Rave On! The Ultimate Sonny West Interview – Part 2
by Colin Davies
Next up, you wrote ‘Oh Boy!’…
Yes, I had figured out that my first record was not going to go, My songs needed to be a little more sophisticated; they needed to have something like more of a story, more appealing to young kids, I wrote ‘Oh Boy!’ around the end of ’56 and I called it ‘All My Love’ and came up with these verses because some of the words had been used before, but I used them in a different way, rhyming “missing” with “kissing”, which had been done maybe in a Broadway show, It just seemed to work out.
And Bill Tilghman was involved?
He was not involved in the writing of that song, and that’s always been a little bit of a sore spot. I understand he’s not here to make any counterclaims, but he was not involved in writing that song. But right after I got that song written I met him and he had a real desire to write songs. A lot of people in Levelland knew me, I played anywhere I could play. He stopped me on the street one day and he had some songs he had written in his hip pocket. That started a friendship, Well, my record thing had failed. You know, Buddy Smith had to go back to work, so he left, and here I was with Doc and Jim, and I realized we had to get some stuff written, Bill came to be a friend of mine; we would do a little drinking, buying a little bootleg liquor, and running around together some, and so when this came up, I was going to go to Clovis to make a demo of ‘Oh Boy!’. I was pretty vulnerable, but I’d said I’m never going to give up on this so he encouraged me and I guess I felt indebted to him for the encouragement I can’t explain it any other way. And also he had this idea that he could write something that he would share with me or that maybe later on if we wanted to make this agreement null and void he would turn it back over to me. But if that song happened to be the one to go, he would get his name on it and get his name established. We didn’t have any idea it would go anywhere, So he pressured me quite a little bit, he was a couple of years older than me and a little bit more streetwise than me….
So you went off to make a demo?
How did Glen D. Hardin become involved? He played on ‘All My Love’..
He was going to high school, I believe in Levelland. We did some gigs together because we had a piano in the dance studio. I don’t recall how I met Glen D., because I didn’t go to high school in Levelland , but I went around to different functions at the high school. Maybe one of the musicians knew him, or he just came up – I don’t remember. He would go to the dance studio and work with us some, sometimes just jamming. This was about December of ’56, So we had piano, bass and drums, I’d lost my lead guitarist and I didn’t have an electric guitar, I called Norman to make arrangements to go over and make a demo of ‘All My Love’, The only purpose was to get some acetates to send off to record companies as demos, in hopes of getting a record contract. I wasn’t looking for a publishing contract, writing contract, I was looking for a recording contract for myself. I figured if someone hears that song, or if there’s a popular artist who wants to do that song… One of the demos I sent off was to Imperial Records, I sent off maybe three.
Norman wasn’t interested in issuing it as a single?
He didn’t say anything about it. I wasn’t very forceful. We didn’t intend it to be out there for sale. We went in, set the mics up in a hurried fashion, and did the song. The sound wasn’t particularly good. But I don’t have the actual tape. The one that I have now is from an acetate. So actually the first one may have sounded pretty darn good
Could there still be any tapes of yours at Norman’s studio today?
I suppose there could be, I haven’t been involved with that. I had the money to get a few acetates; I gave Glen D. an acetate, and then I had maybe five or six of my own. I sent two or three off and then it just kind of sat there, I had to go out and get a job, trying to pay back for some of my bad decisions. Bill Tilghman and myself went on trying to write songs after that. I had no idea that song was ever going to do anything. I kind of gave up on it after about a month.
Then you went back and recorded ‘Come Back Baby’?
Yes, that was about a month later we recorded that one. You know, I got some girls together to do the back-up vocals, including Bill’s sister. They were like cheerleaders at the high school these three girls, I don’t even have an acetate. That’s a terrible recording that we have, terrible sound quality You can barely tell what we actually did. Doc was still playing the drums, and Jim was on bass, I’ve always had it on my mind that Glen D. played on that, but I believe it was actually Mike Metze, Jim’s brother, and Jim told me the other day by e-mail that it was Mike.
It wasn’t Vi Petty?
No, I thought all these years that it was, or it was Glen D., but Jim says it wasn’t either of them. It was me. Mike, Jim, Doc, and the girls’ chorus. And I think Jack Vaughan – he’s the only one that can play guitar like that He’s not a rock n roll guitar player, He’s a highbrow.
Did you send around the demos of ‘Come Back Baby’?
No, I don’t think I ever sent those. It didn’t seem like it clicked.
Then a few months later, The Crickets recorded ‘Oh Boy!’. Who picked it up, Holly or Norman
Norman played it for Holly, about the time they were getting some vibes on That’ll Be The Day’. He probably heard it in June, got the acetate to take home… He wanted to do the song. Norman liked the song.
When Holly decided to record it, there were some changes in the lyrics. Did Holly do those?
I don’t know. I would guess that he did. I never did ask him. It was just the phrasing on the first verse, there was a difference, and on the chorus they just switched two lines. So there was no real change of what I was saying. I would guess that Holly did that during his practicing.
And – the old story – Norman put his name on it. That was standard with almost all the Holly recordings. And you knew that?
I didn’t know it had been recorded. It wasn’t until ‘That’ll Be The Day’ was a real big song that Norman got in touch with me and told me he’d recorded ‘Oh Boy!’ with Buddy Holly & the Crickets. I knew that their songs were going ‘cos I listened to the radio. There was a lot of talk about it in Lubbock, And he told me he’d recorded the song and wanted to put it out as a follow-up to ‘That’ll Be The Day’, and that made me pretty ecstatic. I didn’t even know that he had recorded it, because there was two or three months there that I was having to work pretty steadily on my stuff and we were working on some other songs and I hadn’t been in touch with Norman, and I had no contact really with Holly. At the time I was working at a cotton gin. By the time we signed the contract it was just about the time of the cotton harvest and I had a job delivering the cotton bales and Norman called me and said he wanted to put it out but he said we’d have to hurry on this. This was maybe around October. Bill and I went over there and Norman had the contracts made out with his name on there and we were really disappointed about that. I was thinking, hell, I gave away half the song and now it’s a third of a half I’m giving away. Then I tried to console myself and said if I’d had to give Norman half and I’d had the song, that would have been 50/50, and like it is, it’s 33% and so I’m only losing 17%. We took a copy of the contract and went down to Foxy’s drive-in, had a cup of coffee and looked over the contract, and said ‘How can this happen?” Then we thought how Norman is – I didn’t think I could go against him and say I wouldn’t do it, and I didn’t know how I could tell him we’d rather not do it. I’m not good with words, especially at that time. There should have been a way to work with him, say something like if you take a third of it for two years and then it reverts back to us, or why don’t you take 10%? So, we decided that we would have to go with it. I’d heard that was what he was doing with stuff like That’ll Be The Day’ – I knew that had been recorded in Nashville before Buddy ever met Norman. We talked it over and went back and signed the contracts and we were real happy and a little sad. I knew the song would sell – for one reason, as a follow-up to That’ll Be The Day’, and also Norman played it to us when we first walked in, and it is one of the most exciting songs Holly ever recorded. It’s smooth and it’s exciting – his excitement level is way up there. It’s a great recording, and he did a great job on it.
Tell us about ‘Rave On’.
I think we were working it by this time. In fact, I may have gone to Clovis and done a demo of ‘Rave On’, either just before or after that ‘Oh Boy!’ debacle. Bill and I had ideas about the song ‘Rave On’. Bill might have come up with the actual title. Carl Perkins had used this phrase as a kind of something he yelled out in one of the songs, it was a term that was used in the South as an affirmation, like if a preacher was preaching and you say “Rave on!” It wasn’t something you’d say to a girl. And so it was very hard to get from a church-type affirmation to saying “I love you”. People don’t understand how hard it was to get to those two points. Bill had come up with some words on the song, and I came up with a tune – similar to what it is now, except the words were quite a lot different. We brought it over to Clovis and I did it as a demo with a guitar. The idea was a little bit like ‘That’ll Be The Day’ – “you say you’re going to drop me, well rave on, you’re just raving on”. So that was way different from where it finished. We changed the song about three times. The first time it was like I’m taunting you, you’re just raving on about this stuff. And I said, “That’s not a love song, that’s not going to work.” So we went back home – another 90 miles – and came up with two or three different versions, and finally I said to Bill, “If you want me to do this song, maybe you should just leave me alone for a day or two and let me get my idea on here. I don’t want you coming over and bringing beer.” ‘Cos he liked to drink a little bit. And so it wound up that I wrote the tune and most of the words. But here again it didn’t matter that much because we were working together. But Bill encouraged me to keep going, and so I don’t mind that he had part of that song. And I got it down to where if she says she loves you, you want her to rave on, and keep on saying it. You want to keep on hearing it. Then I went and did another demo, and Norman seemed to like it.
Norman wanted to issue it as a single for you?
He thought it had potential, but I didn’t really get any encouragement that he was going to do anything with it. This was in the fall of ’57. I let about a month go by, and I got in touch with Chester Oliver in Seminole, the one that had helped Roy Orbison make his song ‘Ooby Dooby’ on the Jewel label. He was an older man, and I told him I had run out of options, and I asked him what he thought about the song, and he thought it might be pretty good. I told him I’d see if I could line up some musicians and get back to him and get some dates established. And a few days later Norman called me – this had to be in November – and said that if I wanted to record ‘Rave On’ and a couple of other songs had to be in November -and said that if I wanted to record ‘Rave On’ and a couple of other songs -‘Call On Cupid’ and ‘Dreamboat’ -he had a group there called The Big Beats and I could record with them and he thought he could get a contract for me. Apparently he had been dealing with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. So I called Mr. Oliver and said, “I’m in a jam here. I don’t want to be dishonest with you, but Norman said he might could get a contract: And he said, ‘Oh, go ahead and go with Norman.” I think he was probably relieved.
You say Norman was negotiating with Wexler to get your single of ‘Rave On’ issued by Atlantic. Why didn’t Norman want to issue it on his own label?
Well, I don’t think he was releasing hardly anything on his own label. He was mostly trying to farm things out. He’d gotten contracts for The Crickets, for Buddy Holly, for Terry Noland on Brunswick… At the same time he got me a contract with Atlantic he got a couple of other people on Atlantic as well -I think Larry Randall was one of them. Another tape Jerry Wexler had gotten from Norman.
So ‘Rave On’ was going to be issued as a single, and then Holly heard it?
Norman apparently played it to Holly – either my demo or my actual recording – and Holly wanted to record it. Norman and Holly were looking for material for an album, because ‘Peggy Sue’ had done very well under Holly’s name. When he heard it, he said he wanted to do it. As it turned out, he actually recorded it before my single was released, but not before I had a contract. I already had a contract and a release date. Norman told me Holly had recorded it, but I don’t know if I’d heard his version before mine came out. On one of my trips over to Clovis, either when I did my demo or else when I did my version with Trini Lopez and The Big Beats, he had the contract made out. Mine was going to be released and Holly was going to put it in an album.
You met Holly then?
I’d met him a time or two in the studio during downtime when they weren’t recording, but it was still not like a welded friendship. I knew who he was, and I know he loved that song ‘Oh Boy!’. I don’t think he ever told me personally he wanted to do ‘Rave On’.
And how did you feel when Holly’s version was put out as a single?
I was happy when I found out he was recording it. I didn’t have much faith in my version. When I got home with some copies of mine, I played them in my living room, but it seemed like there was something missing in the song. I wasn’t too happy with my recording -I’d never recorded with a larger band like The Big Beats with a saxophone. I didn’t think the song had the right rhythm, and I didn’t like the saxophone in it. I’d never met them before I went into the studio that night.
Did your single of ‘Rave On’ sell?
It sold some. It was years later, in about 1960, when I called Norman and asked him what was happening, I knew that Buddy’s had sold. I asked him if he had any paperwork on it. He sent me a copy of a statement he got that showed I was still in the red with Atlantic.
Apart from the way Norman put his name on your songs, were you happy with the way he handled the finances?
There weren’t any finances up to that time. I was unhappy he put his name on the songs, but I knew I had to do that. In retrospect, I would have asked him for a time period. I didn’t know how to negotiate and I had no one to negotiate for me. I didn’t know about the finances -I had suspicions, and probably some of them weren’t true. Six months from January to August is a long time, and I got a bit paranoid. I got a cheque in February ’58 for $15. Well, that was just a cheque for some sheet music sales at a cent and a half. I was very disappointed and in April I called Norman -I had moved about 120 miles south to Odessa, Texas -and I asked him about the money, and said there should be some performance royalties coming in , And he said, ‘ Did you ever sign up with BMI?” ‘ No, I thought you as my manager were supposed to tell me what I should do: And so I signed up with BMI, but they wouldn’t pay me for anything that happened in ’57, so I didn’t get a penny for all the radio plays that ‘Oh Boy!’ got in ’57. It would only go retroactive for 90 days. So in this case, only back to January ’58, and then it would be a year before I got anything. So I borrowed a little bit of money from BMI to tide myself over.
You mentioned Norman as being your manager, so when you signed the agreements with Norman, he was also signed up as your manager?
When he told me about the Atlantic like with Buddy, with the same percentage deal. That was the only agreement we had, so when I got the contract from Atlantic, there was a separate rider on the contract that said all communication from Atlantic would go to Norman and not to me, I agreed to that because he said that’s what he did with the other guys.
And by April ’58 you were getting pretty hot, weren’t you? The session you did that month, who instigated that?
I arranged that. I was looking for something to put out, and I had a couple of songs I wanted to do – ‘Baby Bessie Lee’ and ‘Doll Britches’ -but I didn’t like the songs all that much, I didn’t think they would catch people’s ear. Norman arranged for the musicians, and used studio musicians, including Vi Petty.
And Sonny Curtis was on guitar? No suggestion that Holly would play on it?
No. I’m not even sure where Holly was at that time.
And George Atwood played bass?
Yes. He was very good. He got the song down right quick. Bo Clark was on drums. And then I had a session in September -‘Linda Loves A Hula Hoop’ -with the same people on it. The Roses sang live on both sessions -we all sang into the same mic.
Those were happy sessions?
Pretty good. They went pretty fast.
But those last tracks weren’t released. Had your fallen out with Norman?
About September of ’58 it looked like it wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t getting any royalties for the songs I did have out. I didn’t get any royalties for’ Oh Boy!’ in February ’58 -it was released in October ’57 -but I didn’t realize they didn’t pay that money to the record company until the following January so I wouldn’t get that money until the next August. And for a young man January to August is forever. And I wasn’t getting anything for ‘Rave On’ either. I had piled up some bills and I didn’t understand how long it takes to actually get paid. I was hoping I would get a decent cheque by February of ’58. I thought they had enough time to get the money from the publisher. Apparently they either dragged their heels or it just didn’t come in.
I understand there was some kind of misunderstanding with Petty?
There was some misunderstanding on the ‘Hula Hoop’ session, Vi started the song with a piano intra. I had it all arranged in my head, but I couldn’t write it on paper. It has a syncopated rhythm, kind of like a rock n roll person. I kept going over it, and she did a kind of bouncy playing that didn’t have any rocking sound. I stopped the session and Norman asked what was wrong. I said, “I don’t think she can play this like I want it: He heard “don’t think she can play” and got really hot. He came into the studio, his face was red, and said, “Don’t ever tell me she can’t play”. The session pretty well fell apart after that. Bill Tilghman was with me, and we went down to Foxy’s -maybe Sonny was with us -and we went back and did it the way she was doing it before.
Were you trying to get ‘Baby Bessie Lee’ issued as a single?
I didn’t think Atlantic would take it. I was just looking. Perhaps someone else would take it, or Norman might shop it around. I never did find out if he did. It was at the September session that Norman wanted to put his name down as a writer, as he had done with the two songs in April, and I refused. After the session I went into the office and he had contracts made out with his name as a writer. That was more than I could take. It was a very time-sensitive song, and I was at the end of my rope, and I said I wouldn’t give him a third. So he ripped up the contract and walked out of the room.
What’s interesting is that Sonny Curtis was there, and so he must have been aware of how Norman operated when he and The Crickets signed up with Norman after their split with Holly…
I would think so. I can’t quite understand all of that. I didn’t know how to handle Norman. I don’t think he particularly liked me – put that aside – I was a little bit wild and he seemed so serious. Outside of that I don’t know why … I know he wouldn’t tolerate anyone going against him, especially someone on the lower end of the scale, which I was. I think I had had some clout, but I was nobody. He had to have things his way. His personality was such that he figured he knew what was best. I don’t think the song would have done anything, but I found out once and for all that if you didn’t go along with him, you had to hit the highway.
Did you ever socialize with him?
Not at all. He was not very much older than I was, but he seemed like he was. He was squeaky clean, and he had that Old Spice aftershave, and he didn’t like smoking and drinking. I didn’t have any good times with him. We did sit around and talk a few times.
Jumping ahead a couple of years, by 1960 were the royalties for ‘Oh Boy!’ and ‘Rave On’ starting to come in?
Yes, but they were dwindling. Another thing about this Atlantic deal, they advanced me $2,500. But it all went to Norman. I didn’t understand the whole situation. The way he put it was it was like his payment for getting the contract. or something like that. That’s why he had people sign contracts so that everything would go to him, because in actuality that was my advance. I didn’t realize until I saw the copy of that invoice that showed I got an advance of something like $2,500 and then there was something like $1,500 of stuff sold, so in round figures I still owed them $1,000. That was the only recording session I didn’t pay for out of my own pocket. Let’s say the session probably cost Norm about $500, so I should have gotten the balance of $2,000. That would certainly have helped me at the time.
Was that standard at the time?
Possibly. But I’m sure the cheque was meant for an advance to me.
Were there other people around whom you could consult?
‘Heavy’ was not knowledgeable about this kind of thing, and he had got a little disappointed with the whole situation. He had the money to get that first record out, but he couldn’t keep paying for something that didn’t seem it was doing anything.
Several years later I believe you sent Norman some demos…
Yes – I didn’t have many other contacts. When I left Texas in late ’58 I was pretty well isolated. When I would get some songs in the early ’60s, I did some recordings in Phoenix in ’60 and ’61, and by the mid-’60s I had sent Norman a couple of songs. I thought Norman was probably my best chance of getting my songs to someone else.
Did you ever go back to Norman and talk about the finances and everything?
I have tried to figure out over the years if there’s a way to go back and have his name taken off my songs, but it’s basically impossible, even though I was not 21 when I signed those contracts. It’s hard to go back now. Buddy got his parents to sign for some stuff, but I never got anyone to sign for me. But, you know, after the Buddy Holly movie left him out completely, I told him, “We’ve come a long road, and we’ve had some differences, but I’m really disappointed with that movie.” And he said, “Oh well”. You know, even with all the warts and all. A lot of the other stuff was OK, I didn’t mind that, but that was a real chunk out of what really happened.
Have you talked with The Crickets about these things? Compared notes?
I haven’t talked to them much about that. I’m not really close with them, and we don’t really talk about those things. I’m basically a happy guy.
I don’t suppose in 1957 that you’d ever think you’d still be up on stage more than 50 years later…
I thought I would have to move into another kind of music – take the roots I had and modernize it. But I don’t mind performing the old songs. I love it that people still want to hear these songs. What else have I got to offer? I don’t expect them to go crazy over them.
Final thoughts? Any regrets?
The good outweighs the bad. As far as my decisions, they were way off the wall, but I don’t regret I had the drive to do these things. I’m sort of a footnote in rock n roll history, but I wouldn’t even be a footnote if I hadn’t had the drive and ambition.
Sonny West’s classic recordings an be heard on the Rollercoaster CD ‘Sweet Rockin’ Rock-Ola Ruby’ (RGGD 3050). With thanks to Sonny West and John Beecher for supplying most of the photos for this feature.