Roy Head : Blue-Eyed Soul and Country part 1

 

“Treat Her Right” was a #2 hit in 1965 on both the pop charts and the R&B charts. It became a standard, recorded by many other acts and a favorite in the repertoire of countless bands, and was featured in the 1991 movie The Commitments. Roy Head had seven other songs that made the pop charts, the last in 1971. Between 1974 and 1985 he had 24 country hits. For his discography and biographical information, see his wikipedia article - here.

The interview took place before his dynamic performance—full of classy and sassy dance moves, fancy footwork, and some awesome microphone manipulations—at the Rockin’ Fest III in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2007. I also got to see him perform in 2010 at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. There are lots of film clips and recordings of him on youtube. Check this one !

Craig Morrison : I’m impressed to meet you, ’cause I fondly remember “if you practice my method just as hard as you can.”

Roy Head : “Treat Her Right.”

CM : Tell me about your career.

RH : I worked with the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson, all of them, but mostly black groups ’cause everybody thought I was black. I worked with Hendrix at the Whiskey Go-Go when he was just getting started. Me and John Lee Hooker was on the same bill there. I’ve worked shows with Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Lavern Baker. I started back in 1956.

I was born in Three Rivers, Texas, January 9th, 1941. My father was a sharecropper. He was German, my mother was Indian. I guess I was a half-breed or whatever you want to call it. We moved a lot. We were very poor. Of course I didn’t know that, I didn’t know I was poor. My father did everything. He and mama picked cotton. She worked in spinach factories ; he worked here and there and finally landed a job at San Marcos’s Southwest Texas College as a boiler operator there, in the boiler-room. That was his last job that I can remember. That’s where I graduated from high school, ’58 - ’59.

CM : Were you picking cotton yourself ?

RH : Oh yeah, when I was small. But I didn’t know any better. I was right out there workin’. I remember Dad getting excited because he got a raise to $1.50 a week. My mother used to go to a little place called Wheat’s groceries in San Marcos and she would just sign a little bill. I still have some of her little receipts, and at the end of the week she’d go in and pay her $10 or $15 whatever it was for the groceries. She’d buy a pile of groceries for about 10 bucks. Now you can’t even go and get sugar and coffee out of 10 dollars ! I can remember when I used to go to the movies for a dime. You’d get popcorn and a Coke and watch the movies.

Of course my mother and dad have passed on. My father was 97 when he passed. My mother was about 86 or 88. Boy, that was a killer, but you get through it I guess. Both my brothers [are still alive]. My sister was killed in a car wreck in 1951. She was awesome. I loved her. Laughed a lot, she called me Roy Darlin’, ’cause I was the baby of the family. So I got all the attention so to speak.

When my music career started I used to sit back and listen to the pickers sit out across in their little shotgun shacks and sing, and that’s when I started liking that type of music. Black music – they’d beat on tubs and all kind of stuff. I’d listen to them sing at night and sing during the day out in the fields. They’d sing some spirituals and work songs they’d put together. It was awesome. I’d relive it all again if I could. If I’d had the know-how and the smarts at that time, [but] of course tape recorders and stuff wasn’t around. We didn’t get a TV until the ’50s and it was a black and white. We used to buy this colored paper you’d put over it, to give it some color. You could buy green or pink or some other color, put it on your black and white TV and you’d have color, or whatever you thought it was.

I got interested in music. My brother Don Head played guitar and sang and had a band. He was in the army. Conway Twitty picked guitar for him way back when. I do remember Conway. Donald Head was my middle brother. My oldest brother Jesse is 82, still breaking horses. He breaks and trains cuttin’ horses. I used to listen to my brother sing and my mother and father played instruments and they’d sit around this big old radio we had and listen to the Louisiana Hayride. That was their music. My father used to say, “Can’t you sing anything but black music ?” I started off doing stuff by Smiley Lewis, Big Joe Turner, Elmore James, that type. On the radio I used to listen to Wolfman Jack a lot. He played all that get-down stuff. The more I listened to that, the more that influenced me toward that type music.

When I was in high school I played football and we used to be on the bus going to football games and I’d start singing, ’cause I loved to sing. Finally a guy named Bill Pennington said, “Why don’t you start your little band ?” His mother owned Pennington Funeral Home in St. Marcos, Texas. So we put a little band together. Bill was my bass player. Edra Pennington sponsored us. She bought us our first sparkle shirts.

When we first put our band together we had about 17 backup singers ’cause they couldn’t play nothin’. Everybody in the high school wanted to be in the band. Finally we narrowed it down to just a few of us. We were all sitting around trying to figure out a name for the group. It was either Dan Buie, a piano player at the time, or Tommy Bolton, a guitar player, who said, “Why don’t we name it The Traits ?” Because we all had different traits. So it became The Traits, our first name. We started playing in high school in the auditorium. Things progressed from there and then all of a sudden we had a guy in San Antonia, Texas, named [Bob] Tanner who had TNT Records [Tanner ‘n’ Texas]. Edra, Miss Pennington, and he were good friends. He says, “Why don’t you all come over and record a song ?” So we went to San Antonia and cut “One More Time.” [sings :] “Well my baby let me kiss you just-a one more time.” We were a heavy garage band. We started off with bass, guitar, and drums and then the kind of music I did we wanted horns and all this stuff.

CM : Around what year was this ?

RH : 1957. God, you’re making me old ! I was listening to people then like James Brown. Anyway, back to high school : we got two tenors and a trumpet and we put them in the group. Back then there weren’t groups like that, not in Texas anyway. There were only about four different groups playing around. There was us, and people like Doug Sahm over in San Antonia, of course Sonny Ozuna and the Sunliners were big—“Talk to Me,” that Little Willie John thing—and the Moods and then the Triumphs, B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs. They came in too in that era. We used to have battle dances back and forth.

I had a song called “Talking About a Cow.” That was the original title of “Treat Her Right.” Just a simple little song, it couldn’t be any simpler. We were actually trying to do Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and my guitar player played the wrong lick. So I just started making up words, talking about a cow, that’s how it actually started. ‘Got to squeeze her real gentle, got to treat her real good. She’s got the best milkies you’ve ever seen.’ I just made words up.

CM : You’d had experience with cows.

RH : Oh yeah, when I was a kid growing up. I was a country boy. I milked the cows. Every morning at three o’clock my mother and my father’d get up and go out and milk 10 or 15 head of cattle and then he’d go to work. She’d come back and take care of the chores and get me off to school.

My bass player, a guy named Gene Kurtz who came into the band later, said, “Roy why don’t we make that about a girl instead of talking about a cow and see if we can sell some records ?” We were playing at Riverside Hall in East Bernard, Texas, back in ’64 I guess. This guy named Charlie Booth comes in to see us. He was friends with Huey Meaux the crazy Cajun. He says, “God, I really like ‘Treat Her Right.’ How’d you all like to come to Houston and record that ?” We communicated back and forth for a while. So in 1965—of course we had had several little mini hits before that on TNT Records—we left San Marcos and went to Houston to cut this thing. The session cost $500. We walked into the studio, Gold Star Studios over on Brock, and we did one take. We were rehearsing. Huey Meaux said, “That’s it, you got a hit.” So we walked out and went back home.

CM : What did you do for the flip side ?

RH : “So Long My Love.” It was written by Tony Mantalbano ; he passed away here several years ago.

CM : Recorded at the same session ?

RH : Yeah, we just had to have something on the back side so we did that. Then Huey Meaux talked to Don Robie, who had Duke, Songbird, Sure Shot, and Back Beat Records, and Don says, “I’d like to sign him,” so Huey sold my contract to Don Robie. Then they had a black D.J. convention in ’65 in Houston over on Southmore, the ballroom there was the Palladium. I had just signed the deal with Don. Joe Scott and Bobby Bland were on the same show – I was on the show with them, with B.B. King, Al “TNT” Braggs, Little Junior Parker, everybody was on the show. It was a black D.J. convention and it was packed. Don Robie decided, “No I’m not going to let him go on.” It was a real terrible, terrible era, with the burning of Watts and the [race] riots. Skipper Lee of KCOH radio in Houston—“I brought a mountain of soul to Houston”—went back and said, “Put that boy on,” ’cause we got along real good. Like I told you I was influenced by ’em and I grew up with ’em. He said, “Let Roy go on.” So Joe Scott, Bobby Bland’s band, backed me. This was my very first time to perform “Treat Her Right” on stage after recording it. So they started off – [sings the riff] and the place was going nuts and I walked onstage. Everybody’s just [makes a cheering noise and abruptly stops] – I mean I was the only white there. God, I was so scared I’ll never forget it. I just started doing stuff with my legs, that’s really why I started doing all the acrobatic stuff on stage. I’ve got to do something. I jumped down – I created a dance called The Alligator. Four people jump on the floor and it looks like actually they’re having a spastic fit. People broke their Rolex watches, they busted their jeans out, broke their fingers. It became a big college thing across the United States but it was banned all over. Anyway back to the Palladium. Once I started that, the place went crazy. All the D.J.s went back to their homes and radio stations. The song was played all over the country. The very, very next day.

I went out to I think it was KHJ in Los Angeles and I had a promoter with me. Naturally he’s black, ’cause I was the only white artist on the label. We walk into KHJ Radio ; my song’s number 1. We walk in, they walk over to him and say, “Hey Roy, how ya doin’ ?” He says, “No, no, no, that’s Roy.” That’s a true story. But my song was already number 1. It just went boom. It was like number 2 or 3 in Africa at the time. It just boomed. It was just one of them songs.

When “Treat Her Right” broke I went on tour with people like James Brown, Sam Cooke, the Manhattans, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Lavern Baker. I’ve worked with everybody. I went on tour with James Brown and I played two shows with him and he put me off the tour in Houston. He said, “Roy you’re my friend, you’re gonna stay my friend ; you’re gonna stay in Houston.” ’Cause I was burnin’ back then. They called me the White James Brown. Then I met up with Joe Tex. I loved Joe Tex. You’ll see on the show, I do quite a bit mike work. I did several concerts with Joe and Joe taught me all the mike stuff that I do. He had a balanced mike stand. He was awesome. Of course he’s passed on. He retired and had a heart attack out fishing in Navasota out on Lake Summerville. They found him in his boat.

part 2 is here


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several other interviews with veteran and legendary musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006