Early Recording Studios of West Texas
by Rockin' Robin Brown

robin brownSinger, songwriter and guitarist Robin Brown was part of the Amarillo-Canyon scene in the mid to late sixties. When not playing onstage he hawked the best bands of the area and heard (and knew) some of the better musicians. Late in life he now enjoys reliving those memories through his personal articles which appear in print often.

borwn holcomeForeword: Back when I was playing in rock bands around Amarillo in the sixties the favorite place to record was in Clovis, New Mexico (125 miles SW of Amarillo). This pattern of West Texans going to Clovis to record had first begun when Roy Orbison and Buddy Knox recorded there in 1955 and 1956 respectively. Roy and the Teen Kings had cut the first version of 'Ooby Dooby' at Pettys and Knox had cut the chart-stopper 'Party Doll' there the next year. When Knox's record went to #2 and Orbison's record garnered him a contract with Sun Records in Memphis, other aspiring West Texas rockers wanted to record at Norman Petty's Studio! This was the Lubbock-Amarillo crowd which included Buddy Holly, Terry Nolan, Nighthawks and Larry Trider among others. This tradition continued well into the sixties as 'hit records' continued to flow from the magical little studio on West Seventh street. But even so, some small studios began to pop-up in West Texas in such places as Amarillo, Big Spring, Odessa, Lubbock and elsewhere, waiting to record the local talent.

High Fidelity House Studio, Big Spring, Texas

Aside from Petty's place, there were a few more, adequately equipped studios that West Texas musicians also could record in, during the late fifties and mid-sixties. In 1958 one such studio opened in Big Spring, Texas and was called High Fidelity House. The owner was Ben Hall who was an employee of a local television station there. Since Big Spring was relatively close to the Odessa-Midland area this studio attracted musicians of that area. Within a year, Hall's recordings were being released on his own label (Gaylo) and on a few national labels. Finally in 1964 the studio produced the smash hit 'Bread and Butter' by the Newbeats which rose to #2 on the pop charts. This hit undoubtedly brought a flow of more West Texans to this small studio to record! Hall's wife 'Dena' also worked in the studio, I should add.

The studio's owner had lived in Lubbock prior to coming to Big Spring which is in the Permian Basin area, not far from Midland and Odessa . It was in Lubbock however that he first became acquanted with Buddy Holly and when Holly had cut his first record for Decca one of Hall's songs 'Blue Days Black Nights' was included. His song was opposite Holly's first version of 'That'll be the Day' (recorded at Bradley's Barn in Nashville). At his Big Spring studio Hall eventually released singles by The Continentals, The Elgins, the Shades but his first artist was Sammy Lara. The late Mr. Lara has been inducted into the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.

In 1968 after operating his studio in Big Spring for a decade and having the one big hit by the Newbeats in 1964 Hall and his musician wife moved to Nashville and setup a brand new studio where more successes seemed to have followed.

Tommy Allsup and Westex Studio, Odessa, Texas

floydOne other good studio in the Permian Basin area was operating in Odessa in 1963 and later. The owner/operator was another of Petty's associates. Tommy Allsup. The fine Oklahoman guitarist had played and toured with Buddy Holly opened a studio on the outskirts of Odessa. His partner was Gorman Maxwell (his brother-in-law) and they seemed to have been operating an adequately equipped studio at this time until the late sixties. They also established a BMI publishing company and several labels including AOK and EMCO. I learned of their studio through a friend of mine Robert Ashcraft, a bass player from Midland who had played in my first college rock group. Ashcraft had recorded at Allsup's studio before I met him in late 1964. He reported that some good recordings were being made there and I don't doubt that this is true because Robert was a very good musician himself. Anyway by the later sixties Tommy Allsup had recorded a legitimate hit titled "In the Year 2525" and seems to have decided to move to Nashville as a result. Nevertheless, during the mid-sixties there is no doubt that a number of singers and bands from the Midland-Odessa and Abilene-San Angelo area did record at the studio which is often called the 'Tommy Allsup Studio'.

record labels west texasOne example is Buzzy Barnhill and his band (Four Counts/ Soundrifters) from Turkey, Texas who heard about this distant studio and drove 200 miles to record there in 1966. The two original songs they recorded were 'Something Different' and 'I Love' and featured Frank Buzzy Barnhill singing and playing guitar with drummer Gary Johnson on drums. Other members were B.J. Mullin (bass) and Sonny Mullin (guitar). This band had first recorded in Plainview in Harry Bray's cellar-studio but Tommy Allsup produced their second record release which was much more professional.

Allsup and Maxwell also established several labels including the AOK label of Odessa. Some of the artists that had 45's on this label include: New Roadrunners, The Shades, The Continentals, The Wry Catchers, Fred Crawford, Freddy Frank, Jim McCrary and Scotty Graham. On the earlier EMCO label some of the recording artists were: Just us Four, Jack Slattery and Betty Jean. These 45 rpm releases pre-date the founding of the AOK label around 1966.

Checkmate Studio, Amarillo, Texas

alliance record labelIn the mid-sixties Ray Ruffin (aka Ray Ruff) got hold of some good Ampex equipment and opened a studio in Amarillo on NE 24th Street. As I have mentioned in another article, I recorded there on two different occasions during this time frame. The studio was located in Trades Fair Shopping center and once when the engineer was late we played pool in a nearby billard hall as we waited. My recollection of the studio was that it was wide-tape format (1/2 or 1 inch tape) and we laid down at least 2 overdubs after the basic tracks were recorded. So, the studio either had a 4-track Ampex or Ruff was tracking between two, stereo Ampex machines. Nevertheless, the studio was professionally equipped for the time. (note: Later research indicates that it was a 3-track machine that mixed down to Mono masters, when Larry Cox was operating the studio around 1966).

Johnny floyd The cuts we made were clean and reminiscent of what Petty had produced, when Max Barton, Robert Ashcraft and myself recorded there in 1966. In the mid-sixties Ruff's studio very possibly could have produced a hit, but I never heard of one coming from it. I know a number of Amarillo-Canyon groups did record there as did 'Ray Ruff and the Checkmates' and possibly Buddy Knox. Buddy Knox had signed one single with Ruffin and it was released on the Ruff Label during this same time. Also, Glen Frye of the Eagles stated that he had once recorded at Checkmate Studio in Amarillo. I've read that Amarilloan J.D. Souther and Frye were roomates out in California during the later sixties. I wonder if perhaps Souther hadn't brought Frye to Ruffin's studio back in '65 when Frye may have been visiting in Amarillo. Perhaps their friendship dates back even before they got together in California. A Hayes, Kansas group 'The Blue Things' also signed with Ruffin and had some singles on Ruff and Sully labels, before signing with RCA. Amarillo groups that recorded at Checkmate Studio and had singles include: The Tiaras, The Illusions and The Pageboys.

Max BartonA local DJ named Larry Cox took over Checkmate Studio sometime in '66 (it appears) and had some success in getting some songs on major labels (according to an advertisement the author has seen). He may have re-named the facility 'STUDIO 7' as Cox did establish a label of this same name. One of Amarillo's better rock bands 'Deuces Wild' recorded with Cox and their songs were released on what appears to have been their own label Deuce Records (1966). This record is now a West Texas collectible. Other rockers who recorded with Cox include singer Max Barton, bassist Robert Ashcraft and myself (Robin Brown - guitarist).

Don Caldwell Studio, Lubbock, Texas

In the later sixties or early seventies Don Caldwell, a Lubbock musician put-in a Scully 4-track studio in Lubbock. Caldwell had played in a band with noted musician Gary Nunn (The Nightbeats) before 1966 and his studio soon became a center for Lubbock area musicians who wanted to record. Caldwell also established Phone Publishing and Texas Soul records in conjunction with his studio about the same time. A number of 45 rpm records (and albums) were released under the guidance of Don Caldwell and his main engineer/producer Lloyd Maines.

Many noted Lubbock musicians appear to have recorded with Don Caldwell during this time. Musicians such as Joe Ely, Jesse Taylor, Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen, Lloyd and Kenny Maines were associated with Caldwell during this era. Since it was a public studio all types of music including rock, country, soul and gospel were recorded here. There is little doubt that when Caldwell made Scully equipment available to the Lubbock musicians, they had a facility that was capable of producing a hit. By '76 they had updated to a 16-track studio and they did produce at least one top-forty country hit during the later seventies (Unfortunately the artist/title escapes me). They also produced at least one MCA album for Joe Ely in the seventies. Some of Joe Ely's early singles were also produced here including his regional hit 'My Fingers Click When I Play the Piano'.

In the seventies the Maines Brothers band also made several albums here which led to a contract with Mercury Records. The Caldwell recording studio eventually led owner Don Caldwell into becoming the director/manager of the important Cactus Theatre in Lubbock. Many fine stage-shows were held here anually under his guidance and supervision and some were televised.

Palm Room Studio in Lubbock

Sometime in perhaps the later fifties a musician from Roswell, New Mexico became interested in opening his own recording studio. Jimmy Blakley had already done quite a bit of recording at Petty's Studio in Clovis prior to this time (playing on 'Sugartime' with Charlie Phillips) and it appears that he wanted to expand and try engineering. This steel-guitar player seems to have approached Norman about purchasing some of his outdated equipment. At about this same time Petty must have retired his main Berlant recorder and it was available. So, he sold it to Blakley who first set up a studio in Roswell before he purchased the Palm Room Night Club and moved to Lubbock around '65. It has been written that Petty had used Ampex recorders exclusively in the early days of his studio. However, according to Jimmy Self (a close associate of Petty's) Self cut his first record on a Berlant Concertone machine in Clovis in 1954, the same one that Blakley later purchased.

Nevertheless, when Blakley made his move to Lubbock he brought the Berlant recorder and setup another studio in a private part of his night club. Blakley was mainly into country music so it is unclear if any other type Lubbock bands ever recorded at the Palm Room. Yet Blakley himself produced and released one record that was recorded on Petty's old Berlant machine during this era. It is on Blakley's own label 'PR International' and the songs include:

A Tribute to Tex Ritter / Your House / Note: This label was based out of the Palm Room nightclub and PR is obviously an abbreviation of Palm Room!

Venture, Mitchell, Nesman and Bray Studios

In 1956 a young man named Bobby Peebles opened a small recording studio on 19th Street, near Lubbock High School called 'Venture Studio'. The only known recording from it appears to be a demo tape of Buddy Holly, J.I. Allison and some other local musicians. It was in late 1956 that young Holly and the group recorded 12 cover songs here. From the original demo tape (on 3 3/4 ips speed) some of the songs were transferred to digital recordings and released as a CD in 2004. (Vigotone Box Set). It is unclear if Peebles studio was equipped with a high speed recorder or if it had any professional equipment but nevertheless his 'studio' did produce a tape that is now a collector's item!

Another studio that appears to have been active in Lubbock in c.1960 was at this address: Mitchell Recording Studio, 2615 38th St, Lubbock. An acetate recording by the Emeralds of (Brownfield, Texas) titled "Spring Fever" / "Dreams and Wishes" still exists. It is also stated that David Box did some recordings at 'Mitchell's Studio' in Lubbock in this same time frame. (source: John Ingram )

Another studio that is worth mentioning is Lewis Nesman's Studio in Wichita Falls,Texas. John Ingram states "Buddy Holly used this studio to cut demos in 1955 and the studio was also used for West Texas artists signed to the King label of Cincinnati. Nesman's studio was active from early 1950's into the 80's (and perhaps later)." Since the big King label released some recordings from this studio we must assume some quality recording was going on here.

In 1964 a songwriter/musician moved to Plainview and put in a garage-type studio, at the back of his Used Car Lot. Harry Bray was the man and his studio was actually a cellar that he had built just for this purpose. Although Bray's little facility was not professionaly equipped (sound-on-sound, mono recordings mainly) Bray did produce a lot of 45's on his Twixt Tween and Satin labels. Although it was basically a 'private studio' where Bray tinkered with his original songs, at least on one occasion a rock band from Turkey, Texas rented the studio. Bray recorded two original songs for them. Since the recordings were done in such a limited facility they had a garage-band feel that radio stations weren't catering to at the time.

Twix Teen record labelOne of the songs 'Summers Gone Away' finally received good reviews when musician-critic Dac Crowell stated that he had purchased this record in a discount record shop in Nashville in his youth and he considered it to be an early garage-band recording. He also said that a college radio station somewhere had spun the record and the kids on campus went wild! They requested it over and over!! I'm proud to say that I know/knew all the musicians in this country-rock band which included Buzzy Barnhill, Sonny Mullin, Billy Joe Mullin and Gary Johnson Congratulations to you early rockers from Turkey, Texas. for your first Twixt Tween release! Although it didn't make the 'hit parade' in 1965, it's never too late to receive some credit! One other record from Bray's studio has recently made some waves among collectors. On one side it has an original soul song that is sung by local singer 'Jackie Johnson'. Writer and collector Brandan Cook of Odessa has given it a 'thumbs up' for being one of the few original and credible soul songs ever recorded in West Texas during the sixties. The song is titled "Yesterdays Misery" and was written by Harry Bray and released on his Satin label.

Radio and TV Station Recordings

Aside from actual recording studios, good recording equipment was also available in many radio and television stations during the sixties. These machines were used for recording commercials, etc. In fact, the first record ever made by the String-a-Longs of Plainview had been cut in a radio station in Amarillo (according to Aubrey de Cordova). It was released as by the 'Rock'n Rollers' on the Ven label out of Hereford, Texas and is a collectible record today.

Other musicians that also made the same type recordings in Lubbock include other important artists such as Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly. They did some of their earliest recordings at KLLL and KDAV radio stations respectively.

Swing KingsWhen my first band appeared on Walsh Food Talent Show at KDUB television in 1959 the show's audio was recorded. The Sunset Ramblers, a local Western Swing band of Lubbock backed most of the acts on this occasion, except our instrumental trio. I recall that we sat around and listened to the recordings after the show with my sister's trio 'The Sparklettes' who had also performed that day. My little trio was either billed as the Swing Kings or Three Notes of Matador, Texas and we were just young teenage boys at the time. It brings a tear to my eye to discover and say, "Yes, I began my musical journey over fifty years ago."

Anyway, I recall this event just to illustrate how some recordings came about, outside of recording studios without being 'on location recordings'. I suppose it is possible that some of those old KDUB recordings are sitting on a shelf somewhere just waiting to be discovered and played again. Yes, I'd love to hear 'Don Allen and the Sunset Ramblers' one more time but I don't think the songs my trio recorded that day would even be 'interesting'!