Everyone knows that Buddy Holly shaped rock and roll, and Willie Nelson revamped country. Sure, Leadbelly championed the blues, and Bob Wills personified swing. But what about the dozens of, well, unsung, moments that mark Texas’ musical history? Kinky Friedman, for example, who outraged thousands with songs like ‘Ride ‘Em, Jewboy’ and ‘Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed)’ was the only performer whose Austin City Limits episode was too racy to air. In 1979, at age 67, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins played Carnegie Hall. Houston’s Johnny Nash primed the U.S. for reggae with his 1972 hit ‘I Can See Clearly Now.’ And Michael Nesmith, the Lennonlike member of the Monkees, defied his TV producers by revealing in 1967 that the teeny-bopper heartthrobs faked their instrument playing. With diverse cultural influences, including lively conjunto, sultry blues, zippy zydeco, and good country music from Amarillo and Ab-o-lene, Texas has sired musical marvels unmatched by any other state. Herewith, a medley of melodious moments about riff-loving riff-raff, rhapsodies by bluesmen, and other Texas fortes.
By the mid-forties Ernest Tubb, born in Ellis County, decides to try electrical amplification for his guitar so his Texas Troubadours can be heard over the din in rural honky-tonks. The musical break-through spreads to other genres, notably jazz and blues.
A Star is Born
1965 The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a.k.a. Norman Odam, performs on the steps of Lubbock’s Monterrey High School for an audience of kids who show their appreciation by throwing pennies—real hard. In the crowd: Joe Ely. Odam achieves greater fame when he guest-stars on Laugh-In and sings ‘Paralyzed,’ which was promoted—justifiably—as the world’s worst record.
1972 Lyndon Baines Johnson commits to vinyl his folksy monologue ‘Dogs Have Always Been My Friends,’ becoming the only U.S. president ever to record a single.
1966 The 13th Floor Elevators, headed by Roky Erickson, become Texas’ preeminent acid rockers with the release of their single ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me.’ Years later, Erickson spends three years at the Texas State Hospital in Rusk after pleading insanity on possession-of-marijuana charges.
1964 J. Frank Wilson of Lufkin records ‘The Last Kiss,’ one of rock and roll’s greatest teenage death songs. Wilson died in 1991, penniless and forgotten.
1989 Julius Tupa, publisher of Texas Polka News, urges polka lovers to boycott Coors after the beer company pokes fun at his favorite dance form in a series of TV commercials.
1958 In pursuit of a singing career, Baldemar Huerta of San Benito changes his name to Scotty Wayne, then to Freddy Fender (after the guitar). But he is best know as El Bebop Kid and the brown Elvis Presley in acknowledgment of his Spanish version of ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’
1959 The admission of Alaska to the Union necessitates a change in the lyrics of the Texas state song, ‘Texas, Our Texas,’ from ‘Largest and grandest’ to ‘Boldest and grandest.’
In 1932, twenty-year-old Woody Guthrie, having failed algebra, English, and Latin, drops out of Pampa High School and hits the road.
1958 On the way to a Houston recording studio, Port Arthur deejay the Big Bopper ( J. P. Richardson) dashes off a song to back his would-be hit ‘The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch-Doctor.’ The side B tune: ‘Chantilly Lace.’
1981 Bill Haley of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ fame dies of a heart attack in Harlingen. Neighbors and police know him not as a rock pioneer but as an aging drunkard who ate every day at Sambo’s. In 1991 songwriter Tom Russell pens a ballad, ‘Haley’s Comet,’ about the pathos of the rocker’s decline.
1970 Changing times and raised consciousness allow a Temple band to revel in its ethnicity by changing its name from Little Joe and the Latinaires to Little Joe y la Familia.
1975 The premiere of Austin City Limits stars Willie Nelson instead of B. W. Stevenson and Willie. Stevenson, whose ‘My Maria’ had been a Top 40 hit, can’t fill the house; Nelson packs it.
1962 Delbert McClinton teaches John Lennon to play harmonica after the Beatles open for Fort Worth’s Bruce Channel (‘Hey, Baby’) during a tour of the United Kingdom.
1936 Delta blues singer Robert Johnson records the songs that will become his masterworks in a room at a segregated San Antonio hotel.
1985 George ‘No Show’ Jones, born in Sarasota and considered the greatest male voice of country music, records a country novelty song, ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ (chorus: ‘Yabba dabba doo/The King is gone/And so are you’). Hanna-Barbera, producer of the Flinstones cartoon show, threatens to sue for copyright infringement.
1965 Doug Sahm, Augie Meyer, and three other members of a San Antonio group get Beatle cuts and buy double-breasted suits to pass off their band, the Sir Douglas Quintet, as British.
1925 Governor Pat Neff listens to hard-timer Leadbelly sing and pardons him on the spot. The bluesman had been incarcerated in a Houston-area prison for murder, during which time he wrote “The Midnight Special.”
1967 Texas radio chain owner Gordon McClendon sets out to clean up rock lyrics after a friend’s young daughter asks the meaning of the Rolling Stones hit ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ He bans questionable songs like the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie, Louie’ and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ from all of his stations.
1929 Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. the Blue Yodeler and the Singin’ Brakemen, moves to Kerrville for health reasons. He succumbs to tuberculosis four years later.
Live Fast, Die Young
Down in flames Buddy Holly, rock and roll trailblazer, dies in 1959 along with J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson and Richie Valens (‘La Bamba’) when their plane crashes near Clear Lake, Iowa, en route to a concert in North Dakota. Gentleman Jim Reeves, who hailed from Panola County, dies in 1964, when his private plane crashes outside Nashville. The private plane of Ricky Nelson crashes and burns near Dallas on New Year’s Eve, 1985. Stevie Ray Vaughan, bluesman extraordinaire, dies in 1990 in a Wisonsin helicopter crash following a late-night concert.
1951 Harry Choates, who popularized what is perhaps the most often recorded cajun song ever, ‘Hole Blon,’ is discovered dead