“Boys from Houston” Captures the Sweep of ’60s Music History
In American roots music history, following and tracing the movement of artists, emerging genres, and lasting legacies can be a daunting task. For most popular music historians and ethnomusicologists with a focus on the roots of American music, the common geographical outgrowth, especially over the last 50 years, has been identified in cities like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville. With good reason, volumes of history have been documented, stemming from these areas. But, what about the other, less publicized communities? The near-epic wave of cultural change that took shape in music culture during this era happened at other places as well. There is still plenty of history to write, but it takes a certain skill, eye for detail, and the ability to weave facts into story. Enter Boys From Houston by Texas author, Vicki Welch-Ayo and co-writer, Billy De La Vergne.
Vicki Welch Ayo — writer, historical documentarian, and avid music fan (and presumably a good dancer) — is a native Texan with deep roots in Houston. She’s done music fans and historians alike a great service with this intricately detailed, engaging look at one such overlooked music scene in her first volume of what appears to be a growing series about the music culture of the region. With careful detail, dynamic fact finding, studious research, and her own unique ability to weave stories together, Ayo has crafted the epic story of the Houston music scene in this pivotal decade that paralleled its big city counterparts. Her historical context is the transitional period from the early 1960s to the end of the decade, when the scene, like larger history, began to change from something spontaneous and real to the realm of business and calculation.
The story moves through distinctive chapters that include topics like “Birth of Garage Bands,” “Hippie Daze,” and “Music Venues/Iconography.” The chapters build with stories of how local artists meet, form, breakaway, and reform. Bands that were common to the area who carried influence were The Sound Investment, T.H.E., The Clique, The 13th Floor Elevators, and The Coastliners. Of historical interest is how the bands build their own fame and then intersect with many of the icons of the era, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, and Jethro Tull. Artists’ stories abound, typified in how The Sound Investment, a band local to the author, opens for The Who during their most manic, instrument-destroying days.
Each chapter is illuminated with archival photographs and in-depth interviews with key artists of the area. While the chapters begin with the Garage era and its outgrowth with influential local bands, including The Sound Investment, the “Roots” chapter traces the early ’60s, including interviews with B.J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), whose career began as a youth in Houston, Roy Head (“Treat Her Right”), and Ezra Charles, a childhood friend of Johnny and Edgar Winter. Like other cities that, at the time, experienced the cultural quake effecting the youth, Houston, as chronicled by Ayo, experienced diversity in influences — everything from rhythm & blues to soul, to psychedelic rock — which went out from the area and was also imported in from the history that influenced the Texas metropolis. The book, therefore, traces movements like surf music, as a part of the Gulf Coast sound. She also traces the British Invasion and the counter-culture transitions which caused many artists to go from imitating The Beatles to launching into a more psychedelic realm, influenced by San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury scene.
One of the areas Ayo has explored with great skill is the juxtaposition of local bands, some of whom were considered with similar weight to the national acts who passed through the area, with the legendary icons of the day. She has also provided ample cameo appearances of artists who rose from the Texas music scene — and maintained a high profile in Houston — to national fame, like Roky Erikson, who emerged from the Austin-based innovative psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators, Billy Gibbons, who went on to play with ZZ Top, Roy Head, and Johnny & Edgar Winter.
As the book closes, a new era opens. With the onset of the ’70s, the singer-songwriter movement emerges in the final chapters, when Ayo introduces “Songwriters and the Texas Underground.” This leads very naturally to the upcoming sequel, which will chronicle the growth of the singer-songwriter movement, the venues that nurtured them, and the migration toward Austin during the ’70s, which resulted in the birth of the Outlaw movement.
The most important strength of Boys From Houston is how Ayo has captured the sweep of history. The movement is captured through in-depth interviews and anecdotes. It is told in pure and primitive prose, without pretense or force, which allows the story of a unique history and culture of young musicians to unfold in a way that is both natural and authentic. The risk such a project takes on is the tendency many historians lean toward that dull the reader’s sensibilities with details. In the epic undertaking of Boys From Houston, Ayo has managed, in a very unassumingly skillful manner, to do the opposite. She has lovingly and carefully compiled this history with so many streams of musical influences, colorful characters, and connections, and a unique cultural tapestry results, which could easily have gone unnoticed without this work.
With this book, Vicki Welch Ayo has woken us up to an important, unrecognized chapter of American music. In so doing, she has brought together a community of veteran musicians and entertainers, calling up new life to stories that may otherwise have been lost to historical obscurity.