Three Chords and A Station Wagon

The Novas of Dallas. The Livin’ End of Abilene. The Zakary Thaks of Corpus Christi. In 1964 the Beatles inspired a generation of middle-class teens to buy guitars, grow their hair out, and hit the road. The secret history of Texas garage rock.
Three Chords and A Station Wagon

On February 9, 1964, Paul McCartney counted off “All My Loving” on the Ed Sullivan Show and the whole free world freaked out. That night 73 million people watched the Beatles, four spectacularly young, handsome men dressed in black suits and pointy boots who shook their heads, sang chirpy choruses, and smiled sweetly at the screaming teenage girls in the audience. By the time they were done—the group played four songs, ending with their number one hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—the country seemed like an entirely different place. Just eleven weeks before, President Kennedy had been assassinated. Now everything was as fresh and new as these four creatures from Liverpool. It was the first shot of the British Invasion. It was the beginning of the Sixties.

It was the end of David Lott’s flattop. The McAllen fourteen-year-old had been doing his homework in his room when his mother, watching the show, called to him, “You’ve got to see this!” He ran out, and like every other teenager in America, he was stunned. The guitars, the drums, the harmonies, the hair, the boots. The girls. “The next morning,” Lott remembers, “I put some butch wax on my hair and started combing it down.” He also bought a pair of drumsticks and started banging on tables and chairs until his parents finally got him a set of drums. That first night with his new toy he practiced for eight hours, until a neighbor called the police.

Lott began playing surf songs and instrumentals with a couple kids from down the block, Mitch Watkins and Jerry Ebensberger. By then other big-name groups had followed the Beatles—the Dave Clark Five; the Rolling Stones, who were on their first American tour; the Kinks, whose song “You Really Got Me” was a huge U.S. hit. And in McAllen and the surrounding area, bands were popping up everywhere: the Playboys of Edinburg (named after the nearby town, not the city in Scotland), the Headstones, the Invaders. A singer and guitarist named Javier Rios—who enticed a drummer and a bass player to don Beatles wigs and back him up on a medley of “Twist and Shout” and “La Bamba” at a McAllen junior high school talent show—started the Cavaliers. Then there were the Souls, begun by five eighth- and ninth-grade Beatlemaniacs, including guitarists David Smith and Jay Hausman. Smith was one of the first Beatles fans in the Valley—an English cousin had sent him a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” before it was released in the U.S. “I put it on my little turntable and it just jumped off,” he told me. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I want to do this.’ ”

The Souls played parties and dances but had to stop when the drummer graduated in May 1965 and the bass player left. Smith and Hausman knew Lott and Ebensberger and invited them to become the new rhythm section. By the end of 1965 this version of the Souls was taking turns practicing in one another’s dens. They were doing note-for-note imitations of songs like “Off the Hook,” by the Rolling Stones, and “Hitch Hike,” the Marvin Gaye song covered by the Stones. But they were reinventing themselves as they did it. They were getting cooler.

The Souls played teen dances for the Methodist Youth Fellowship and the Catholic Youth Organization and then moved up to gigs at places like the Moose Lodge and the Grapefruit Bowl. Their set was mostly covers of British Invasion tunes but also some American rock and roll songs, such as the Standells’ “Dirty Water.” They would borrow a family car and drive to Mission to play at the Community Center or to Harlingen to play the Hide-A-Way Club. Sometimes they performed for free, other times they earned as much as $200, good money for a bunch of teenagers. They’d finish by midnight and drive home.

In the summer of 1966 a friend of the band’s named Christopher Voss approached them with a couple teen-angst poems he thought would make good songs: “Broken Hearted Lady” and “Diamonds, Rats, and Gum.” Voss and Smith sat around and worked them up as songs—the first as a jangly ballad, the second as a rocker. Voss offered to pay for time in a studio if he could sing the songs and put his name in front of the band’s. The others agreed and went into Jimmy Nicholls’s Pharaoh Studio, on the south side of McAllen, to make a record. “It was a converted garage,” recalls Smith. “I remember Jimmy lifting up the big aluminum door.” The Souls recorded the songs live, with no overdubs, so they had to play and sing perfectly. It took multiple takes to nail the ballad, but “Diamonds, Rats, and Gum” was done right the first time. Even today, the nervous energy of the song—a weird, needy teen put-down tune—is thrilling, with a driving fuzz-tone guitar riff and yelped lyrics like “I’ll give you rats and five pieces of gum, and then you’ll realize I’m not a bum.” It sounds like the early Rolling Stones fronted by the treasurer of the science club.

Nicholls owned a label as well as a studio, and in late 1966 he released the two songs as a 45. The band thought “Diamonds, Rats, and Gum” was the obvious hit, but a deejay at KRIO chose to play “Broken Hearted Lady,” which began climbing the station’s chart, eventually making it to number 23. The Souls capitalized, playing more gigs than ever, becoming, for a few months, teenage rock stars in the Valley. Lott says, “We thought, ‘We’re on our way to somewhere’—we didn’t know exactly where.” Their careers culminated at the South Padre Pavilion on Memorial Day 1967 with their biggest

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...