

As a side note to the story believe it or not, Roy Head's son was a contestant on American Idol a few years back. My lady watches the show and I happened to catch it. He got kicked off early after he performed a horrid Moody Blues cover as I recall. There's little to watch or enjoy on that annoying show but I was secretly hoping he would come out and perform one of his daddy's songs. Sadly it was not to be. -Barry Soltz

Holly said...

Re the Roy Head videos - holy crap!!!! Wow. Seriously up there with JB. Thank you.

Holly said...

Forgot to ask - are Roy's backing Traits the same Traits who perform "Nobody Loves the Hulk"?

The Hound said...

"are Roy's backing Traits the same Traits who perform "Nobody Loves the Hulk"?

I kinda doubt it, but I don't know the tune, when is it from??

Holly said...


If you'd like an mp3 copy, holler at me! It's one of my favorite novelties.

Pops said...

What I want to know is how the hell do his suits looks so good after all his gyrations on and off stage ?

Fer Chrissakes - there's not a wrinkle on 'em. And those suits were a snug fit, especially in the legs. Were fabrics that much better back in the 1960's ? Obviously the tailoring was, as Roy looks SHARP !

The RedBoy said...

I scammed my battered copy of this great LP down in North Carolina (Along w/ a copy of Teenage Caveman by Randy Luck). In celebration I split a handle of ‘Turkey’ with a Vitiligo-stained waitress in a hash-house called the ‘Copper Kettle’. She didn’t want her boss to know she was tyin’ one on during her shift, so we hid it out in an oil-drum smoker made-up to look like a pig…good time, good times…

Devlin Thompson said...

I'm pretty sure that the Traits who recorded "Nobody Loves The Hulk" are the same Northeastern garage group that did "High On A Cloud."

Anonymous said...

Is Huey Meaux actually incarcerated now? I heard he was on the lam and living underground, believe it or not!

The Hound said...

"Is Huey Meaux actually incarcerated now? I heard he was on the lam and living underground, believe it or not!"
He jumped bail and was on the lam after his initial arrest, they caught him in Juarez. He may actually be out by now, he served at least 12 years, maybe more...

Harry Callaghan said...

I met and had a coupla drinks with Roy at the Old West Festival in Montgomery, TX in both 1998 and 1999 as friends of mine were running the event.

While onstage the man is tremendously talented , truly "the White James Brown" Offstage, without a doubt, he is certifiably crazy.

Hondodog said...

I wanna tell you a story every man oughta know. In 1971 a fraternity brother and I took dates from Statesboro Georgia to see Roy Head play the Kitten's Corner in Augusta. I was a senior and it was my first date with this young freshman honey from rural South Georgia. Well, our dates didn't really like the taste of liquor that much, and of course we were trying to get them drunk, so they spent all our money on expensive fancy sweet cocktails like Singapore Slings and Hurricanes. Halfway through the night, we were broke and still sober, and Roy announced that there would be a "gator" dance contest (this was long before "Animal House" you understand) and the winner would get a half gallon of bourbon. Roy gets down on the floor in his white suit and demonstrates his lewd version of the disgusting dance, which my pal and I were familiar with, though we'd never really done it ourselves. We said what the hell, and asked him if we could enter as a team and split the prize if the crowd chose us the winners. He said OK. We had second thought when this good-looking chick entered the contest and wallowed around with her skirt up over her waist, flashing her skimpy white panties while the crowd went nuts. But we had to win the liquor or go home. So we planned a few moves and went out there like a couple of wild men, hunching on each other and rolling and sliding all over the dance floor. I threw him over my shoulder a couple of times, and he did some vaudeville dance shtick and a couple of back flips. We won the half gallon, went home and partied all night. That freshman honey fell in love with me that night, and a few years later we got married, and we're still together, 39 years later. And I owe it all to Roy Head. Not just because of the whiskey. It's because I took his advice back then and still practice his method as hard as I can. I treat her right.

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