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Street-Fighting Man

Roy Head used to love to mix it up. Now the blue-eyed soul man fights to keep his career alive.

It's been a hell of a ride for Roy Head, the South Texas-bred force of nature who recorded the Duke/Peacock label's biggest pop hit, mentored a young Johnny Winter and crossed genres from bluesy soul to rocking country with ease and aplomb. His songs have graced The Commitments soundtrack and found their way into the repertoires of artists as diverse as Otis Redding and Barbara Mandrell. And the memories of his performances still leave those who were present shaking their heads in wonder.

Born into a musical family in Three Rivers, Texas, on January 9, 1943, Head was raised in San Marcos. After forming the Traits in 1958, Head moved first to San Antonio and later to Houston. A demo he recorded for Charlie Booth came to Don Robey's attention at Duke/Peacock, and the impresario quickly snapped up the blue-eyed soulster for his fledgling Back Beat imprint.

It beggars belief today, but Robey's biggest hit was by not Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker or Gatemouth Brown. Instead that honor went to Head, whose timeless "Treat Her Right" soared to No. 2 on both the pop and R&B charts back in the summer of 1965. Head's self-penned smash ranks as one of the biggest hits ever produced in the Bayou City, and would seem to have put him on track to lifelong fame. But as any regular viewer of VH1's Behind the Music will tell you, a life in music is seldom so felicitous. Trouble first came from his body, when nodes on his vocal cords called for surgery and a hiatus. Trouble then came from his soul, when he took to fisticuffs.

Roy Head: Two-fisted soul.
Houston Press
Roy Head: Two-fisted soul.

Back in the day when rockers were dangerous, few outdid Roy Head, who was punk before there was such a thing. His onstage antics practically defined the word kinetic. Only James Brown had more disciples than Head, who cavorted nonstop from wing to wing, spinning, leaping into the splits, turning cartwheels and generally making a soul-drenched dervish of himself. Often pitted in a "Battle of the Bands" against B.J. Thomas, another blue-eyed soulster-turned-country singer, Head usually carried the day with his manic, frenetic behavior. Some of Head's fans from that time recall being afraid for his safety. An odd attitude, perhaps, since they should have been fearing for their own.

Unfortunately for Head, and even more so for those around him, Head had an offstage act to match. This was a ballet of another kind, yet no less kinetic. It involved mud, blood and broken bones. Head just plain liked to fight. He liked a drink, too, but he was nearly unique in that his career was derailed for a time, in large part, because he simply beat up one too many of those around him. Once a guy gets a rep like that, he's apt to fight more than ever. Like with gunfighters in the Old West, new challengers lurk in every saloon, as Head once told music journalist Bob Claypool, way back in 1975. "I like to fight, just getting down in the gravel out in the street. I'd love to walk down the street right now and pop a dude in the mouth," Head said. "I got a reputation to where a lot of dudes would come in the clubs looking for it. Like I was working one place, and a dude walked up in the middle of a floor show and said something to me. Well, I just broke his jaw, and then, when I hit him, everybody jumped in it."

Not surprisingly, not many club owners were interested in booking an act keen on the dismantling of their businesses -- and their clientele. Moreover, Head was also at odds with the music of the early '70s. David Bowie and T. Rex were most definitely not his bag, and in those non-PC days, Head spoke his mind freely: "They came out with all that fag rock, with lipstick, rouge, earrings and all that," he said. "I didn't feel it, and I still don't. I just got lost in all that psychedelic stuff."

By 1974, as disco and dinosaur rock roamed the earth, the bookings had all but dried up for Head. He gave up on soul and switched over to his first love: country music. By 1977 he had a minor hit with "Come to Me," which reached No. 19 on the country charts for ABC/Dot. After that, the hits and the labels just kept getting smaller, so Head focused instead on performing in and around his old South and East Texas stomping grounds. "I just got so tired of recording," he said in a recent phone interview from his far north Houston home. "All that run-of-the-mill stuff, Nashville politics, all the BS, everybody trying to get a feather."

Very much the South Texas answer to Delbert McClinton, Head today is staging a comeback. He's going back into the studio for the first time since 1987, and for the first time in about twice as long, he's going to make an R&B album. He's doing a reunion show where it all began, in San Marcos, with those it began with, all but one of the original Traits. A high-profile appearance at the buzzed-about Continental Club with Austin faves the Leroi Brothers and kindred spirit Toni Price won't hurt either.

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