Sonny West - The Official Web Site
THE SONNY WEST STORY by John Ingman
The name of Sonny West first came to the attention of music fans in 1957-58 as the composer of "Oh Boy! " and "Rave On"; two of the best loved songs of the rock & roll era. A decade later copies of his own Nor-Va-Jak recordings of "Rock-Ola Ruby" and "Sweet Rockin' Baby" started turning up in Europe and it was one of the first rock'n'roll discs to be heavily bootlegged, reflecting both the rarity of the original disc and its stunning musical quality which has made it a solid dance hall favourite for over 30 years. Somewhat surprisingly this CD is the very first overview of Sonny's long recording career.
Joe "Sonny" was the fifth and last child of Joseph & Alberta West. He was born July 30 1937 at the family home in Clovis Road, on the outskirts of Lubbock. Shortly afterwards the family moved to El Morro, a rural area near Grants, NM where the family homesteaded 160 acres. His father played in a church quartet in his youth and played a little harmonica but had such a wanderlust streak that Sonny attended over 20 schools in 12 years. Although the family invariably lived in remote areas, which didn't have electricity, Sonny was listening to the family's collection of 78's on a wind-up gramophone by the age of 6. This covered marching songs by John Philip Sousa to Gene Austin and Jimmie Rodgers train songs. Sonny played various brass instruments at school and took up mandolin during a spell in California but soon realised that bluegrass wasn't for him. On returning to New Mexico he had private guitar lessons from Michael Lee Bell whose father was a local musician. School Music Appreciation courses introduced him to classical music but by his early teens Sonny was more interested in blues, especially Jimmy Reed, together with some country by the likes of Hank Williams. This naturally led him to rock & roll. Sonny left school in Gallup, NM at age 17 and started working at a general store in a Navajo Reservation where it was normal to trade shop merchandise for hand made Indian jewellery and rugs. He'd already been working school concerts and whatever other gigs he could find.
By late 1955 Sonny was living in Farmington, NM where he befriended Gibson-playing lead guitarist, Buddy Smith. They worked together on a live Saturday night show for the local station, Radio KENN and whatever gigs they could find. Around April 1956 Sonny phoned Sam Phillips in hopes of an audition for Sun Records but Sam discouraged the idea. Nevertheless he quit his job at a Ford dealership and made the long speculative trip to Memphis in his '51 Chevy to audition. But Sam wouldn't even listen, saying he already had too much talent to handle. The trip wiped out all Sonny's money and he moved in with his sister Ramona and her husband Walter T "Heavy" Anderson in Levelland, Texas. He met and was encouraged by Bob Kaliff, a DJ at the local Radio KLVT.
Sonny soon formed a band with Jimmy Metz (string bass) and Doc McKay (drums) and as the sound developed he asked Smith to join the band with the intention of getting a recording contract. McKay's mother ran a Dance Studio, which the group used to rehearse and write songs. They were never more than part-time musicians but worked as far away as Dallas, where they guested on the Big 'D' Jamboree but discovered they couldn't follow Jerry Reed. They also had a residency at a Lubbock teen club (probably the Bamboo) where Sonny met Buddy Holly. The two also worked on KDAV's Sunday Party.
Sonny had started writing "Rock-Ola Ruby" in a slow tempo some time earlier but the group converted it into a rocker. Bob Kaliff had been approached by Paul Westbrook with "Sweet Rockin' Baby" and the two worked it up, although the finished arrangement is by Sonny who made vocal and guitar demos of the two songs at the KLVT studio. Intriguingly, a cover of "Woman Love" was cut around the same time. Gene Vincent' s version (Capitol 3450 ) had been issued on June 21,1956 but the song was first recorded by Jimmy Johnson (Starday 561).
Sadly none of the KLVT demos seem to have survived. "Heavy" Anderson was very keen to help and teamed up with Kaliff to arrange for Sonny to recut the two songs at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, NM. The session took place almost a year before Petty set-up his famed echo chamber and he switched Sonny's session to the Lyceum Theatre to make use of its natural reverberation echo. It was one of those rare magic times where everything worked to perfection and many knowledgeable aficionados believe that "Rock-Ola Ruby"/"Sweet Rockin' Baby" is the best double sided rockabilly disc of all time. Unfortunately, sales didn't suggest this at the time.
Sonny clearly recalls that the date was late evening of August 18,1956; shortly after his 19th birthday, but the tape box lists July 16 as the recording date. In 1985 Jerry MacNeish and myself had the pleasure of loading this very tape onto the same Ampex recorder on which it had been cut 29 years earlier. The sound blasting out of the studio speakers was a truly awesome event I'll never forget. Our only disappointment was that the box didn't contain any out-takes or studio chatter. To arrange a record release, Petty allowed Sonny to use his Nor-Va-Jak label, which had thus far been restricted to cocktail lounge and jazz material. Walter Anderson financed the session and the pressings; explaining the 'WA' prefix in the catalogue number which was actually the date - 1956. Just before the session Sonny had bought a new Martin D-28 and asked a friend to paint his name on it. Unfortunately he put "Sonee" and, thinking it perhaps an omen, Sonny used this spelling on the disc but soon switched back to the conventional spelling.
Shortly after the session Buddy Smith quit the band to return home and Sonny took responsibility for all the guitar work. The band worked locally to promote the disc but despite their best efforts they simply didn't have the financial resources, contacts and knowledge to create a hit. After a show in Levelland, Sonny was approached by Bill Tilghman who had several songs he wanted Sonny to consider. This led to a co-writing partnership, which lasted over 20 years although the contribution of "Rocky Bill" was restricted to providing a few lyrical ideas. Tilghman died in 1997, 14 years after Walter Anderson was killed in an industrial accident.
The first major effort was "All My Love", which Sonny cut in Clovis in February 1957. There wasn't room for Jimmy Metz's double bass in the car and rather than leave him off the session Sonny suggested he play trumpet which he'd done in the high school band. Doc McKay remained on drums and by now Glen D Hardin had joined on piano making this his recording debut in which the unusual interaction of horn, drums and piano works surprisingly well. At the time Glen D was at school in Levelland and playing piano for a girl trio (Ginella Westmoreland, Ginette Woodard & Nan Trimble). He'd already hit on the idea of putting thumb tacks on the hammers of his piano at home to generate a honky-tonk sound. Glen rehearsed with the band at Mrs McKay's studio and sat in when they played at the intermission of a local Bob Wills show where their rock'n'roll sound wasn't appreciated by Western Swing fans.
Sonny made a few acetates of "All My Love" for various record companies including Imperial without success (Imperial did buy Weldon Rogers' "So Long, Good Luck, Goodbye" which was recorded in Clovis on, April 30,1957). Eventually he realised he didn't have any copies left but fortunately one recently surfaced; apparently from Buddy Holly's own collection, and it makes its long overdue CD debut here although Sonny recently issued it as a vinyl single on his own Route 66 label.
It was of course the Crickets who converted "All My Love" into the multi-million selling "Oh Boy!" for which Petty's name was added to the composer credits. Lyrically, the original "I'm Gonna Have Some Fun Tonight" becomes "I'm Gonna See My Baby Tonight" in the Crickets cover version which was cut during the night of July 1st and 2nd with the Picks adding backing vocals on August 19th. The sequencing of some lines is changed and the arrangement is very different, although this is probably more due to the Crickets than Petty. Apparently Petty was worried that the phrase "Have Some Fun Tonight" wouldn't be acceptable to many DJ's. Sonny recalls Buddy requesting his permission to cut the song just before a "Words Of Love" session (Buddy cut "Words Of Love" in at least 3 sessions in March and April 1957).
That summer Sonny called into the Clovis studio where Petty played him the Crickets cover and recalls: "Petty had a huge grin on his face when he played the songs on those huge speakers. For lack of a better term, it literally blew me away. Norman had the contracts already made out listing himself as publisher and co-writer on what I knew would be a guaranteed hit but I thought to myself, "Why does he want to take so much of my song?". He was neither the first nor the last musician to have such thoughts.
The Crickets version of "Oh Boy!" was a worldwide smash and is now acknowledged as one of the all-time great rock'n'roll classics - the song passed the one million airplays mark in 2000, earning Sonny a Citation of Achievement from BMI. In 1975 Mud took it to the top of the UK charts with Jackie De Shannon and Diana Trask having had USA hits with the song. The initial success meant that Sonny was a welcome visitor to Petty's studio and in November 1957 he cut "Rave On" and "Call On Cupid" in a somewhat laid-back style accompanied by the Big Beats who were very active session musicians in Clovis at that time. Both songs were co-compositions with Bill Tilghman. The session was probably on November 5 which is the Nor-Va-Jak publishing date for "Dreamboat" which is arguably the best rocker from the session. Confusingly a tape box of the latter song is dated December 21. This may be an overdub session as Sonny is confident he only did one date with the Big Beats. The group had been formed in Dallas by Trini Lopez and later worked with Gene Vincent and many other rock'n'roll performers. Trini then auditioned for the Crickets on moving to California, but never recorded with them; before launching his highly successful solo career.
Atlantic's Jerry Wexler flew to Clovis around the New Year and reached an agreement with Petty to release "Rave On" and "Call On Cupid" as well as Larry "Whispering Pigg" Randall's "Darlene" and "Pennies From Heaven" (East West 111; recorded Nov 16,1957) and Fred Crawford's "Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt"/"Till I Found You" (probably recorded Nov 12 but never issued). Atlantic filed these songs on Jan 10, 1958. "Dreamboat" wasn't sold to Atlantic and remained in the can.
"Rave On"/"Call On Cupid" were released to a good (and prophetic review) in Billboard on February 17, 1958.
By this time Buddy Holly had covered "Rave On" in a Jan 25-26, 1958 overnight session at Bell Sound Studio, New York which was intended to complete the Buddy Holly LP (US Coral 57210; released Feb 20, 1958). However, "Rave On" achieved such an immediate response that it was pulled for single release (Coral 61985) on April 20, 1958. Sadly it barely scraped into the USA Top 40; perhaps because many had bought the track on LP but also because an anti-rock'n'roll DJ described it in a submission to the congressional payola hearings as "music to steal hub-caps by". In England Buddy's version reached No.5 in the NME but No 4 in Disc, Melody Maker & Record Mirror. Interestingly it topped the British Juke Box Chart for 3 weeks perhaps reflecting that teenagers dominated jukebox plays whereas parents often controlled the purchase of discs. The success of Buddy's version meant that Sonny's original had no chance of commercial success but of course the songwriting royalties have provided a steady income over the years, and they shot up when the song was featured in the sound track to the 'Cocktail' movie. In 1978 ex-Cricket Jerry Naylor had a small USA C&W hit with the song and there have been many other cover versions.
In the Spring of 1958 Sonny returned to Clovis for a session backed by Sonny Curtis (lead guitar), Vi Petty (piano), George Atwood (bass) with either Doc McKay or Bo Clarke on drums and the Roses providing backing vocals. Sonny asked Vi to play an "At The Hop"-styled intro for "Baby Bessie Lee" but it wasn't working and he commented "Vi's not playing it the way I want". Norman apparently misheard this as "Vi can't play" and exploded in anger. This delayed the session for some time and afterwards the feeling had gone which probably explains the lack of a release. Once again the dates are confusing. "Baby Bessie Lee" and "Doll Britches" were filed with Nor-Va-Jak publishing on April 8 & 22 1958 respectively. The latter date is also on a tape box of "Bessie Lee"! Both songs and "Linda Loves A Hula Hoop" are also in a tape box dated September 15,1958! There was never a filed song contract for "Linda" as Sonny recalls: "After the session me and Bill refused to sign the contracts Norman had made out with his name on. So he ripped the contracts up and threw them down on the desk. That was the end of the road for me as far as Norman Petty was concerned". Sonny is confident that the session was in April and there's no explanation for the September tape box date but he feels that the contracts may have been dated differently for the day when Walter Anderson was to sign as co-writer. "Hula Hoop" features some of the best rocking guitar work ever laid down by Sonny Curtis.
Shortly after this session Sonny moved to Odessa but in January 1959 he was cold, hungry & broke and returned to Grants vowing he'd never again live in Texas - although he's now pleased his wife Dottie encouraged him to move to Abilene 41 years later. In the Spring of 1959 Sonny flew to Phoenix where he used Audio Recorders to cut "Love Denied" and "Pretty Little Girl" with Al Casey on guitar. Neither song was issued but "Love Denied" was covered by Waylon Jennings (A&M 722 (10/63) who was working in the city at that time (Waylon was also one of the first to cover "Rave On") whilst "Pretty Little Girl" was cut by a 12 year old boy in Oklahoma City. Two years later Sonny once again teamed up with Al Casey to cover Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days & Wasted Nights" (Duncan 1001) which he thought had tremendous potential. He sent the tapes to the Denver based Bandbox label who initially offered to finance re-cutting the two songs in Hollywood but ultimately changed their minds and put out the Phoenix versions (Bandbox 276) although Sonny had intended them as demos, not finished product. There was no promotion; few sales resulted and Sonny soon gave up on the label. In 1975 Fender's re-recording of the song (ABC-Dot 17558) topped the USA C&W charts and went Top 10 Pop, leaving Sonny to reflect on what might have been. It was to be Sonny's last serious attempt at a music career although he had a 6 nights a week 6-month residency in Mike's 66 Club (so called as it was on the outskirts of Grants, NM on Route 66) whilst playing in Arizona most Sunday's. Sadly, in the early 1960's he became involved in a pseudo-religious group which almost destroyed him partly because he agreed to their demand he renounce music and trash all copies of his discs including 75 remaining copies of the Nor-Va-Jak single!
In 1987 Jerry MacNeish and I were helping run the Clovis Music Festival which we'd initiated the previous year. We took time out to visit Charlie "Sugartime" Phillips in Amarillo as Charlie seems to know every value-for-money restaurant in West Texas. Afterwards he guided us to a back street full of second hand shops. In one of them I was stunned to find an acetate crediting Joe West. "Evening Star" and "Sugar Hill" are simple vocal/guitar demos and Sonny later confirmed these were songwriting demos he'd sent to Petty in 1966. A third song from the same time period "Yesterday's Tommorow" is untraced and there's no indication that any of these songs were recorded professionally. The acetate versions are presented here to illustrate the type of material Sonny was creating in this otherwise undocumented period.
Since quitting music Sonny has paid the bills by distributing and repairing jukeboxes and pinball machines, naturally including Rock-Ola product! He gained a patent on a new cartridge which allowed modern microgroove stereo discs to be played on old jukeboxes. He's also worked as a rancher and silversmith but became a photocopier technician in 1985. In 1990 Sonny privately issued a 12 song cassette including one new song, the clever "Ride", which may be the only song to link "Maybelline", "CC Rider" and Luke The Drifter, and a new version of "Oh Boy" which was inspired by an "Oh Buick" car advert and contains the new line "Oh Boy, I've Seen The Light" which pays homage to Hank Williams and is perhaps Sonny's reaction to composer credits on publishing contracts....
Sonny, like many others, may have had mixed feelings about his association with Norman Petty but his income as a songwriter was certainly increased thanks to Buddy Holly and The Crickets recording his songs. Whether Petty's share of the songwriting and publishing royalties of these songs could be justified is less certain, and Sonny's career as a singer certainly faltered after he refused to assign a third of the writer's share along with the customary 50% publishers cut. Despite this, he remained in contact with Norman and Vi Petty until their deaths and continued to offer them new songs. Unfortunately, the present owners of the Petty Studios have not responded to Sonny's requests to return to him the unissued (and possibly forgotten) recordings that probaby remain in their vaults.
In August 2001 Sonny came out of musical retirement to play a Lubbock Fan Fair show with Tommy Allsup and the following Spring laid down some new tracks at his own studio, this time playing all the instruments in an attempt to recreate some of the old sounds with modern equipment. The tapes were mastered sympathetically by Billy Stull, who had been employed as an engineer at Norman Petty's studios in Clovis, and who now operates his own studio in Wimberly, near Austin, Texas.
For some time Sonny had been hoping to appear in the UK, and in May 2002 made his European debut at the Hemsby rock'n'roll weekender. He was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd and received standing ovations from the sold-out audience. More recently Sonny has appeared at several other festivals in the US and was one of the first headline acts to be booked for the revived Clovis Music Festival in 2005. Now an annual event, the festival is a showcase for artists who worked and recorded in the area around Clovis, NM and Lubbock, Texas. This year´s festival will take place in Clovis from the 7th to 10th September 2006.
For further details on the Clovis Music Festival please click on the links below:
Clovis Music Festival:
And to contact Sonny West for bookings,autographed CDs or general enquires pleas mail:
(Sonny may be contacted through these sites)
Thanks to Marc Bristol, Jim Carr, Trevor Cajiao, John Firminger, Derek Glenister, George Jackson, Brian Shepherd, Dottie West and Sonny West, Pete White.
Entire story and contents © 2002 Rollercoaster Records. All illustrations and contributions contained herein are copyright by their respective owners.
Sonee West Story by Derek Glenister;
New Kommotion, issue 21 (1979)
Boy, It's Sonny West by John Stafford;
Now Dig This issue 159 (June 1996)
West Interview by Marc Bristol;
Blue Suede News, issue 50 (Spring 2000)
Glen D. Hardin Interview by Brian Shepherd and George Jackson, Crickets File issue 66 (Spring 2002)
Sonny West, various letters to John Beecher and John Ingman (1980-2002)
Now Dig This Magazine, 19 South Hill Road, Bensham, Gateshead, NE8 2XZ, UK
Holly International Magazine, PO Box 1436, Doncaster DN11 9YQ, UK
Crickets File Magazine, 412 Main Road, Sheffield S9 4QL, UK
Crickets Fact File, 17 Damon Drive, Brimington, Chesterfield S43 1JD, UK
Blue Suede News, Box 25, Duvall, WA 98019, USA
Rockin' 50s, PO Box 6123, Lubbock, Texas 79493, USA
Illustrations/Photographs courtesy of John Malcolm Anderson Collection/Trevor Cajiao, John Ingman, Sonny West
Illustration 6: Sonny and Bill Tilghman, 1983
Illustration 10: Sonny with Tommy Allsup, in Lubbock, 2001
Illustration 7: David Bigham (The Roses), Sonny West, Gary Tollett & Robert Linville (The Roses)
Illustration 11: Sonny West - 2000
RCCD 3050 -
SONNY WEST - SWEET ROCKIN' ROCK-OLA RUBY
Barcode: 5 012814 030505 RnR
Two long-time dance hall favourites kick off this, Sonny West's first album. Straight from the original Norman Petty Studios masters, Sonny's 1956 Clovis recordings have never sounded better. We've added his other 50s and 60s recordings and the CD is rounded out with some new recordings completed by Sonny a couple of months ago. Sweet & Rockin! Sweet Rockin' Baby; Rock-Ola Ruby; All My Love (Oh Boy); Rave On; Call On Cupid; Dreamboat; Baby Bessie Lee; Doll Britches; Linda Loves a Hula Hoop; Love Denied; Pretty Little Girl; Wasted Days and Wasted Nights; Maybe You're The One; Evening Star; Sugar Hill; Ride; Oh Boy; Dire Need; The Rave Is Gone; Cast Iron Arm; A Bad Case; Big City Woman; Sweet Dreams; I've Had It
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