All contents ©2003 Ernie Gammage
The Sweetarts and other local Austin bands rose to regional prominence on the crest of an unbelievably vibrant fraternity party and club scene in mid-60s Austin, Texas. Playing three parties a weekend was not uncommon, and this didn't include club dates. The musical variety was an incredible hodge-podge of styles that mimicked what was heard on the Top Forty radio stations of the day. It was all rock 'n' roll!
1966: Austin's legendary Thirteenth Floor Elevators
View a video clip of "You're Gonna Miss Me" from the October 31, 1966 American Bandstand TV show. (YouTube)
Because the party scene demanded that the bands know the latest songs, it was not unusual to find Sam and Dave, the Beatles, Little Johnny Taylor, Johnny Rivers, the Beau Brummels, The Byrds, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, and Sly and the Family Stone all in the same set, not to mention Smokey Robinson, Rufus Thomas, Manfred Mann, or Eddie Floyd. It was just a great time to make music, and the original music of that period reflected all these styles.
As the decade matured, the music became more adventurous with the advent of Cream, The Band, Jimmy Hendrix, the Doors and a host of other legends. For the Sweetarts, it finally meant finding a lead guitarist capable of playing what the music demanded and so Gammage became one of two out-front lead singers, replaced on guitar first by Steve Weisberg from Dallas, then later by Austin native, Johnny Richardson. At the same time, Galbraith was replaced by singer Randy Thornton from Lubbock. Tom Van Zandt beefed up his keyboards by replacing the Farfisa with a Hammond organ and Leslie.
The clubs in San Antonio and Austin offered a rich experience, both from a musical and business perspective. In Austin, Club Saracen, the Jade Room, Swingers A Go Go (later the Action Club), and the New Orleans Club led the pack. House gigs were coveted. When the Sweetarts ended a yearlong Wednesday showcase, they were replaced by the Thirteenth Elevators. On the heels of these clubs came the nascent Vulcan Gas Company, precursor to the infamous Armadillo World Headquarters.
The Jade Room in Austin
Of note were the many clubs on Austin's "east side", the real "home of the blues." The IL Club, Victory Grill, and Charlie's Playhouse (where the Jet's held forth) all provided woodshedding opportunities for musicians from the west side. Many a frat gig ended with the bands visiting Ernie's Chicken Shack for the late show and pint bottles of bourbon whisky passed under the table.
Bands of the day were remarkable. A common occurrence was a Sunday afternoon jam session at the New Orleans Club that featured the regional bands from Dallas, Houston, West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley who were in town for frat gigs. Austin provided The Fabulous Chevelles, the Wig, Baby Cakes, New Atlantis, Strawberry Shoemaker, Leo and the Prophets, Conqueroo, The Mustangs, Cavaliers, The Rhythm Kings and Lavender Hill Express. Felicity (from which Eagle Don Henley came), would drive down from East Texas. The Briks, Beefeaters and Chessmen were staples from Dallas. The George, Fugitives, The Chevelle V, the Sparkles, and Pumpkin swept in from West Texas, along with the Playboys of Edinburg from that city in the Rio Grande Valley, the Thingies from Miami, and John Fred and His Playboy Band from Tyler. They all thrived in the Austin music scene. It was also during this time that Janis Joplin got her start. Add to this the Georgetown Medical Band, South Canadian Overflow, Mariani, and Eric Johnson from Austin's late 60s and as the scene became more competitive, the music got more progressive.
Sweetarts business card
As the decade progressed and the Summer of Love (1967) came and went, counter culture accoutrements including drugs because more prevalent. Cheap Mexican marijuana became a staple of the bands along with Nehru jackets and equipment leasing for when they needed gear quickly for live shows! The hard drugs of the late 70s had yet to find their way to Austin, with the exception of a variety of psychedelics. Mescaline, the drug of choice of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, psyllicibin and LSD all influenced the bands and music. The Beatles certainly led the pack in this regard!
One thing distinguished this period in the musical history of Austin. Among these bands, mostly Anglo, there was an enormous camaraderie and feeling of good will. There were enough gigs to satisfy everyone, and it was as much fun to play for one another as it was to play for a paying audience.
It was a good time for good music.