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COLLECTOR’S MARKETPLACE

6800 Gateway East, Ste. 1B

WEST TEXAS RECORDING STUDIOS

Presented by: Robin Brown

The Norman Petty Studio / Ben Hall Studio / Palm Room Studio / Checkmate Studio / Tommy Allsup Westex Studio / Don Caldwell Studio / Venture Studio / Harry Bray Cellar Studio / Nesmin Studio / Venture and Mitchell Studios / TV and Radio Station Recordings.

The Norman Petty Studio of Clovis, New Mexico

Back when I was playing in rock bands around Amarillo, Texas in the sixties the favorite place to record was in Clovis, New Mexico (about 125 miles south west of Amarillo). This pattern of West Texans going there to record had first began 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 Petty’s and Knox had cut  the chart stopper “Party Doll” at Norman Petty’s studio there the next year. When Knox’s record went to # 2 and Orbison’s record garnered him a contract with Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee other aspiring West Texas rockers wanted to record at Petty’s. This was the Lubbock/Amarillo, Texas crowd which included Buddy Holly, Larry Trider, and Terry Nolan among others. This tradition continued well into the sixties as ‘hit records’ continued to flow from the magical little studio on West Seventh Street in Clovis, New Mexico.

As Bill Griggs has pointed out, during the fifties (and I believe early sixties) a number of Amarillo and Lubbock groups did record in Clovis and a certain type of rock music was the result. Griggs (and others) call this unique music the “Tex-Mex Sound” because West Texans helped produce this sound in New Mexico  and also because the Fireballs (of Raton, New Mexico) were a part of the sound. After listening to Knox and Holly recordings (and later the Fireball recordings) I think this unique sound that Griggs alludes to had its roots in Buddy Holly’s, Donnie Lanier’s and Tommy Alsup’s diverse but compatible guitar styles. These three guitarist recorded there during the earliest days of the public studio. Then George Tomsco and Jimmy Torres soon synthesized these three styles into one, and the Fireballs and String-A-Longs carried the Tex-Mex sound on into the early sixties. Just by listening to Holly’s guitar work it appears that he had been influenced by Lanier’s leads on “Party Doll” which was recorded prior to Holly’s arrival in Clovis. Also Roy Orbison’s lead on “Ooby Dooby” was possibly a factor in the direction of Holly and the Tex-Mex sound to follow.

As already hinted, the Tex-Mex sound was made up of Musicians that came from both the Panhandle and South Plains area of Texas and Eastern New Mexico. This area which includes Amarillo, Borger, Plainview, Lubbock, Clovis, Portales, Raton and Roswell  is also stretched to include the Midland/Odessa area. This occurs since Roy Orbison and the Roses (of the Midland/Odessa area) were also a part of the legacy of the early recordings at Petty’s studio. I have no problem with including this extended area and the people involved deserve credit.

By the Mid sixties the English invasion had virtually made the Tex-Mex Sound obsolete however. Guitar leads were moving toward the psychedelic sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Cream, who were on the horizon. When the Fireballs recorded their last top twenty hit in sixty-seven (Bottle Of Wine) Tomsco is not given much of a lead riff at all. One might even argue that the Fireball’s earlier smash (Sugar Shack) was the last hit recording from Clovis that contained any influence of Holly, Lanier, and Allsup. If this is true, The original Tex-Mex Sound might be said to only cover the era of 1955 through 1963. However, I feel other Clovis recordings after this date probably contain the same basic sound, but they weren’t considered ‘commercial’ by labels. So they found their way into Petty’s file 13 and were forgotten. Today, some such recordings are now beginning to appear on CD rockabilly releases, I am told.

Today there is one CD that George Tomsco appears on. It seems to be a compilation of previously ‘unreleased Clovis Recordings’ and it contains two drum songs by Gary Lee Swafford. Swafford had begun his professional career as a member of the Norman Petty Trio. Then in sixty-one he played with Ray Ruff’s Checkmetes and also with the Fayros. It seems that Swafford played in so many Amarillo rock bands of the sixties it is difficult to find a ‘good band’ that at one time he wasn’t a part of. After I had played with him and Max Barton at Friday’s Lounge in Amarillo in sixty-eigth, I was told that he left town with Charlie Pride’s country band sometime later. Aside from the Fireballs and Norman Petty Trio, I doubt that any other musician ever appeared on more Clovis recordings than Swafford.

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High Fidelity House Studio of Big Spring, Texas

The Norman Petty Studio was the best equipped studio  in the geographical area already mentioned above. Noted folk artist Carolyn Hester says “Norman Petty’s studio was probably the best studio for hundreds of miles. I made my first album there.” However 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 here. Since Big Spring was relatively close to the Midland/Odessa area the studio attracted musicians of that area. Within a year, Hall’s recordings were being released on national labels. Finally in 1964 the studio produced a 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 studio to record. Hall’s wife also worked in the studio, I should add.

The studio’s owners (Ben Hall and wife) had lived in Lubbock prior to coming to Big Spring which is on the southern extremity of the Llano Estacado. It was in Lubbock that he first became acquainted with Buddy Holly and when Holly had cut his first record for Decca (That’ll Be The Day) one of Hall’s songs was included, (Blue Days Black Nights). His was probable the B side and this first version of “That’ll Be The Day” did not sell well either (recorded at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville, Tennessee). Nevertheless, Hall has the distinction of being a writer on Holly’ first record. In 1968 after operating his studio in Big Spring, Texas for a decade Ben Hall and his wife moved to Nashville, Tennessee and set up a brand new studio where more successes seemed to have followed. (Consult the booklett: “West Texas Rock’n Roll Music” by: Bill Griggs) 

Jimmy Blakley’s Studio of Roswell New Mexico and Lubbock, Texas

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 prior to this time (including “Sugartime” by 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 time Petty must have retired his main Berlant recorded 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, Texas, perhaps around 1965.

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) in 1954 Self cut his first record on A Berlant Concertone machine in Clovis, New Mexico, 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, The Palm Room. 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 a top-forty country hit for United Artist (Honky Tonk Princess) on Petty’s old Berlant recorder during this era, according to his son. So, it would be difficult to argue that Blakley’ studio didn’t qualify as a professional studio.  

Checkmate Studio of Amarillo, Texas

In the mid-sixties Ray Ruff (aka Ray Ruffin) got hold of some good Ampex equipment and opened a studio in Amarillo, Texas on NE 24th Street, I think it was. As I have mentioned in another article, I recorded there on two different occasions during this time frame. The studio was located in a shopping center and once when the engineer was late we played pool in a nearby billiard hall as we waited. My recollection of the studio is that it was wide-tape format (1/2 or 1 inch tape) and we laid down at least two 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 and no garage setup. (note: Later research indicates that it was a 3-track system when Larry Cox took over the studio in c.1967)

The cuts we made were clean and reminiscent of what Petty had produced, when I recorded there in 1964. In the Mid-sixties Ruff’s studio very probably could have produced a hit, but I never heard of one coming from it. I know a number of Amarillo/canyon groups surely did record there as did the Checkmates and also Buddy Knox. Buddy Knox signed to release one single on the Ruff Label during this time. Also Glen Fry of the Eagles stated that he had once recorded at Checkmate studio in Amarillo, Texas. I’ve read that Amarilloan, J. D. Souther and Fry were roomates out in California during the later sixties. I wonder if perhaps Souther hadn’t brought Fry to Ruff’s studio back Fry may have been visiting in Amarillo. Perhaps their friendship dates back even before they got together in California. Incidentally, J. D. Souther co-wrote several of the Eagle’s biggest hits including “New Kid In Town”. A Hayes, Kansas group “THe Blue Things” also signed with Ruff and had some singles on Ruff and Sully labels, before signing with RCA. Amarillo groups that recorded with Ruff include The Tiaras and The Illusions, two of Amarillo’s finest bands of the mid-sixties.

Tommy Allsup and Westex Studio of Odessa, Texas

One other good studio at the tip of the South Plains was operated in Odessa, Texas in 1963 and later. The owner/operator was another Norman Petty associate, Tommy Allsup. The fine guitarist from Oklahoma had opened a studio here. He seemed to have been operating an adequately equipped studio at the time. I learned it through a friend of mine, Robert Ashcraft, a bass player from Midland who played occasionally in my first college rock group Ashcraft had recorded at Allsup’ studio before I met him in late sixty-four. He reported that some good recordings were being made there. I don’t doubt that this is true because Robert was a very good musician himself. Anyway, by the later sixties Tommy Allsup had produced a legitimate hit titled “In The Year 2525” and he seems to have made enough money from this song to move to Nashville, Tennessee, I am told. Nevertheless, during the mid-sixties there is no doubt that a number of ‘Garage Bands’ from Midland/Odessa area recorded at the Tommy Allsup Studio.

In fact, Buzzy Barnhill and his band “The Four Counts” from Turkey, Texas heard about this distant studio and drove two hundred miles to record there in 1966. The two original songs they recorded were “I Love” and “Something Different” featuring Buzzy Barnhill singing and picking, Sonny Mullin playin guitar, Billy Joe Mullin picking out the bass with drummer Gary Johnson on drums. This band had there first recording in Plainview , Texas in Harry Bray’s Cellar Studio, but Tommy Allsup produced their second record release which is amuch cleaner and better sound.

Don Caldwell Studio of Lubbock, Texas

In the later sixties or early seventies Don Caldwell a Lubbock, Texas musicians put in a Scully 4-track studio in Lubbock. Caldwell had played in a band with Gary Nun, “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 the studio about the same time. A number of 45 rpm records and albums were released during the late sixties and seventies under the guidance of Don Caldwell and his main engineer/producer, Lloyd Maines. By the mid seventies he had 16-track equipment.

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 Gilmor, 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 also. There is little doubt that when Caldwell made Scully equipment available to the Lubbock musicians, they had a facility and engineer capable of producing a hit. In fact they did produce at least one top-forty country hit later, during the Seventies. They also produced at least one MCA album for Joe Ely in the Seventies. Some of Ely’s early singles were also produced here including his regional hit “My Fingers Click When I Play The Piano”. Later in the seventies the Maines Brothers Band made a number of recordings here which led to a contract with Mercury Records. The Caldwell recording studio led Don Caldwell into becoming the director/manager of the important Cactus Theater in Lubbock. Many fine stage shows are held here annually under his guidance and supervision and some are televised.

Nesman Studio of Wichita Falls, Texas

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 artist signed to the King label of Cincinnati, Ohio. Nesman’s Studio was active from early 1950s into the 1980s, and perhaps later.” Since the big King label released some recordings from this studio we must assume quality recording was going on here.

Venture Studio of Lubbock, Texas

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 recordings from it appears to Be a demo tape of Buddy Holly, J. I. Allison and some other musicians. It was in late 1956 that young Holly and the group recorded twelve cover songs here. From the original demo tape, on 3 3/4 ips, 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.

Mitchell Studio of Lubbock, Texas

Another studio that appears to have been active in Lubbock, Texas in c.1960 was at this adress: Mitchell Recording Studio, 2615 38th Street, Lubbock, Texas. An acetate recording by the Emeralds of Brownfield Texas titled: “Spring Fever” / “Dreams & Wishes” still exist. It also stated that David Box did some recording at Mitchell’s Studio in Lubbock in the same time frame.

Harry Bray’s Studio of Plainview, Texas

In 1964 an amateur songwriter/musician moved to Plainview, Texas 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 professionally equipped (sound on sound, mono recordings mainly) Bray did produce a lot of 45s on his Twixt-Tween and Satin labels. Although it was basically a private studio where Harry 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.

One song “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, Tennessee in his youth and he considered it to be the proto type of all garage band recordings. 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 I know/knew all of 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 parad in 1965, It’s never to late to receive some credit. 

Radio and Television Stations recording

Aside from actual recording studios, good recording equipment was also available at many radio and television stations in the fifties and sixties. One of the first recordings made by the String-A-Longs of Plainview had been cut in a radio station in Amarillo. It was released as the Rock’n Rollers on the Ven label out of Herford, Texas and is a collectable record today. When my first band appeared on Walsh Food Talent Show at KDUB television in 1958 the shows audio was recorded. The sunset Ramblers, a local Western Swing band of Lubbock backed most of he acts on this occasion, except our instrumental trio. I recall that we sat around and listened to the recordings after the show and snickered. My sister’s trio “The Sparkletts” had also performed that day and my little trio was either billed as the Swing Kings or Three Notes of Matador, Texas. The girls were fifteen and my trio was composed of thirteen year old boys so one can imagine how advanced we were. It bring a tear to my eye to discover and say “Yes, we made our television debut playing a half century ago..

Anyway, I recall this event just to illustrate how some recordings came about, outside of recording studios. I suppose it is possible that some of those old Walsh-KDUB recordings are sitting on a shelf somewhere, ”South Plains College”, just waiting to be discovered and played again. I’d love to hear Do Allen And The Sunset Ramblers one more time but don’t think the songs my trio recorded would even be interesting. Other musicians that also made the same type recordings in Lubbock, included important artist such as Wayland Jennings and Buddy Holly. They did some of their earlist recordings at KLLL and KDAV radio stations respectively.

The Harry Bray Discography:

American musician, songwriter and publisher Harry D. Bray was born in 1914 and died in 1983 in Plainview, TX. He was raised in Turkey, TX and began trying to fulfill a lifetime dream of being a recording artist, at about age 45. After one release on the Allstar label of Houston, Harry decided to establish his own label and publishing company. His work met little success during his lifetime but his failure in commercial music did not defeat him and his final record came just one year before his death.

Label & number: Allstar #A-7273

artist: Harry Bray

song Titles: Guitars / So Lonely

date: c.1962

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween (number unknown)

artist: Frank Barnhill and the Coachmen

song Titles: Summers Gone Away / For me to know

date: c.1965

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # RHB-114

artist: Buzz Barnhill and the Four Counts

song Titles: I Love / Something Different

date: 1966

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # RHB-1114

artist: Harry Bray and the Silver Spurs

song Titles: Once warm and tender / I know what you'd do

date: c.1966

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # 1115

artist: Harry Bray & the Western Six (Shirley Malone- vocals)

song Titles: For a long time / You're gone again

date: 1967

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # RHB-1116

artist: Carolyn Collins & the Wheels

song Titles: I'd be sorry / I've been told (time & time again)

date:c.1969

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # RHB-1117

artist: Harry Bray and the Wheels

song Titles: Mescal Wine / When Gabriel blows his horn

date: c.1969

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween # RHB-1118

artist: Carolyn Collins and the Wheels

song Titles: Forget me lover / I'd be sorry

date: c.1970

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1119

artist: Carolyn Collins and the Wheels

song Titles: Thats when I know you're gone / I know what you'd do

date: c.1970

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1120

artist: Harry Bray

song Titles: Way down in San Antoine / I lost my love

date: c.1970

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1121

artist: Harry Bray & the Wheels

song Titles: Backroad of my Mind / A long time

date: c.1970

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1122

artist: Harry Bray & the Wheels

song Titles: Cloudy days & Rainy nights / Tell me

date: c.1970

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1123

artist: Jackie Johnson & the Wheels

song Titles: Yesterdays misery / A million heartaches

date: 1971

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-1123 / note: A duplicate number error with the above record.

artist: Harry Bray & the Wheels

song Titles: Many many times before / Just one more dance

date: unknown

 

Label & number: Satin # RHB-217

artist: Larry Nelson & the Wheels

song Titles: Sweet loveletters / Backroad of my mind

date: 1982

 

Label & number: Twixt-Tween or Satin labels....(number unknown)

artist: Harry Bray & the Silver Spurs

song Titles: Orbit of love / Too many Tears

date: unknown

note: Harry Bray also released a Viet-Nam recitation on a 45 rpm, during the war years. No additional information available.

 

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