Rave On! The Ultimate Sonny West Interview – Part 1
by Colin Davies
Quite simply, Sonny West wrote two of the greatest songs in rock n roll history – ‘Oh Boy! ‘ (incidentally, the first record I ever bought, on a 78rpm) and ‘Rave On’. He also became a big cult hero during the ’70s revival with his double-sider ‘Rock-ala Ruby’ / ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’, considered by many to be one of the finest double-sided rockabilly records of all time. A modest man, with a self-effacing humour, he is always happy to sit and talk about his early career, and his association with Buddy Holly and Norman Petty. He gives a great live performance, which includes not only his classics, but also some of his recent compositions. I interviewed him on September 7th and 8th 2007, at the Clovis Music Festival, where Sonny performed, along with Tommy Allsup, Jack Neal and Larry Welborn.
You lived and grew up in a whole lot of different places — in Texas, New Mexico, California…
Yes. Mostly in New Mexico and Texas. My folks, well my dad, was a farmer but we were sort of like migrant workers in a way, too. The times we went to California when I was young was because I think my dad had the idea we would go to the harvest there for lemon harvest or something like that. Then my dad had homesteading — that’s where the government allows you to have some land and then if you stay on it and improve it for a number of years they will give you the deed to it. So he had some land in western New Mexico. So we kept going somewhere to make some money and go back to improve the place.
They were happy days?
I thought they were! We were very poor but as a kid I didn’t know if we were poor or not. We had very little variety in our diet. We ate a lot of beans and cornbread … not an awful lot of meat on the table.
And what kind of music were you listening to then?
My earliest times, the only time I was ever exposed to any music was if my folks happened to go to some kind of get-together — ‘cos we had no radio — playing either some gospel or possibly some old timey country-type music. So that was my only exposure to music before about 6 years of age. And then we moved on to a place in western New Mexico and the people who had lived there left a Victrola and a bunch of 78 records. There was a lot of the older Jimmie Rodgers records, and a bunch of records in that vein. That was my real inspiration, listening to those train songs. They all had a blues background. Jimmie Rodgers had brought the Delta and the southern blues into a kind of a country-type setting.
And when did you first get a radio?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. The first radio I remember us having was in the automobile. I don’t remember us having one in the house until I was probably about 12 years old. So I had a very small knowledge of music until I got to high school where I was exposed to different kinds of music. I started high school in California. It was a fairly large school and this was north of Bakersfield, about 50 miles. We had music appreciation classes and that was the first time I was exposed to music by the masters, you know, Mozart, Dvorak, Chopin. So I kind of soaked up some of that. I would even go home sometimes on my lunch break — about a mile home — to listen to the radio.
And when did you start playing guitar?
At about 14 I started playing guitar and I tried mandolin. It didn’t work out very well with the mandolin, then with the guitar I had to either borrow a guitar or something like that. I was 17 before I had my own new guitar. Bought that out of the Wards catalogue. By that time we had moved back to New Mexico.
And what about black music? Were you exposed to any?
No. In the early days my only exposure was second-hand. Like I said, Jimmie Rodgers – I’m talking about the old Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, people like that were exposed to black music and so I got it second-hand. I don’t remember hearing it myself up until the mid ’50s. ’55 was probably when I started first hearing some black music on the radio.
So you got a guitar, and then what happened?
I started playing. There was another guy about my age, 16 or 17, we were playing at school or at little parties. We’d play some songs that had two chords, so we could actually kind of harmonize and use the guitar for back-up. I always favoured the songs that had kind of a blues background . I started writing some things on my own about that time, I had moved to another place in western New Mexico, up in Farmington New Mexico. I hooked up with a guy that played guitar and also there was a radio programme on Saturday night that we would play on. This was just as I’d got out of school. I got out of school when I was 17. I had a job at the Ford dealership — they call it a ‘parts chaser’. That was my day job, and at night I played with Buddy Smith, and we struck up a friendship.
And what was the next step?
I worked up a couple of songs. The only thing I could think of was that Sun Records might let me in the door. I didn’t know any other record cornpanies. I didn’t even know where RCA was or any of those places.
Norman Petty wasn’t known then?
I didn ‘t know him at the time. We’re talking about late ’55, early ’56. And so I wrote Sam Phillips a letter. I think I got some kind of response from him but he discouraged me coming to Memphis — he said he had a lot of other things going — and by that time Elvis was selling a lot of records. So I saved up the money, and despite his discouragement I took off anyway, in about May ’56. I had bought a car by that time so I drove to Memphis — I had to stay a couple of nights on the road, spent most of my money to get the car fixed, I was dead set on it. I had three or four songs and I had bought myself a new Martin guitar, bought myself a car, saved up a little money, so I thought I had it planned.
And your parents encouraged you?
I was not living with my parents at that time. They had never encouraged me during my growing-up days. When I was in Farmington I lived with my older brother and my sister-in-law. He thought it was really wild for me to be taking off to Tennessee. He had no interest in it himself and thought it was a dumb idea.
So you got to Memphis?
I got to Memphis middle of the afternoon and I went in the front and talked to the secretary and told her who I was and she said Sam was busy with some people — I don’t recall who they were. I waited for a long time and she told me – I suppose this was Marion Keisker — and she told me it looked like he was too busy to come out. I had no place to go, I was just about out of money, so I just couldn’t leave. Finally she told Sam he had to come out. He was quite short with me — not rude — and he said, “I just have too much talent to work with here. There’d be no reason to listen to any more.” So that was it. I only had one plan, and it was gone. So I went out and got back in the car and it dawned on me that my sister lived in Levelland, Texas just about 30 miles outside of Lubbock, and my brother-in-law — Walter Anderson — was just about the only one in the family who had taken a little interest in me early on, though he was quite a bit my senior. He was a cool guy and I thought I’d go to Levelland and see if they would pull me out of this jam. I made it back to Fort Worth and finally totally ran out of money and I called my sister. She was surprised to hear from me. She wired me a few dollars to Western Union to come to Levelland. They said I could stay with them. He was a big Swedish guy, a big-hearted guy, we called him ‘Heavy’. He was willing to take chances. I guess that’s why I liked him.
Now, Buddy Smith didn’t go with you?
No. I called him and got him to come and stay, so we could work up the songs I had, to do the recording. He was probably not a real good guitar player but he knew what I was doing — we had the chemistry. The Anderson family had a big family reunion at the Mackenzie Park in Lubbock and it was on a day when KDAV had the ‘open mic’ thing. It was a Sunday night, I think, the first week of June, so Heavy and his brother said, “You’ve got your guitar with you. You can go down and do a song.” That was my first meeting with Buddy Holly. We went down to the station. Buddy was there, actually finishing up a song. So I walked in and talked to Dave Stone or Hipockets Duncan and he said, “Yeah, you can do a song”. He introduced me to Holly and the boys — I don’t remember who they were. I’m not sure if Jack Neal was there, or maybe Bob Montgomery. I remember Buddy because he looked a little different. It was just a “howdy” and they went on and I went in and sang one song with my guitar. During the time we were there at the studio Heavy asked the DJ in charge, “We want to work up a record and where do you think we could go to get records made?” He said, “I’ve heard there’s a man over in Clovis who does that pretty good”. So the next week we called Norman Petty and told him what we had in mind, and he said, “Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk about it?” During that time I got acquainted with a local DJ in Levelland and I experimented with recording a couple of things at KLVT because he had the slap-back echo, the repeat echo thing, and I experimented with that a little bit. So we come over to Clovis — me and Heavy — to talk to Norman so he could explain to us what the expense was, what we needed to do.
So you were simply going to pay him to make some acetates?
We were going to get him to make some acetates. He wasn’t going to manage us or
publish us or anything else. I had come up with two or three songs, including ‘Rock-Ola Ruby’ and ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’. I had no idea how to arrange them, but I knew what was selling. I was working on these songs. What we originally wanted to do was put them out on our own label — we had no idea we could get someone else’s label to put it out on. And so we came up with this idea of making this label, called Bop Records, and so we worked with that idea. And we were going to start our own publishing company. One of Heavy’s relatives had worked to make up the logo. We brought that over to Norman and told him we wanted to make this record and make our own label, and he had contacts where we could get them pressed at RCA in Chicago. Well we found out it would cost so much to get that label and it would take so long — another month or two, so Norman said. During this time I had called Buddy Smith to come over and we had this bass player, Jim Metze, who still lives over close to Dallas, and the drummer, Doc McKay, and his mother had a dance studio in Levelland with a piano in there, and we’d practice in there. Doc is still around, he lives in Colorado, but I’ve lost contact with Buddy Smith . I wanted Norman to do the tape echo like I’d done in KLVT, but he said he didn’t like to do that. He wanted it his own way, his own sound, and he thought that tape echo was enhancing it artificially [though he did use it on Holly’s ‘Baby Won’t You Come Out Tonight’]. He hadn’t yet built his echo chamber and he said this theatre had a good reverberation, acoustically it was tuned. So he said, “You go and play on stage”, and he came and set up the stuff and recorded those two songs, ‘Rock-Ola Ruby’ and ‘Sweet Rockin’ Baby’, after the movie house had closed.
So Norman was doing you quite a big favour…
The best I remember it wasn’t too expensive. At the time, 1956, Norman wasn’t a very wealthy man, and I think if he had the chance to pick up $50 he would do it. I know he didn’t make a lot of money off of us — you know, two songs and he could sell us a few acetates and then get a little bit of money eventually when he put it out on Nor-Va-Jak Records. We paid him a little bit of money for using his label, but he had to do the calling to get it done; he had to make the tapes to send it to them, things like that. He seemed to be quite frugal, he didn’t seem to be like a person who had a lot of money. At that time I didn’t know anything about anything…
Well you knew enough to decide you wanted your own label and your own publishing! Now, when you were recording, did Norman play any role in the arrangement or was he basically just setting up the equipment and turning on the machine?
He just turned on the machine. He didn’t tell us like maybe we should put another verse here or something like that, that we should change a word … He was really concerned with getting the settings right on the mics. He mic’ed the bass — it was stand-up — mic’ed the drums, mic’ed the guitar amp, and mic’ed me. I was playing acoustic guitar and some of it came through the vocal. Of course those all had to be blended. That was his role. The best I remember he didn’t put any mics in the auditorium. I think he relied on the overall sound coming back into the vocal mic. It was basically just like a live recording. He would play it back if we got it pretty well right. We didn ‘t do too many takes. After we did two or three takes that we thought were pretty good he would play them back but he’d just kind of sit there with a smile on his face and say, “Is that kind of what you ‘re looking for?” He didn’t say, “I think this one’s better or we should do this one over”. I’m sure he was not too enthralled with the music. I mean, it was kind of corny. Even though he was only a few years older, I always thought he was a very serious guy and I was wild and crazy.
I’m not sure I would call those tracks ‘corny’. I think they’re brilliant.
Well, if you’re used to playing cocktail music like Norman was, you would probably think this is crude. He didn’t talk down about it, but it seemed like he was there to do the job. He
wanted us to be happy.
So you had a good relationship?
Yes. He didn ‘t try to dissuade us from doing something crazy. Then, after we’d talked about the delays there would be if we tried to set up our own label, he said, “I’ve got an alternative. I have a label there that’s already printed, all they have to do is put in your name and song name, and we can have those out right away.” Well that was a great idea.
And what was the deal with publishing?
He didn’t ask to publish them — in fact, he told us who to contact with BMI to start the publishing company on our own. The songs probably didn’t suit his fancy and he didn’t think they would do much and they would be more trouble than it was worth.
Who was going to push the records?
Myself and Heavy. He had a job but I didn’t. I would be taking them around to radio stations. We didn’t really have a good plan. We were paying Norman to produce them on his label, probably a couple of cents a copy, for something like 500 records. He just tacked that onto the bill. Norman sent the tapes to RCA, they put them on his label, Nor-Va-Jak, they sent them on Railway Express back to Clovis and I would drive over and collect them. So Heavy had a nephew, and he and I would go around to the radio stations. All the DJs were receptive, and I was fairly happy with it. I knew that we’d have to get it played or we would have to go and play somewhere for anyone to go and buy it. I got bookings in a lot of places, playing for almost nothing. There was just no money playing around Lubbock, and there were other bands, like The Four Teens, Terry Noland’s group, and Buddy and his groups and two or three others.
Did you come across Buddy again while you were playing around Lubbock?
I had probably been to somewhere where he was playing, like a teen club. I was playing at
that same teen club, this was maybe September or October of ’56, maybe the Bamboo Club, and I talked to the person running the place and he said, “I’ve got this band now, Buddy & Bob, they’re playing Friday and Saturday nights, and the only thing I can do is let you have one of the nights and them have the other and see how that works.” I guess I took one of the jobs from Buddy Holly. It paid very little, maybe $15 or $10. At any rate, I ran into Buddy there. I went to his show and he came to one of mine, and we’d say, “Hi, how are you?” You’re always a little concerned that someone might show you up, and I was kind of debating whether I should call him up on the stage. He was with a guy or two, he stood over to the side, and I was going to invite him to come up and playa song, but by the end of the song we were playing he was gone. I didn’t see him again until I saw him here in Clovis in early ’57.
So you had 500 copies of the single in your car and you were selling it locally…
We had a few 78s and mostly 45s, and we’d sell a few at the record shop in Lubbock and
I’d sell a few in Farmington at the record store where I’d bought my guitar, and I sent some to the distributor in EI Paso. He never did pay us for them, but of course he probably never
sold them. They got put away, and later in the mid-’70s someone found them, and that’s
how some of them wound up in England. I think it was ‘Breathless’ Dan that picked them up here and took them back. And after that there was some bootlegging went on — which did nothing but help me. And then Derek Glenister from Record Mart asked to put it out. He did an official reissue and put it out 2,000 of them, in the UK. It didn’t make me any money, but I think they sold all of them. That’s a great feeling when you’ve got something that’s very collectable.
And you destroyed some of them later?
Yes, I did. I allowed them to get in the dump. [He was ordered to do so by a religious cult that he joined for a period on the ’70s.]