San Antonio is known for many things: the Riverwalk, the missions, puffy tacos, a quarter century of professional basketball excellence, the Alamo. Conjunto and tejano remain its best-known musical exports, but for a brief moment in the late seventies and early eighties, the city was host to a small but vibrant boogie-funk scene, and at its center was the six-member, multiethnic band Horizon. It was the rare local group that made a few singles, got played on AM and FM stations, were Friday night staples at the area’s numerous military bases, opened for national acts such as the Commodores and Kool and the Gang, and packed venues in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. For seven glittering years starting in 1977, Horizon gave San Antonio a strong case of the funk—and then its members drifted apart.
Brothers Charlie, Geoff, and John Boggess provided the foundation of the group, which caused some confusion at times because they were three white cats from San Antonio’s South Side showing up to predominantly Black and Latino scenes.
“I remember some guy asking, ‘Well, so when does the band get here?’” recalls John Boggess more than thirty years on, adding that the confused audience member then asked: “So y’all play country-western, or . . .” “No, we play R&B soul music,” Boggess replied. John played keyboard, older brother Charlie played guitar, and youngest brother Geoff was behind the drums. Rounding out the band were childhood friend Freddy Carrillo on saxophone, Orlando “T-Bow” Gonzales as vocalist, and Larry Scott on bass.
While Horizon never broke onto the national scene, its handful of privately pressed singles have become collector’s items, at times fetching hundreds of dollars. This month, however, sees the release of Magic Music: The Story of Horizon, an anthology of the band’s released singles as well as ten previously unreleased tracks compiled by Chicago-based funk and house imprint Still Music. Here is a strain of South Texas funk, boogie, and modern soul for a new generation of listeners and deejays. And the coronavirus pandemic recently led the group to get back together after decades apart and play around town again.
“We literally started out practicing at mom and dad’s garage at the Boggess house,” Carrillo says with a laugh. Carrillo’s father played saxophone for San Antonio’s most popular big bands of the fifties and early sixties. Meanwhile, the Boggesses too grew up in a musical household; their father was big on guitar music while their mother played piano and sang. Charlie started taking guitar lessons at age seven and within five years, he was playing guitar in an instrumental group his father formed called the Swinging Strings. Geoff began drumming from an early age, soon graduating from banging pots and pans in his Underoos to helming a full kit.
But it was John who had a knack for writing interesting songs and arrangements that would power Horizon and distinguish it from the other funk-R&B bands in town. “I would say it was probably my senior year in high school that I realized I could write my own songs,” Boggess recalls. He played marimba and also dabbled in drums before gravitating toward the piano, joining the stage band and jazz band in his final year at McCollum High School in 1975. Even before graduation, the Boggess brothers and friends were playing covers of the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Joe Cocker, and other Top 40 fare. A year or two on, they added fourteen-year-old Geoff on drums and Carrillo on saxophone, going by the slightly unmanageable name Freddy Carrillo and the Boggess Brothers Band.
As John Boggess worked on his songwriting chops, he listened broadly, turning a keen ear to Earth, Wind & Fire, Chick Corea, and even AOR crooner Gino Vannelli, gravitating toward “interesting chord changes and interesting arrangements; I probably patterned a lot of my stuff after that.” Perhaps John also took a cue from Vannelli, who worked closely with his own brother and was an early adopter of polyphonic synthesizers. Meanwhile, Charlie dug into a Dan Fogelberg album and came away with a new name for the group: Horizon.
In 1977, Horizon independently pressed its first single, “Steppin’ Out.” San Antonio had a healthy nightlife scene at the time, but the best money for a working band was playing weekends on the military bases before a crowd itching to get down. Horizon members knew they had arrived when they performed in 1979 at Fort Sam Houston’s NCO Club, which boasted a big ballroom with a capacity of upward of a thousand. Not that it was easy getting the big break, as Boggess recalls: “You had three Anglo guys and a Hispanic guy, and we were looking to play at [what] was essentially an all-Black nightclub. But that was the music we were playing.”
The biggest hurdle Horizon faced was one Sergeant Johnson, who handled bookings for the NCO Club. “Sergeant Johnson just looked at my brother and is like, ‘Do I really have to say this? It’s like you guys aren’t the right color,’” Boggess recalls. Undeterred, the band took a gig at the smaller Sky Lounge and slowly built up a following on the base over the next few months. And finally, they convinced Johnson that these white boys could bring the funk. When a band dropped out on a Friday afternoon for that evening’s performance in the ballroom, Horizon was waiting in the wings.
“We were the only white folks in the whole building,” Charlie Boggess recalls in the album liner notes. A blend of Top 40 covers and originals got the crowd of servicemen and their dates to nod along, if not exactly fill the dance floor. But then a tight version of Rose Royce’s chart-topping “Car Wash” turned the tide. “From then on, we always had the first weekend of the month when all of the soldiers got their paychecks,” Charlie Boggess says. “We were a cash cow for [the club] for a long, long time.”
It’s one thing to be an in-demand party band packing them in on a Friday night. It’s another to put your songs down in the studio and get them on the air. “After a while, we started doing some recording,” John Boggess recalls. “There were a lot of good bands back at the time. But the thing that separated us from other bands is that we had our own music and our own sound, and that’s really what got us some of those big shows.”
Horizon recruited a lead singer from another local funk band, the Bitter End, a man named Orlando “T-Bow” Gonzales. “I grew up on the East Side, but I moved all around San Antonio,” Gonzales says. “We weren’t the only ones doing boogie-funk, but we had our own style and wrote our own songs.” There may have been competition with other bands like the Bitter End and La Franz, but it was the combination of John Boggess’s chords and arrangements and Gonzales’s soaring voice that made Horizon stand out. Usually, John would write and arrange all the music, giving Gonzales a tape to take home, where he would come up with the words. “‘Try My Love Again’—I wrote that in ten minutes,” Gonzales recalls of the smoldering, silk-rustling ballad the band recorded in 1981, with his performance reaching the upper registers of Smokey Robinson’s “quiet storm” vocals. “It was just the spirit of it. It came right out.”
San Antonio radio picked up the single just as easily as Gonzales laid it down. KAPE-AM 1480 (you can hear a transmission from the now defunct urban gospel station here) was the first to play it, before the single “broke into the mainstream radio play with the leading FM station, KTFM,” John Boggess says. “‘Try My Love Again’ got into the regular rotation, and you could hear it all day long. All the guys were just ecstatic about finally having one of our songs on the radio. It just fuels the fire to keep things going.”
“One of the craziest things that happened, we competed for the Budweiser Showdown in Dallas,” Carrillo says. “We drove up to Dallas, ended up winning the top prize, and then we drove back, just in time to change clothes and go to work. To see this South Side garage band group, we had choreography, we didn’t mess around. It was a big moment for us.” As part of the top prize, the band received some equipment and an audition with the label Polygram A&R (though nothing came of the latter). It also recorded a single for the short-lived Budweiser Showdown label. “Let Me Be the One” is a party-starting disco stomper that sounds like late-seventies Isley Brothers. A copy of the rare 45 rpm record pressed by the brewery can now set you back over $200.
Another shimmering ballad the band released, “You Went Away,” soon became Johnson’s favorite song. “We’d wait until the third set or so to play it,” Boggess recalls of the wind-chime-laced ballad. “And then Sergeant Johnson would come out of his office and stand on the back wall just listening to that song. After we’d finish, he’d go back to his office.”
Despite the local success, a deal with Geffen Records fell through when the label’s talent scout who was handling Horizon unexpectedly died. Charlie Boggess left the band and became the head basketball coach at Alamo Heights High School for the next 33 years. And soon the other members turned back to their day jobs.
It’s far from the genre’s heyday in the eighties, but boogie-funk endures in pop culture, from a throwback hit like “Uptown Funk” to Patrice Rushen’s 1982 gem “Forget Me Nots” experiencing a TikTok-fueled renaissance. And in the wake of the pandemic, John, Geoff, T-Bow, Freddy, and guitarist Raul Rodriguez, who has been with the band since 1986 when he replaced Charlie, found that they still had some funk to give. “We got back to playing in February or March of this year,” John Boggess says, having recently turned 65. “The guys always have a good time playing together, so it’s been very good.” As Freddy Carrillo put it after a recent Horizon show: “When we play, it’s magic for me.”