Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Chaz and the Classics
Chaz (And The Classics) - "Girl of the 13th Hour"
One of the most unusual live gigs I ever attended was the Chaz Shinn/Coye Wilcox show at the Galena Park Recreation Center on Houston's East Side on October 12, 1992. There was nothing unusual about the performers or music. Chaz played country standards, Elvis's "That's All Right," and closed with "Jesus on the Mainline," to which the appreciative crowd clapped along with as if it were known by heart. (I'd never heard it before.) Coye Wilcox also played a solid set of C&W and bluegrass. What was unusual about it, then? When you only know performers by their old records, they fossilize in your mind -- I therefore was not surprised to hear Coye play country, because that's what his '50s records are, but I was taken aback by Chaz Shinn doing the same thing, since I only knew him from his late '60s garage-psych singles. To have them on the same bill therefore was a bit jarring at first glance, like advertising Sonny Burns and the Bubble Puppy together. Of course, I should've known better -- everybody in Texas eventually comes back to country music.
Chaz and the Classics are not one of the better remembered '60s rock bands from Houston. In fact, had it not been for this 2:31 whirlwind of mayhem from 1967, they probably would not be known at all. That's a shame. "Girl of the 13th Hour" somehow missed "canonical" '60s status among collectors by being excluded from the early Texas comps (Flashback Vol. 1-6, Acid Visions), only making it to a wider public in 1984 via Highs in the Mid-Sixties, Vol. 11. Original copies are rare and expensive today, but the song can now be accessed in a variety of formats including a YouTube video.
If you think that "Chaz and the Classics" has a flashy but unmistakably early '60s ring to it (like "Kenny and the Kasuals"), you would be correct. The Classics were formed in 1964 and, as their early business card shows, they played not only rock 'n' roll but western and hootenanny (folk). The band clearly tried to cover all the bases for the working-class East Side greasers who didn't think it the least bit odd to have George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care" and the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" played back-to-back in the same set. They were simply popular songs and in East/South Houston at least "pop music" included country. These were, after all, the same teenagers who had turned Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer" into a dance craze via Garner State Park and The Larry Kane Show.
"When I was a kid, I would write songs and use a small broom as my guitar," Charles "Chaz" Shinn (b. 1946) explained to me in 1992. "I fell in love with the thought of being a guitar player. I guess you can stem it back to Buddy Holly, Elvis, Chuck Berry … one of my favorites was Little Richard. When I was coming up in Junior High School, rock and roll was just getting started."
The reigning bands on the East Side at the time were C.L. and the Pictures, the Jokers, and the Champagne Brothers. While these groups considered their music rock and roll (and even R&B), their records rely heavily on ballads, and even the uptempo sides were not very rocking. Fifties-style rock was passe, and the new models were Roy Orbison, Bobby Vee, Del Shannon, and the like. If they wanted to get really wild, they would throw in some current R&B from groups like the Olympics or the Miracles.
Like many teenagers as well as all adults, Chaz was bewildered by the British Invasion. Winning a songwriting contest earned him a free ticket to perform at the 1964 Teen Fair of Texas, a huge two-week event at the Joe Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio (June 5-14), now only remembered for being the Rolling Stones' second appearance in the US. (Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were also at the fair, but no one seems to remember them.) So the parents would have something to do, the promoters booked George Jones on the same gig. A "teen rodeo" and as well chimpanzees and the "Fire Twirling Lounsbury Sisters" also appeared. This is the kind of booking that made sense in Texas at the time, but would later serve as surreal comedy in both Bill Wyman's and Keith Richards' autobiographies. (They assumed that this was just how live music always was in Texas.) Chaz witnessed the whole debacle. "They had George Jones up there singing country music for the old folks, and then they said, 'We have this brand new British group that’s never played in Texas.' And out comes these guys with real greasy-looking hair and raggedy clothes – terrible, terrible rags – and they played Beatle music. George Jones looked at them like they were dirt! Everybody out in the audience were all country music lovers. I thought to myself, 'How could anybody get anywhere in music looking like they did and singing Beatle music?' They didn’t even have original stuff at the time." The audience was confused. They didn't want to be impolite, but they hated the Rolling Stones' music, which, being typical white people, they had no clue was merely black R&B covers. So they booed.
Chaz's memory is telling. Photographs of the Rolling Stones exist from this date, and they are wearing vests and pressed slacks, not "terrible rags." He surely wasn't the only attendee who had projected his opinion of the Stones' music on their clothing as well.
Not surprisingly, the Classics' first single displays zero English influence, as the titles give away immediately: "You Are the Answer to a Dream" and "Dreamboat Overseas." We would call these "teeners" in collector's parlance -- safe, light songs a la Bobby Vee or somebody like that. Fitting for 1962, they were way out of date when they were recorded at ACA-Gold Star in July, 1965, and released on their own BCS label. (BCS = Boyd C. Shinn, Chaz's dad.)
This was followed in late '66 by "Cindy (I’m A Soldier Now)" on Picture. This is another awkwardly outdated single, perhaps inspired by Sgt. Barry Sadler or similar major label pop muzak. The East Side greasers appreciated stuff like this, but increasingly fewer Houston teenagers did. Chaz blamed it on corrupt DJs. "This was at the time of payola," he said. "We were trying to keep it clean. We were doing it Presley style, where you’d just go into a radio station and say, 'Would you please play my record?' 'Cindy' was played for two weeks."
Picture Records was a label that totally glommed onto the East Side aesthetic, releasing belated rockabilly by Sleepy LaBeef and blue-eyed soul from Gene Thomas and Richard Moreland. Chaz fit in perfectly. There were over 20 singles, but no hits, from Picture in the '60s and '70s. It was ran by a man named Marlon Machart.
"Marlon Machart heard us recording at Gold Star," Chaz said. "He was a store manager at Grant’s 5 and 10 (department store). And he aspired to have a rock and roll group, but he didn’t want to be involved with the drugs. If he could come up with $500, he was going to cut a record. He was a gambler, musically. The Picture label was owned by a number of people. There was an Italian guy who had a lot of influence on Picture. Some people in the recording studio had an influence on Picture." But mostly it was Machart's baby.
Chaz in the Houston Chronicle, late 1966. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Glenn Pitts collection.
Chaz was on the verge of becoming a casualty of the greaser resistance to the British Invasion when somebody gave him an album that forcefully yanked him into the present: The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. He was floored. Suddenly, he was trying to write lyrics like Tommy Hall and sing like Roky. Over time, he befriended Stacy Sutherland.
"With Roky, you could know him, but he wouldn’t recognize you the next day," he remembered. "Roky didn’t want to talk a lot, but Stacy Sutherland did. We were friends. A friend of mine, John Guess, kind of milled around with all of the bands that were going into the IA Studio. He brought Stacy over and we talked at length one time. Man, I loved Tommy Hall’s lyrics."
Thus, Chaz largely skipped the British Invasion but went directly into psychedelia, and "Girl of the 13th Hour" was born. Time was booked at Jones Sound Studio on January 6, 1967. This was around the same time that Neal Ford and the Fanatics did "Gonna Be My Girl" and the Outcasts laid down "1523 Blair" in the same room. The time was right: "I called up Marlon and said, 'I got a song that sounds like the13th Floor Elevators.'"
Many garage and soul bands were attracted to Jones Sound in the late sixties, perhaps because of Jones himself. "Doyle Jones was a real honest engineer," Chaz said. "If you talked to him and said, 'Doyle, what do you think of this song?,' he’d rate it right on the spot. 'A' or 'B' or 'It’s not going to fly.' He’d tell you, even after you’d spent all of your money on it, and you were so happy about it, he’d just look at you and go, 'Chaz, you know, it ain’t gonna go.'"
The weird noise overdubbed on the record? "I was trying to get a sound that had that same kind of electric jug. The jug that Tommy used sounded almost human. I wanted a 'human' sound that wasn’t his sound (i.e., a special effect on the record that wasn’t obviously electronic), but just as weird. And this guy who played organ with us for a short period got this comb and put a piece of tissue paper over it, and when he blew into the comb, it’d make this noise. He said, 'If I laid down and I started making this sound, and you started pounding me in the stomach real hard, how would that sound?' So we did it, and I said, 'That’s the sound I’m looking for.'" The X factor was this instrument, which Chaz jokingly dubbed the “psychecomb.” Tommy Hall would have appreciated it, I'm sure. The crashing sound at the beginning is the reverb unit of a Farfisa organ.
"Doyle Jones just broke down laughing. I said, 'Doyle, how do you rate this song?' He said, 'Chaz, I don’t even know what I’d rate it. It leaves me completely dumbfounded. It might fly, and it might not.' And it didn’t fly." Though it received little or no airplay on KILT and KNUZ, "Girl of the 13th Hour" rates alongside similar efforts like the Heard's "Exit 9" and the Iguanas' "I Can Only Give You Everything" in the mini-genre of Elevators-inspired singles.
Hey you! Girl of the 13th hour
Once you reigned in vain
Mention of your name
In wealth and power
Hey you! Girl of the 13th hour
You kept on the run
You kept having fun
With the bad things you have done
You've earned the name of the 13th hour
Hey you! Girl of the 13th hour
No longer lives in vain
Only lives in shame
And answers to the name:
"The naughty girl of the 13th hour"
Not exactly "Slip Inside This House," but fun nonetheless.
Chaz still did not want to completely alienate his parents and the greasers, so the flipside "Stardust and You" is pure Bobby Vee. This time, a string section, rather than the psychecomb, was overdubbed. Just as the Rolling Stones/George Jones gig had made sense in the context of its time and place, so did pairing the 13th Floor Elevators with Bobby Vee here.
So, too, did it seem perfectly normal to acquire a Catholic priest, Father Coffey, as a manager. The Classics were made up of kids who had attended Mount Carmel Catholic High (Chaz himself had gone to Lutheran High), and Mount Carmel's gymnasium had been a major spot for weekend teen dances for local bands since the '50s. Fever Tree recorded a live album there.
Pie in the sky idealism wasn't the sole purview of hippies in the late sixties; religious authorities were also dreaming big. "Father Coffey's idea was for us to play at the Vatican," Chaz said, shaking his head at this memory. "To play rock and roll music at the Vatican. He was sending letters out to all these priests. He got to messing around with all these bands and everything, and he was a heavy drinker – he had strong religious convictions, but at the same time he was liberated. He was always being ostracized by the Catholics because of his association with psychedelic rock musicians. He was trying to get these religious leaders to accept this, and they wouldn’t accept it. Eventually, the man lost his mind. He was put into a mental hospital."
By this time, Chaz and the Classics had succumbed to hipness and changed their name, first to the Syndromes, then to the Captr (combining the first letters of their names). As the Syndromes, they re-recorded "Girl of the 13th Hour" at Gold Star, something I only discovered 10 years after my interview with Chaz. It is a strong version, sans the psychecomb, and may be reissued one of these days.
Chaz and the Classics as the Ballistics, Pasadena, Tx., c. 1968. Chaz standing in middle.
One of the bands Father Coffey managed was the Ballistics. They had recorded a single but broke up before it came out. Chaz and the boys then became the Ballistics for awhile, not letting on that they weren't the group who made the record. (This was presumably "Please Come Home" on Jamie, the only single I can find credited to a group by that name. "Please Come Home" is the Sixpentz song.) It isn't known how long they maintained this ruse.
The group had graduated to better gigs by 1968, though they were still remote from mainstream rock clubs like the Catacombs, and most Houston rock fans probably never saw them play. They played strange events like the "Youth For Decency" Rally at the Coliseum, and sometimes appeared with the Buddy Brock Orchestra. "We were playing places like the River Oaks Country Club," said Chaz. "Buddy and his orchestra would play, and while they took a break, Buddy would put us on. The first set would be mediocre stuff like the Turtles, slow stuff, but as it gradually went on it would get wilder and wilder. Towards the end of the night, we were doing full-fledged rock and roll, and there would be gray-haired people out there kicking ass (dancing)."
Once again ... it made sense within the time and place. You just have to keep saying this when writing about Texas in the sixties.
As the Captr, the band made two more singles, "Gentle Thursday" (not the Music Emporium song), a good garage/Farfisa mover, and "Forthcoming," a hard rock effort recorded at Jones Sound in late 1969. This was their final effort on vinyl I think, though there was one more session in 1971. By that time, the teen garage band era was most definitely dead and buried forever.
I was sorry to learn recently that Chaz had died at age 60 on March 24, 2007. I regret not keeping in touch with him in his later years. He was an interesting guy. He apparently spent the intervening decades as a political cartoonist for the Pasadena newspaper, and playing the odd gig like the one I witnessed at the Galena Park Recreation Center. He had an Elvis-like persona. When I met him on a warm Sunday afternoon for our interview, he was wearing a leather jacket. I think he remained a serious Elvis fan not only through the late sixties, but well into the '80s and '90s. The East Side aesthetic had never left him, even right up to the end.
Below: The Captr at the "Youth For Decency Rally," front page of the Houston Chronicle, April 28, 1969. Click to enlarge.
Chaz and the Classics discography
July, 1965. ACA-Gold Star Studio.
Dreamboat Overseas/You Are the Answer to a Dream (BCS AG 6002/6003)
(as The Classics – Vocal Solo: Chas.)
October 15, 1966. Jones Sound Studio.
Cindy (I’m A Soldier Now)/Dream Boat Overseas (Picture 6995) 1966
January 6, 1967. Jones Sound Studio.
Girl Of The 13[th] Hour/Stardust And You (Picture 6999) released April, 1967
(as Chaz and the Classics)
1967. Gold Star Studio.
Girl of the 13th Hour/Gentle Thursday (unissued).
April 21, 1968. Jones Sound Studio.
Alice (In Wonderland) /Gentle Thursday (Picture 6981)
(as Chaz – Music by: Captr)
November 18, 1969. Jones Sound Studio.
Forthcoming/Little Girl (Zac 1001)
(as Chaz and the Captr)