Sunday, September 18, 2011

Leo and the Prophets: From the Ozone Forest to the Cackle Factory

Leo and the Prophets at the Ozone Forest Club in Austin, July, 1967. Back L to R: Rod Haywood (bass), Bill Powell (drums), Dan Hickman (rhythm guitar). Front L to R: Travis Ellis (tambourine), Leo Ellis (vocals, lead guitar). Courtesy Doug Hanners Collection. 

Leo and the Prophets were active on the Austin scene for little more than a year, but are well-known today for the supremely fun and quirky single "Tilt-A-Whirl" b/w "The Parking Meter," on the local Totem label. Recorded in less than three hours at Gold Star in Houston on April 9, 1967, the original 45 is now rare and expensive, but it has been reissued many times. A follow-up for Sonobeat never materialized.

Leo Ellis was an older jazz guitarist/Svengali who decided to get in on the psychedelic action by recruiting a teenage group, J.C. and the Boys, to form the Prophets in about May of 1966. They played at the Lake Austin Inn, Swinger's Club, the Jade Room, and the usual places (including the State School for the Mentally Retarded) before starting their own club, the Ozone Forest, located at 3045 Guadalupe. The band had potential, but for reasons that remain obscure, Leo had a complete breakdown on stage during an important gig at the New Orleans Club one night, cussing out the band and audience in a drug and alcohol fueled rage, thus ending the brief life of the Prophets.

I interviewed Dan Hickman (rhythm guitar), Rod Haywood (bass), and Bill Powell (drums) to get their memory of this extraordinary time in Austin music history.

AB: How exactly did J.C. and the Boys come together?
DH: Rod Haywood sat right behind me in class. The first day I went to Reagan High School, he asked me to come over to his house. He had the new Them album. He introduced me to “Gloria” and “Mystic Eyes.” I had been taking guitar lessons, and had been playing Ventures, and that sort of introductory guitar crap…

Was this late ’64, or…
No, this was ’65. So, I had some experience with a guitar. Rod had none. So that was where it all came from. I essentially taught him how to play guitar chords over the phone. From there, we knew some other people at school who had musical equipment. Bill was one of those people. He lived just a few blocks away and had a drum kit. And then Mike McClary, who was a very rich kid, we met somehow or another. He had his shit together. He was a pretty good guitar player, and could sing, but more importantly, he looked exactly like Paul McCartney. That really helped us get gigs. He had two amps - a Fender Twin Reverb and a DeLuxe Reverb - and a couple of guitars. In those days, that was just amazing! And his dad, somehow or another, had a connection to the Jets, who were a real good R&B group that had been playing in East Austin for, I don’t know, 20 years. So, a couple of times, Mike took Rod and I to a guitar lesson he’d have with one of their guitar players. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, ‘cause this was like the coolest thing ever. All of a sudden we were learning, you know, seventh chords, and minor seventh flat fives, and all this blues stuff. Up until then, we’d just been playing bar chords.

So, that’s how J.C. and the Boys kind of…McClary had a garage, he had the equipment, so we’d show up at his garage and do our thing. It was that way for a long time. {Note: Late ’65 through Summer ’66.} We played a lot of private parties and what not. No live gigs…and there were times when we couldn’t play at McClary’s house, so we’d play at Bill Powell’s house. And that’s the first time I ever saw Leo.

Before we get into that, I wanted to ask you about the name -- J.C. and the Boys.
Isn’t that weird? McClary seized upon religious bigotry. Just the whole religious scene he thought was ridiculous, hypocritical. So, the name was just a play on Jesus Christ and his disciples: “J.C. and the Boys.” Really, pretty risky. It was crazy. But nobody ever put it together.

You wrote that you got kicked out of the house for what appears to be a rather frivolous reason…
I was adopted by my grandparents. They were very strict, and were not going to put up with this nonsense. It may have seemed frivolous at the time, but I think they were making some sort of “tough love” stand…

Yes, but it resulted in you being homeless for the next few years of your life.
They didn’t believe that I would do it. They felt like I would give in and come home with my tail twixt my legs, so to speak, and play by the rules. But I think they totally underestimated the mindset that was sweeping through America in those times. That whole thing was unbelievably powerful. I was taken by the whole rock and roll thing, and I knew that I would go to the wall to live it. And I did.

Even if it meant being homeless.
Yeah. And when I say homeless - no permanent home for more than a month or two. Really, from some time in ’66 or ’67 up until sometime in ’71, I maybe lived in two dozen different places. The little college loan I had, it paid the tuition, it bought the books, but it wouldn’t allow me to live in a dorm on campus like most kids. I’d have to be in some dive off campus…

So how long did J.C. and the Boys play before Leo entered the picture?
I think it was late summer ’66 that we hooked up with Leo.

Was it before school started?
Yeah, I believe so. I don’t know how long Leo had been married to Marilyn. I didn’t even know Marilyn. She’d never been there when we’d practice at Bill’s house. But this one time, McClary was not there. He didn’t show, but his equipment was left there. We walked in and, all of a sudden, here’s all of this other equipment. And that was Leo’s. So we started playing some of the usual crap that we’d been playing. And he, really, had no originals. He just played his jazz stuff. And it was great, no question about it. He was ten times the musician we were. That’s kind of how it happened. We were desperate…

There was a music store in town called J.R. Reed. It was the only music store in town. You could essentially take home an amplifier - not rent - as long as someone over 21 signed for it. You could take it home as though you were going to try it out to buy. We’d check ‘em out on Friday, go play somewhere, then take ‘em back on Saturday at lunchtime. We did that over and over again. It got more difficult as time went on to convince them that we were seriously interested. But they knew there was money in the bands, so they would cater to you as much as they could. All of a sudden, here’s Leo with equipment that doesn’t have to be checked in or out. It was just too good.

You said that Leo had a career as a draftsman?
Yeah. He was good, too. I actually went to his work a few times. They would bend over backwards to appease him, because not only was he good, he was real fast. He could do a day’s work in a half day. He did that by taking white crosses and smoking weed. But he absolutely hated it. All he did was bitch about work.

So, as you mention in your story, you believe Leo took over J.C. and the Boys “out of fear of losing his youth”?
Oh, sure. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it seems pretty clear now. Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure seems that way. I think, first of all, he really wanted a break from playing jazz. And maybe he saw this as a chance to accomplish two things at once: to be with his wife, and play with a band, and not have her upset because the drummer in the band was her brother.

And Darlette and Marilyn traveled with the band everywhere. They went to every gig. They wore white go-go boots and danced at the side of the stage at almost every performance. We were coming from that mod era. We were coming from that to a more hardline, I guess you could say psychedelic, era - (where there was) less dressing in go-go boots and matching outfits to more of a do your own thing with leather and all that.

So Marilyn was very much involved, and yet Leo was still hitting on other girls…
Constantly. It was so goddamn embarrassing. You’d be ready to go on for the next set and, invariably, Leo’s out back either getting high or screwing the club owner’s wife…and, I don’t know, we might have thought that if he ever got caught, that’d be the end of the band. But yes, he was a leaper and a bounder.

Yes, according to Rod, the sole reason Leo wanted to join the band was just for the girls.
Oh, absolutely! Take it from me, it wasn’t because of our musicianship. Plus he had this real insatiable appetite for drugs.

Tell me about playing at the Living Eye club in Houston.
Man, that place was packed. It was literally wall-to-wall people. I think we had dropped acid a day or so before we played, and by the time we took the stage, I was having unbelievable flashbacks. I’d just phase out in the middle of a song. And it was unusual in ’67 - other than Hendrix - for musicians to fall to the floor with their guitars. I ended up doing it that day, not to imitate Hendrix or anything, (but) because I was having such a flashback that I literally could not stand. I was in the middle of a solo when it hit, and I had to go to my knees to keep from passing out.

And the crowd loved it…
They did…that’s when I kind of snapped back out of it. The first thing I looked at was the crowd, and they were cheering and applauding. There was a dance that was real popular back then called the Gator…

Oh yes, the Alligator.
People would actually get down like gators. So, maybe that was the motivation for some of the crowd dropping on the floor just like I did. I looked over real quick to Leo, and sure enough, he was down there on the stage, like a dog on it’s back, playing his guitar. It was just so crazy. It was probably some sort of soul song, like “Mustang Sally,” ‘cause that would tie in with that dance. And I remember Rod, as always, just laughing his as off while he was playing - looking at all of these fools on the ground, including the audience.

May 19, 1967 (Austin American-Statesman).

What were your first impressions of the Elevators?
I was totally taken with their lyrics. To this day, I have yet to hear another band with as much metaphysical influence as them. I think the first time I saw the Elevators was at the New Orleans club. The thing that blew me away the most is that, we were all trying to acquire the equipment that resembled all the stuff that you would see on television, that all the big bands would have. Walls and stacks of amps, and all that - as well as the really chic, trendy clothes. The Elevators were a complete 180 (from that). It was the first time I’d seen anything like that. We’re talking Alamo amps…we’re talking an old PA system like you’d see at a school auditorium. Maybe the whole cabinet had been taken off, and they’d just nailed it down to some plywood. That would sit on top of this old, beat-to-hell Alamo amp. And, instead of the cords being routed to the back of the stage where you couldn’t see them, they might just have a bird’s nest of cords laying there on the stage.

They played some of the shittiest looking equipment. None of it matched. It looked like it had come out of a pawn shop - and I guess it did. And yet, they were able to get such a mesmerizing, hypnotic tone, and such a drive - almost a primitive drone - coming out of that rag-tag junk.

Plus their decorum. They were wearing these boots - not cowboy boots, but a kind of workman’s boots, the kind that you’d stick your jeans in as opposed to pulling your jeans over to look very polished.

Well, the very notion of wearing jeans on stage in 1966 was unheard of…
Exactly. It became evident, at least in my mind, that the message was much more important than the visuals. So, it was a total rejection of everything we had seen and aspired to, and the music got me, the image got me, that equipment just totally blew my mind.

Plus, we’d seen Roky play with his group the Spades a couple of times, at the Jade Room, or maybe Club Saracen on San Jacinto - which was nowhere near the Elevators. They were really very “pop” and similar to most of the bands that were playing in those days. Roky was really a different player then. Very pure.

But those bastards, let me tell you, they were hounded to absolute death by the Austin Police Department. I mean, they could not get a moment anywhere, period. It was sad. It did ‘em in. But I love all that metaphysical claptrap from Tommy Hall.

Did you ever meet them, or hang out with them?
They were totally unapproachable. I don’t think you could’ve gotten a straight answer from any of ‘em if you’d tried.

Did the Prophets play frat parties at all?
A few. There were not many. We tended to play more psychedelic tunes and less soul tunes, and soul music was what they wanted to hear at frats. They wanted to drink and listen to Sam and Dave. But I do remember that when you played a frat gig, you could make $500 a night. That’s pretty amazing.

Travis Ellis, Bill Powell, and Leo Ellis at the Ozone Forest, 1967.

What other local bands did you like?
The Baby Cakes were huge, because they imitated the Byrds. They did the Byrds’ things, with the Rickenbackers and Vox amps and all that. The Wig had this wonderful guitar player who, in my opinion, was easily the best guitarist of that whole time, Johnny Richardson. He was so good, it was scary. But he was the kind of person that did not want fame. He just walked away from it.

Jim Mings was another sensational guitar player and writer. Jim Mings and the Six Pack was a really good soul and funk band. They reformed several times, and several names went with that band. {Mings later had a band w/Danny Galindo called New Atlantis, and also played with the South Canadian Overflow.} Tim Lively and the Profits got lots of frat gigs. Why, I’m not really sure, but I think that’s how the name “Profits” came about.

And they only adopted that name after you guys had started playing?
I don’t know that for a fact, but isn’t it an incredible coincidence? Whether Leo did it afterwards, or they did it first…I do know that Leo was constantly carrying The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. He would quote from it; read from it to anyone who would listen.

Rod seems to think that Leo’s jazz trio was called the Prophets.
It may be…

…and that he, Leo, got Rod to play in that band for a gig or two before taking over J.C. and the Boys.
It could have played out that way, for sure. I do remember Rod, when we were getting this info together for Hans, telling me that he was playing with the Walter Hutchinson Trio. Whether or not Walter left, say, and Leo called it Leo and the Prophets, and Walter then went to Tim Lively and the Profits, I don’t know.

How did you get the gig at the home for the mentally retarded? Was that a circuit for bands, or just a one-time deal?
I couldn’t tell you. Leo booked everything. He hated Charlie Hatchett, but everyone had to use Hatchett, he was the only agent in town. As a band, you tried to play anything and everything. There was the Austin Parks Dept., that would pay you for various events you would play at Zilker Park, or other parks. This was something that came up routinely for a lot of different bands, to play events at those state and city (functions), where they had money allocated for entertainment. Leo never discussed any of that (booking). I just showed up, got stoned, and did my thing. At the time, it seemed okay.

This place was like a gymnasium, but a very large gymnasium. There were more than those particular (mentally retarded) people. There were all of the attendants that had to watch them, as well as the administration. And I guess to get more bang for their buck, they had bused in some kids from the home for the hearing and blind, which was less than a mile away. This was right around Bull Creek, where all of those state schools are located.

I don’t think we had thought much about it until we had taken the stage and actually looked out there and saw what we saw. And it was quite unnerving. (Laughs) You know, you’ve got guys that are trying to undress, guys with their tongues hanging out…it shook you up, especially if you were stoned, and looked at all of this. Initially.

But then you “got into it”…
We got into it, and they really got into it. It was scary to start with, but then it actually became fun. I don’t believe, other than a few of those auditorium gigs, that we ever played to a larger crowd. And I don’t think we ever played to a more appreciative crowd. (Laughs) On what level they appreciated it, I’m not sure. Probably some primitive level, like most people. I think we were only there for an hour or so. You can only keep that much craziness under control for a short period of time.

That was probably early on, because at that time Leo had us dressing very modish. And then Marilyn and Darlette with the go-go boots…so it might have appeared, from a distance, that this was a very English, mod group.

Leo and the Prophets with girlfriends in Matamoros, Mexico.

You played the Aqua Festival Battle of the Bands, didn't you?
I believe the Austin Aqua Festival’s first year was 1966. I know I played two of ‘em. I remember that I played one of ‘em with Leo, maybe two. I don’t know if they finally cancelled the Aqua Festival or not. I know it’s been going on for 30 or 40 years. You showed up and played…if you were lucky, you won. They did a first, second, and third place. It was probably a trophy or something. The crazy thing about it was, the Doris Miller Auditorium was touted as being the most acoustically perfect building in the Southwest. And it was exactly the opposite of that. The basement, where we actually played one time, was infinitely better. The auditorium itself was this huge, rambling sea of unusual shapes and concrete that could somehow suck your tone up and spit it back to you a good second-and-a-half later.

In those days, I don’t recall ever seeing anybody with a monitor…ever. Without monitors, it was a tough gig to play. You couldn’t hear yourself until after the fact, so you’d have to play by memory.

We were up against some tough competition. John Stahaley, who played with a group called Shepherd’s Bush, was a very hot guitar player. They were easily one of the better bands because of him. Todd Potter was just a spectacular musician. He was the first player I ever knew that played a Gretsch White Falcon. He played in a variety of different groups…I want to say the Strawberry Statement? {The Strawberry Shoemaker.} They were another group that would regularly finish high at the Battle of Bands, if not win it. I also remember being on stage in Leo and the Prophets with Eric Johnson opposite us. And he just totally destroyed us. He was doing some Jeff Beck stuff…I believe he was playing “Jeff’s Boogie,” and it was almost note-for-note. It made us look foolish!

The In Place for the In Crowd -- the Jade Room. May 23, 1967 (Austin American-Statesman).

What did Travis Ellis do?
Travis was the guy who showed up in the little Renault Dauphine. Leo painted that thing psychedelic, just like the club. And he wrote - we were getting a lot of hassle about drugs, like the Elevators - he wrote, “Leo and the Prophets - Psychedelic Music Without The Use Of Drugs.” Travis or I would drive that little Renault to a lot of the gigs, and park it right out front as advertising.

Travis died in the late sixties or early seventies. He was a diabetic. He was a nice guy…no musical ability, but he could at least play tambourine in time. He had a good leveling attitude, and he could calm Leo down.

Grand opening of the Ozone Forest Club, July 21, 1967 (Austin American-Statesman).

How did the record come about?
Leo said, “We’re going to write a couple of psychedelic tunes.” We went to his home on a Sunday, ate steaks, and wrote the two songs that Sunday. And shortly after that, we were on our way to Gold Star to record.

So you hadn’t been performing those songs very long prior to recording them?
Not very long…I would guess a dozen performances, maybe more. By the time we got to Gold Star, we knew ‘em backwards and forwards.

What was the inspiration behind “The Parking Meter”?
In those times, I was living hand-to-mouth. With my long hair, I got called “animal” a lot of times. Getting rejected by the common man…I didn’t have a regular place, I didn’t dress all that well, had long hair, no car, and walked everywhere. I was kind of viewing society as though I were taken for granted. Something that everybody passed by and no one paid any attention to. And yet, once I had something to offer, i.e. playing in a band, all of a sudden people are paying money to watch me. I play my three-and-a-half, four hours, then I’m done, and I go back to my “world of solitude.”

So it was analogous to your life, then?
Yeah…or anyone’s life, really. The most prolific writing in my life was from ’65 to ’70. I literally had dozens of songs I wrote with J.C. and the Boys, and another little spin-off group Rod, Bill and I had called Bluefield Dairy.

We’d heard Leo sing it (“The Parking Meter”), and he couldn’t sing it straight-faced. So, I got the nod. In performance, we did trade off vocals a lot.

Leo, frankly, just did not have a handle for rock and roll. And it wasn’t like I was Jeff Beck. But at least I knew what to try to do, or the tone to go for. Because in those days, as (sarcastically) “rebellious as we were,” and our audiences were, they really wanted to hear people play songs that kind of sounded like the records - as opposed to taking long flights of fancy, which really didn’t happen until, really, about the time Leo and the Prophets folded up.

So, the record never received any airplay?
No, unfortunately. It was crazy because the Spades had gotten their record on there (KNOW), and the Wig had “Drivin’” (i.e., “Drive It Home”), the Baby Cakes had a single…so the fact that we couldn’t get on there absolutely crushed me. Because I wanted all my school friends to say, “Wow, look at them, they’re on the radio.”

KNOW was the only pop station in Austin. KAZZ, the jazz thing, really didn’t come about until later, and then that part of their format (pop music) was only on late at night. Hell, a lot of people didn’t even have an FM radio. Only mom and dad could afford one.

The fact that it got banned actually did more for the record probably than if it had been played. Word of mouth spread. So where we’d been playing gigs where maybe 50 people showed up, all of a sudden, there were twice as many people. Just to see. Just to hear the song for themselves.

The attitudes of Texans in those years were some of the only moments in my life that I’d been proud to be an American. I’m serious. Because I saw cowboys who had nothing better to do than beat people up totally transformed to become kind and gentle creatures. And I knew that there was hope for those people. And yet, after awhile, even that went away.

Leo and the Prophets at the Dunes Club, Port Aransas, 1967.

What was the story of the Prophets’ confrontation with rednecks in some small town…
What a hoot…we stopped, I believe, in Lampasas {Sinton according to Bill}…we were tired, it was hot, we looked bad, we smelled bad, we were hungry. We couldn’t make it to Austin, so we go in this little roadside restaurant. You could’ve heard a pin drop when we walked in. All of the regular patrons just kind of stopped in mid-fork to look at what’s walking in. This place had two large tables that would seat 12 people in the middle, and the usual booths and tables around that. One table had all these good ol’ boys in their country shirts and hats having a good ol’ time. We walk in, and there’s really no way we can all get into two or three booths. (We had the five members of the band, plus all the girlfriends, plus a few roadies and their girlfriends.) So, it was a crowd. So, we take the table next to the good ol’ boys. On the walls there were literally dozens of mounted heads of all kinds. It was amazing. The food, it seemed like, was taking forever. I don’t know if they were trying to tell us we’re not going to serve you, or whatever. So, we started making noises like the various animals on the wall…which did not help our situation at all.

Meanwhile, the guys next to us are getting more and more upset with our attitude, and the way we look. The last thing I wanted to do was fight. I just wanted to eat and get the hell out of there. I think everyone else felt the same way.

We finally get food, we eat, and it comes time to leave. Leo always paid the check. So, as we get up to go, what does Leo do? Well, he’s had enough of these old boys putting us down. He walks right over to the biggest, meanest, baddest, ugliest one of all, plucks the hat off his head, puts it on his head, slams both of his hands down the table - tableware and glassware all go flying - and says, (loudly) “I’m Leo Ellis, these are the Prophets…now, who the hell are you?”

I’m telling you…our eyes got as big as their eyes. We were in shock. We just knew that things were going to explode, so we got the hell out of there. We were in the station wagon, locking the doors…

You weren’t about to rally to Leo’s aid…
Oh, hell, no! Are you crazy? But, sure enough, he comes out of there a few minutes later with a toothpick, laughing, not a bruise on him. He said, “Oh, you just gotta explain it to ‘em, they just didn’t understand.” It was a typical Leo situation. Always confrontational. The only thing you could be sure of was that he would be confrontational and unpredictable.

A typical week in Austin in 1966: Roky and the Elevators at the Jade Room, Lightnin' Hopkins at the 11th Door, and Leo and the Prophets at Swinger's (Austin American-Statesman, July 13, 1966). 

Were there many other times when you had run-ins with rednecks?
Oh, absolutely. At the Ozone Forest, it happened all the time. They’d come in from these little country towns outside of Austin. They’d get all liquored up and come into town. Of course, Ozone Forest, right there on the drag, was real convenient.

It was a fairly small club, I’m guessing about 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. There were always a lot of people outside the club, on the sidewalk. That’s where a lot of the hassle would happen. It almost seemed like it was orchestrated at times. It seemed like the cops would never get there until after the situation had already happened. People got tired of it. Many times, innocent people would get involved in situations.

Dan Hickman at the Ozone Forest, 1967.

How long was the club open, approximately?
It wasn’t long, maybe three or four months. It was packed. We had good crowds on the weekends, and average crowds during the week. We carried bands there as often as we could. That’s when we had these really forgettable…(Laughs) We had this one group that I’d talked Leo into booking. In this group, everybody wore a black glove on one hand.

The Music Machine?
Well…they were imitating the Music Machine. (Laughs) You know, when you get around to imitating the Music Machine, you’re definitely a Tuesday night act. So that’s what we’d have during the week, and then we’d have the better Austin bands on the weekend.

The Reasons Why of "Don't Be That Way" fame appearing at the Ozone Forest, 1967.

How did the Sonobeat single come about?
Somebody Leo knew also knew Rim Kelley. I know that Kelley played “Tilt-A-Whirl” and “The Parking Meter.”

Oh, he played the record?
He played it late at night on KAZZ. At the same time, I think Kelley must have realized that there were a lot of bands out there that he could record with his little label. He was recording anybody and everybody. I went to his dad’s (Bill Josey’s) house in Balcones. The basement was loaded with state of the art recording equipment, as well as a variety of old Fender amps. They knew what to record with. It was real tiny. But we went down there and recorded. And then, supposedly, they recorded us at LAI. I do remember the time they recorded us at Swinger’s. There were no PAs or boards or any of that crap. They recorded a lot of bands that day. We recorded onto a two track, possibly four track. The Elevators were there; I don’t know if they recorded ‘em. Todd Potter’s band was there…we had our time there. Leo was out in the parking lot with whoever (female) was available.

I know that we had written “Ozone Forest” and were playing it on a regular basis. They recorded it three times. And I think they did retakes of “Tilt-A-Whirl” and “Parking Meter,” as well as a couple of originals Rod and I had written…when they recorded, they would do a whole set.

Dan Hickman at the Lake Austin Inn.

So, it was your understanding that the Sonobeat recordings were going to be released as a single?
Yep…going to be released as a single. We had a B-side that wasn’t good enough, so we were trying to come up with the B-side, but could never find the time. We played constantly. There was no time to rehearse or write. So maybe that was the reason it fell by the wayside: we could never come up with a B-side. I tend not to think so.

Tell me about that last gig at the New Orleans Club…you guys had never played there?
No, and we’d always wanted to, probably because of the Elevators’ influence, and for the fact that the better Austin bands tended to get booked there on Friday and Saturday nights. That was really before the Vulcan Gas Company. The New Orleans was a much bigger club.

The crazy thing about it is, I don’t remember Leo ever doing a lot of drinking. I know he always had a bottle of Schlitz, but I don’t recall him drinking beer after beer…with Leo, it was always weed and speed. That night, he started the insults rights away. It was (directed at) nobody in particular. He would just change a song, whatever it would be, and sing, “You fucking asshole.” And be singing it in a pretty voice, y’know. A lot of people wouldn’t realize it. Then he’d sing it a little louder the next pass through, and eventually, people began to take notice. And in those days, those were fighting words. So that’s what it escalated to. I believe that particular night, he’d had too much of everything. Who the hell knows. It could’ve been any number of things, and probably would’ve happened eventually anyway…but what a place for it to start. Because we had worked so hard, it seemed like, to get to that point.

(During the first break) Leo just came walking down the steps with his amp and guitar, put it in the trunk, and left. That was it. I don’t even remember him saying, “I quit.” I believe he did, but I don’t even remember that. He just left! And we were looking at each other like, “Oh, that’s great. Now what are we gonna do?”

So, we had to throw out the Leo and the Prophets repertoire, and went back to J.C. and the Boys. We finished the next three sets, and that was it. I think we all thought that he would come back during the last set or something…

I think that we all had been pretty much beaten down by Leo so much…

…that you just didn’t want to play anymore?
Exactly right. It was such a psychological beating…we were all burned out. Rod and I continued to noodle here and there, but everyone kind of went their separate ways.

Were you guys still in high school at this point?
They (Bill and Rod) graduated in ’68. I was a year ahead of them. I ended up getting a GED. I left midway through the 11th grade.

And two years later, Leo suddenly reappears.
Yeah. I had blocked that out, or forgotten about it. I didn’t have a guitar; I didn’t have anything. I had just started college. Leo shows up with this Kay upright bass. He traded a Kustom amp head at J.R. Reed’s, even, for the bass. He shows up at this little room I had rented -- it actually had an old record player - he shows up with half-a-dozen jazz records and this bass and says, “Learn this.” I tried. It made my fingers bleed.

Did you ask him where he’d been or what he’d been doing the preceding two years?
No. I didn’t want to know. About a week later, he shows up and says, “We’ve gotta go play here tonight, so let’s get loaded and go.” For some reason, I remember Bill being the drummer at that gig. It didn’t happen long…one or two, maybe three nights at the most.

He was doing exactly the same thing. I just couldn’t believe it. I remember somehow or another getting the bass and records into his car, and I disappeared from the planet as far as he was concerned. I’d had enough. He cleaned me out of what little weed I had. To Leo, anyone and everyone was fair game. I couldn’t see myself going down that same road again.

Ad for "the new" Leo and the Prophets from November 8, 1969. This may or may not be the gig that Dan Hickman remembered as his final one with Leo -- or perhaps Leo just re-used the name with a different band. (Austin American-Statesman)


Leo and the Prophets at the Ozone Forest, 1967.

Rod, your version of how Leo and the Prophets came together is at slight variance with Dan’s, and Dan seems to think yours is the more reliable memory.

The drummer Billy’s sister was dating Leo at the time. He was this 30 year old jazz beatnik, and we were a bunch of teenagers. As I recall, he was just hanging around, listening to us play, seeing all these younger girls around, and decided that’s what he wanted to do: get in a rock and roll band. At the time he was in a three-piece jazz band. He decided to dump that and organize a rock and roll band with us. That’s basically how Leo and the Prophets started.

Now, were you involved with this group with Dan called J.C. and the Boys?
No. Actually I think there were (in that band) three or four guitar players. There were no bass players at the time; nobody knew how to play bass. I didn’t have a bass, but I hung around these guys and was a part of the scene. I later got a bass, and it was the next incarnation of a band that I became a part of.

What band was this?
The One Way Streets – the lead singer/guitar player was Allen Dressen, who I believe still plays around Austin. I played with them for awhile and then quit. Then Dan and I and Billy started to put this band together, which was a no name band. Actually…I think I moved to Colorado, then moved back, started playing with the One Way Streets…we broke up, and then Billy, Dan and I started just rehearsing.

Did Dan ever tell you about the time he sat in with the One Way Streets at the Municipal Auditorium? Classic story. Our guitar player got sick, so I said, hey, Dan, come on and sit in with us, this’ll be great. There were several bands. Then, the headliner I believe was Jerry Vale. And we were supposed to be his back-up band. Mike Lucas, a deejay from KNOW, was the emcee.

Dan had a new Gibson. At that time, he didn’t really understand when you play lead and when you don’t. So, we’re playing behind Jerry Vale, and we’re doing “Hang on Sloopy.” Right in the middle of it, Dan turns up his amp and starts playing these licks…this absolutely horrendous freak sound. (Laughs) This went on for about 10 bars, because every time Dan would do it, Vale would turn and look at him. Well, Dan thought he was encouraging him. So, he did it more! Finally Vale flips out right onstage and walks off. And as he’s walking off, I hear him scream at Mike Lucas, “Who the fuck hired this band?”

Now, I told Dan this story and he has a completely different version of it. That was the way I perceived it.

Yeah, Dan remembers it being a “radio personality turned singer,” not Vale, and that it was Leo and the Prophets backing him up.
No, it was the One Way Streets. Vale was this Elvis lookalike from Las Vegas.

How did you know Billy and Dan?
I moved from Colorado to Texas in ’64. The very first person I met was Bill Powell. Dan Hickman I met in high school, the very first year Reagan HS opened. He and I were in the same advisory. We sat next to each other. He’s actually the one who turned me on to guitar – showed me how to play.

So this band began to rehearse probably in the summer of ’66?
Yeah – summer, fall, sometime in that area.

Didn’t you tell me that you’d played bass in Leo’s jazz trio for a little while?
It wasn’t a little while, it was one night. I felt like, later on, that he’d used me to break the band up, so he could start the rock and roll band. Because here’s this kid that doesn’t know a 1-4-5 progression from yin and yang…and I’m supposed to know how to play “Shadow of Your Smile”? We played “Day Tripper” in F sharp – hello? (Laughs) I think about the second set, the drummer lost his mind. (Laughs)

Was this at the Lake Austin Inn?

So, the next thing you know, you guys are forming this band and starting to play out…for a long time you played at the LAI, correct?

Yeah. We were the house band out there every weekend. It went real well. We developed a real nice little following. It allowed us to become a tight little band.

The Power Plant (Golden Dawn) appearing at the Ozone Forest, 1967.

Either you or Dan told me that Leo would just count off the intros to songs, not make up a set list or anything, and just expect you guys to fall in and know what he was playing, just like a jazz group…

He would do that. He would just start playing. Wouldn’t tell you what it was – you were just supposed to know.

There were no set lists…
Nah. Never, ever a set list. I didn’t know what a “set list” was, to tell you the truth. (Laughs)

The earliest mention of Leo and the Prophets in the Austin American-Statesman, June 13, 1966. The Prophets are "a new Austin group headed by Leo Ellis, a recent arrival from Hollywood." 

Dan thinks you guys were treated very condescendingly by Leo – did you have any thoughts on that?
Leo was just this incredible force that got things done. Musically, he knew so much more than we did. But I’m not going to say it was a learning experience, because he would never take the time to explain to you what the cycle of fifths was, or anything of that nature. He just expected you to get it. He was a nice guy for the most part, but he always took care of himself. It was always Leo first.

And Leo either got bored, or…I’m not sure what happened, why it broke up that night at the New Orleans Club.

Yeah, tell me your recollection of that night.
My recollection is, Leo got drunk as can be, and after the first set, he started insulting the crowd. Then (during a break) he went out front on the sidewalk and started hollering at us and so forth. And then finally he just said, “Fuck you,” got up, and drove off. Just drove off! (Laughs) We’re sitting there…I’m almost positive this was after the first set. We were standing there with our mouths open going, “Now what are we gonna do?” There were 200 to 300 people there. It was a big gig. The New Orleans Club was the big time. That’s where the Elevators would draw in these humongous crowds. We were just beginning to get established as a real, viable band. Where we could draw people. This night was a big deal. And he gets up and drives off.

And that was the last show?
That was it.

Couldn’t you have recruited another lead guitarist and continued as just ‘The Prophets’ or something?
We more or less tried that, but again, Leo was the driving force behind everything. He got it done. He was the glue. And even though we could have played as a trio, and even tried to, it quickly fell apart.

You’re credited as co-writer of ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ – what was your contribution to the song?
My contribution to that was, “I’ve got a feeling/banana peeling/and the monkey’s showing through.” (Laughs) That was my contribution. And that came about because it was the beginning of the drug scene and all that, and Donovan had come out with “Mellow Yellow” which was supposed to be, if you burned banana peels…

…you’d get high. What does “the monkey” have to do with it?
(Laughs) When you go through heroin withdraws…

Oh, “monkey on your back.”
Exactly. I tried to sneak in this rather vague, gray reference.

I’d never even made that connection.
The whole idea for “Tilt-A-Whirl” came about (because) Leo said that he had a friend in Los Angeles who said that if he, Leo, could ever come up with some new dance, then this guy would produce it. Just like “The Twist” was such a big thing. Well, this was Leo’s answer to that.

So, Leo envisioned the ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ as being a big dance sensation?
Exactly. He would do this dance…

Really? Dan and Bill have apparently forgotten this.
No, I still remember seeing him doing this. (Laughs)

Well, how would it go?
As I recall, he would bend at the hips and lean forward; kind of do this body rotation thing with his hands on his hips. (Laughs) Of course, Leo was this wiry guy who had these moves.

May 19, 1967 (Austin American-Statesman).

And then the record was “banned.” Tell me about that.
It was banned because of that banana peeling line. (Laughs) The only place you could hear it was on the University station, KUT. The radio stations said, “We’re not going to play it or talk about it. We just hope you guys go away.”

Leading up to that recording (session), we would play “Tilt-A-Whirl” four or five times a night. Leo would say, “We’ve got to get tight on it.” I always thought “Parking Meter” was a much better song than “Tilt-A-Whirl,” personally. Dan was a very talented songwriter. He would come over to my house every day with two or three songs. Some of 'em were absolutely jewels…as good or better than anything that was out there at the time.

Dan said that I’m supposed to ask you about Leo’s wife and the tambourine at the session.
As I recall, they gave her a tambourine. And a tambourine is the worst instrument you can give anybody. They cut right through everything. There was a little stress over that decision, but of course Leo got his way. And, as you can hear, all that noise in the background? That’s Marilyn.

Background? Hell, it’s in the foreground. Tambourine is the lead instrument on that record.
Oh, man. (Laughs) Well, that was my introduction to the tambourine and what it could do. I still, to this day, remember: don’t give anybody a tambourine.

Gold Star Studio receipt for Leo and the Prophets' session (April 9, 1967).

Do you remember anything about the second session, for Sonobeat Records?
As I recall, Rim Kelley did “Ozone Forest.” We recorded it live, remotely, at Swinger’s-A-Go-Go. That’s all I remember. It wasn’t long after we did that that the band broke up. Rim used us to develop his own skills in recording, how he was going to do it and so forth…

By the way, Dan says your brother has a live tape of you guys.
We think he does. It might exist. He recorded us sitting in the living room.

Now, something we must get straightened out are the shows that Dan and Bill remember playing at the State Home for the Mentally Retarded…
Oh, yeah. (Laughter) The reason we did that was to pay our union dues. Also, if you would do a public service thing like that, they would waive your dues. We would play park gigs (for the union). We played down in East Austin one time, and I thought we were going to get killed. As I recall, a lot of Chicanos were hollering and harassing us, because we had long hair – and that was just taboo, it seemed like, for Chicanos. So we had walked into hostile territory, and the way we looked only exacerbated it. And then we were playing rock and roll, and all this…the longer we played, the more tense it got. (Laughs)

Leo and the Prophets at Swinger's Club, September 15, 1966. Featuring "Texas' Goingest Go-Go Girls" ... but the go-go scene would not last much longer. (Austin American-Statesman)

One thing Dan didn’t remember but Bill did is also playing in a home for the mentally ill.
Well…that could be true. (Laughs) Now, I was involved with a band in Colorado, so now I’m mixing these two up. We used to do that – in both Colorado and Texas, play gigs at these institutions. At one point, a guy came up and he’d just shaved, and he’d just ravaged his face. Blood was everywhere. He was talking to us while blood’s running all over him. (Laughter) I’d completely forgotten about those things.

What were you telling me about the Elevators and their effect on you?
I idolized them. They were the vanguard of this cultural revolution.

They were just completely different –
Absolutely. Completely different. This was original. This was unique. These guys were doing something nobody else was doing. The Beatles…nobody was doing what these guys were doing. And they had this sound, this energy, this aura…this thing that was almost tangible. You could almost touch it.

You said prior to that, you’d seen Roky and the Spades play?
Yeah, they played at one of our dances at Reagan High School. They played real well. Musically, they were highly evolved compared to everybody else then playing (in Austin). Benny Thurman, as I recall, was their bass player. I’m sure he was.

You never viewed the Elevators as just a local band?
No, no, no. The were the Elevators. They were bigger than the Baby Cakes, the Wig…

The Elevators had a guy named Brian Foster who idolized them and knew all their songs. He had a band that played their songs (Brian’s Blokes). It was a knock-off band. And they actually hired him on occasion to take Roky’s place. He knew the chord changes, he knew the songs, so they would just hire him when they knew that Roky wasn’t gonna be there.

You said, “Back in ’66, nobody got high.”
Young kids didn’t. Certainly it was an underground thing, and people that hung around the Elevators were. College Students. But high school students? Nah. Nobody was doing it.

Dan said there wasn’t much of a music scene in Austin in ’66.
There was the embryo of it. But…they’d have this battle of the bands during Aquafest. That was a big deal.

That was at the City Auditorium?
Yeah. We would go every year. There was always good bands, and, of course, there was a lot of crap. We played just that once. We were in the final four, and we lost completely. That was when Leo and Dan flopped down on their backs, playing guitars…everybody else had their Beatle jackets on, and they were very poised and so forth. And we’re out there floppin’ around…it was a hoot. It was filled to capacity: 10,000 people. We were playing “Gloria.” Leo flopped down on his knees, and all of a sudden Dan did too…it was so funny. All these people in the audience had their mouths open.

What’s your recollection of Leo and all of his women? Dan said it got to be embarrassing.
He had a talent. To give you an example, we had a friend whose father was this hardcore Baptist. Hardcore. And Leo convinced him to put money into this nightclub (Ozone Forest). That’s what a salesman he was. So, could he talk the pants off a virgin? I think he could. He was unbelievable.

According to Dan, “By the end of the summer (of ’67), the local fire marshals and police and violent rednecks were showing up every weekend to cite the club for nonexistent offenses.”

Yeah…they went out of their way to shut us down, because it was developing into a long-hair scene. And Austin was trying to do everything they could to shut that down. It was not a safe place after awhile.

Do you remember coming to Houston to play at a place called the Living Eye club?
Yeah. It was a dumpy club, painted up…in a dumpy area of Houston. And we stayed at a dumpy hotel. I don’t remember much about it except that it was a mediocre gig. I do remember Leo taking all the money…while we were thinking we were going to split (the money) five ways exactly. He said, “Well, no, I have to take expenses out.” Well, he and Marilyn were eating steaks and drinking wine while we were eating peanut butter sandwiches. So we ended up making nothing. That’s what I remember about it.

The stage at the Ozone Forest.

What was the story of you meeting Dan again circa 1970? You said Dan told you he was joining the Air Force or something…
We were trying to start a band with Brian Foster. He lived out near Lampasas…rented a farm way out in the woods. And so a bunch of us went out there to jam. And it turned out to be this insane asylum, with everybody getting way too high…it was crazy. So, like, 4:00 in the morning, Dan says, “Take me home!” What? Nobody can see, can’t walk… “Take me home.” All the way to Austin? “Yeah. I’ve gotta go home right now.” So, we drive him into Austin. And he disappears. He disappears for, like, six weeks. We’re all saying, “What happened to Dan?” Then I get a letter from him saying he’s joined the Air Force. (Laughter) A week or two later, he showed up at my front door. He was living in this little one-room apartment by the University. And he was now playing upright bass. (Laughter) He’s gotten back with Leo, and he’s playing at the Carousel Lounge down on Airport Boulevard…

So, did you actually see this group play?
Actually, no. I never saw them when they had an actual night gig. They came over and got me one Saturday afternoon. We were driving around, and they said, “Let’s go jam, man.” So we drove over to the Carousel Lounge…their equipment was sitting there. So, we just picked up and started playing. Dan, as I recall, got back on drums. I’m on upright bass, and Leo’s over on guitar. And we’re playing “Scotch and Soda,” “Shadow of Your Smile”…(Laughter) Can you imagine what that sounded like?

Too bad your brother wasn’t there with his tape recorder! So, that was the last time you and Dan saw Leo until 1979 or ’80 when you went down to San Marcos…

Right. That’s when this whole “Tilt-A-Whirl” thing came up, where I read about it and so forth. So I thought I’d call Leo and try to get some information out of him – who might have the master tape, and so forth. And he was as cold to me as he could be. I thought he’d be excited to hear from me…and he talked to me as if I was a bill collector.

How did you find him?
I can’t remember, but we start talking on the phone and he tells me he’s got this gig…so Dan and I went down to see him. It was pure Leo: he was doing the same songs, saying the same things…Leo was in his forties or fifties by that time.


Bill Powell.

AB: Bill, what is your recollection of how Leo and the Prophets came together? Did you meet Dan and Rod at school, or…
BILL: Yeah, we all went to high school together.

Did you play with this group J.C. and the Boys?
Yeah, Dan and I were in that, and a guy named Mike McClary. I seem to remember we played primarily in McClary’s garage. Rod got involved with some guys called the One Way Streets. They were pretty good. I remember playing New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31, 1965) with them at Lampassas. So, Rod and I knew each musically through that.

The way I remember Leo and the Prophets getting together…my older sister was married to Leo. He was a real Svengali – he ran around in sharkskin suits, his hair was slicked back, playing jazz and singing Frank Sinatra and stuff like that. But then he started playing this place called the Lake Austin Inn which was just a little hovel of a night club on the west side of Lake Austin. He was playing with a three-piece band out there. I went out there a couple of times. I’d been playing drums off and on anyway.

I think all of a sudden Danny was playing guitar with them. And that just changed the entire complexion of the band from jazz to more of a rock and roll band. I remember sitting in a couple of times out there. The next thing I know, we were a band. I was 16 years old. We played a long time at the LAI, either once or twice a week. That’s where we became a band.

Where was Leo from?
San Marcos. He might have been raised in Victoria, but don’t quote me on that. I think his parents still lived in San Marcos when we were playing.

Because Rod seemed to think Leo came from L.A., and that he played in L.A. jazz clubs.
Well, he did. He lived out there for awhile. When my sister first met him, he’d just gotten back from Los Angeles. He came back in a Corvair that he wrecked on Lamar Boulevard. If you’d seen this car, you wouldn’t have believed that anybody walked away from it. That Corvair was just completely demolished. I’m pretty sure Leo was drunk at the time. But I remember distinctly that the Corvair had California plates on it.

Bill Powell at the Lake Austin Inn, 1967.

The Lake Austin Inn was a full-fledged drinking club. In those days, you could go to a night club at any age, you just couldn’t drink unless you were 21. It was real liberal back then. But all you could buy at a club in Texas was beer or wine. Or, you could buy set-ups, and bring your own bottle into a club. Weird laws. But, two things: it had to be in a paper bag, and it had to be kept on the floor. I can remember playing these clubs when I was 16 and there would be these older guys, the serious drinkers, ordering pitchers of ice or water, sitting there mixing up highballs. But their bottle of Jack Daniels would always be on the floor. That was the law – the New Orleans Club, the Jade Room, it was like that everywhere.

Anything stand out about the other bands playing in Austin at the time, like the Elevators?
They were tremendous. We were really very fortunate to see the Elevators as much as we did. I was a real groupie. I went to see them all the time. The Jade Room, New Orleans Club, wherever they were playing, we were there. I think Stacy’s really one of the underrated guitarists of that era. The guy was pretty amazing. John Ike was a heavy influence on my playing. And Roky – that voice, I’ve never heard anybody else quite like that.

Were they instantly popular in Austin?
No. I can recall seeing them at the New Orleans Club with a dozen people there. Same at the Jade Room. They were regulars at the Jade Room, like on Wednesday nights. What made them popular was when they got busted for marijuana. Nobody had really paid that much attention to them and, of course, they were splashed across the newspapers because of that. So then everybody, out of curiosity, wanted to go out and see them. Marijuana possession, you know, was like murder in those days!

Do you recall playing a show at the state home for the mentally retarded?
I remember more than one! I remember at least one show at the state hospital, and one at, I think it was called the Brown School, which was for the mentally retarded. We played at the Cackle Factory at least once.

The “Cackle Factory”?
The state hospital. The crazy people. Believe me, there were some really crazy people there. It was right off of Guadalupe. I think it’s called the Austin State Hospital for the Mentally Ill. The Brown School, which I think is out near the Burnett Road area, was for the mentally retarded. We hit ‘em all. You know why? Because Leo had us all join the union. And if you played those kinds of gigs and you were in the union, you’d get paid minimum scale. So, we used it to get some practice time in, but hell, we also got paid for it. Six to eight weeks after we played those gigs, I’d get a check in the mail for $18 from the Texas Musician’s Union. (Laughs) But the state hospital people just loved us.

Was that a regular circuit for local bands?
Not that I’m aware of. I think that was something Leo pulled out of his hat. I can’t remember how we got involved with that, but the next thing I knew, I was setting up my drum kit in the auditorium of the state hospital.

The Earth People (Golden Dawn) appearing at the Ozone Forest.

Leo was a very artistic person. He wasn’t an intellectual, but musically and artistically, he was a very talented individual. He just walked into an architecture firm and got a job as a draftsman. And he’d had no formal training in architecture or drafting. He just went in and did it.

How old was Leo? Both Dan and Rod seem certain he was about 30.
I think he was about 10 years older than me at the time, which would have made him 27. I don’t think he was 30.

So, the record was banned by KNOW?
They played it for a week or two, because I remember being ecstatic about hearing it on the radio. But then they got to that “I got a feeling/banana peeling” line. Somebody apparently took offense to that, and yeah, they banned it. But that turned out to be the biggest publicity we ever had. It was better than airplay.

Do you remember playing outside of Austin much?
We played at the Dunes Club in Port Aransas – that was the hottest club in the whole Corpus Christi area. It was a happening joint. It was right on the beach. They had a band upstairs and downstairs. The upstairs band was actually in the open. The downstairs band had a roof over them. We played there a couple of nights. After that, just for the hell of it, we went down to Matamoros, down to Brownsville. We stayed in Port Isabell…

Leo and the Prophets at the Dunes Club in Port Aransas, 1967.

Was that the trip where you stopped in a bar in some small town –
Yeah. It was in Sinton, Texas. That was one of the famous incidents with Leo and the Prophets. All’s well that ends well.

We had a few pretty bad incidents at the Ozone Forest. Guys would just bust the door down and start beating up everybody that they could find. Travis actually pulled a gun on them one night. They chased him into there – he was up by the bandstand, and I was afraid he was going to shoot ‘em. He didn’t, so they picked him up and threw him over my drums. And that was the end of it. I think that particular incident was the end of the night club.

Dan remembers that a couple of years after the band broke up, he started playing jazz with Leo.
I remember that.

Did you play with that group?
I want to say that maybe I played once or twice with Dan and Leo at a couple of little cocktail bars. I don’t think I felt very comfortable, because Leo was so much more accomplished in that area. He was playing a lot of jazz stuff, and I couldn’t play jazz drums. But I do remember that big ol’ bass.

Was Leo still playing during the 68-69 period?
If he was playing, he probably went back to playing by himself. I really don’t know. I never saw him perform again.


More on Leo and the Prophets' Sonobeat session can found at the Sonobeat website.

All photos/illustrations courtesy Dan Hickman, Rod Haywood, Doug Hanners, and

Thanks to Craig Malik.


  1. Fantastic post! Funny coincidence too, cause I just found a copy of this 45 a few days ago...

  2. Hey, Leo,

    All good stuff. How can I get a high-resolution image of that Aqua Fest clipping for use in a book I’m compiling?

    Thanks, in advance.

    Howie Richey