By Chris Gray
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Bill Bentley has been going to a lot of funerals lately. Both of the 57-year-old Houston native's parents passed away in the last year, each time necessitating trips back to Texas from his long-time home in L.A. What's more, the two fields of endeavor he has devoted the last few decades to — print media and the major-label record industry — are fast wilting in the Internet's all-encompassing radiance.
While it's hyperbole to call either dead, both are definitely, as they say in northern England, "not so well." But Bentley, along with a Houston investor he wishes to keep anonymous, is doing something about it. April marked the launch of Sonic Boomers (www.sonicboomers.com), a Web site Bentley hopes will serve as something like Pitchfork for the older set, or maybe something like No Depression on the Web.
As with Pitchfork, Sonic Boomers presents both news and reviews. The difference is that while Pitchfork is consumed with the goings-on and recordings of acts like MGMT and Yeasayer, Bentley's site links to stories about Dave Grohl jamming with Led Zeppelin and serves up Bud Scoppa-penned analyses of albums by Steely Dan's Walter Becker, not to mention Bentley's own reviews of subdudes, Carlene Carter and Joe Higgs platters. And instead of Pitchfork's cadre of young and at times wildly solipsistic critics, Bentley is trotting out gold-plated bylines such as John Morthland, Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus.
"The Web is where everything's going," Bentley says over the phone from his office in Los Angeles. "That's why I started Sonic Boomers. I'm a print guy to the death. I used to hang out at the Post with my dad, and I helped start a newspaper, and that's what I love the most, but I just saw that you couldn't start a magazine today."
That's an alarming prospect for someone like Bentley. The son of old daily Houston Press and Houston Post cartoonist and graphic artist Bud Bentley, the younger Bentley was literally born into print, and has had as long and worthy a career behind the music scenes as his old high school friend/rival Billy Gibbons has had under the lights.
Bentley is in uncharted waters. He believes, with some justification, that older music fans are underserved on the Web; so far nobody's been able to come up with that one must-bookmark site. And Sonic Boomers is not there yet. As Jennifer Maerz points out in the SF Weekly article, so far there's a static quality to the site. Content stays up too long, and it lacks the bells and whistles (read: video and streaming audio/free MP3s) necessary in the brave new digital world. And how to monetize this stuff is still the big question.
But if anybody can pull it off, it's Bentley. Few people in the business have as much enthusiasm or as many vital connections as he does.
And it all started in Houston...
Bentley grew up off Westheimer near what is now the Galleria. As with millions of his fellow boomers, he was transfixed by Elvis's historic 1956 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he recalls that thereafter, his mother would always buy him an Elvis single every time he would go with her to the Henke's on Westheimer.
Other outings yielded more immediate pleasures. Back then, Bentley recalled, the Post was on Dowling Street, and Bentley looked forward to going to Third Ward to pick up his dad, because he could hear the amplified licks of people like Albert Collins, Pete Mayes and Johnny Copeland billowing out of the clubs a block away. "So that was what got me into the blues," he says.
And if they took West Gray home, Bentley recalled, they would often see Lightnin' Hopkins picking away out in front of an ice-house. "And that just completely blew my mind," he remembers.
Family trips to Galveston yielded even more exotic fare — Bongo Joe, a fez-sporting, eccentric street poet who set his free-form lyrics to beats on a homemade drum kit made of discarded oil drums. "He used to play on the Seawall right in front of the gift shops near the Galvez Hotel," Bentley says. "That's what got me hooked on drums — I became a drummer from seeing Bongo Joe. Everything lit up, I could just see that this was the music, right there in front of me, that really got inside of me."
As Bentley remembers it, music all but died when Elvis went in the Army and returned as a cheesy movie star. But then fate intervened in the form of Bentley's older brother. When Bentley was all of 12 years old, his brother took him to see James Brown at the Paladium Ballroom which was then on Southmore. "I got to go to a nightclub, and it was just, you know, James Brown full-tilt. That was right after [Live at the Apollo] had come out. So that was the eye-opener in terms of live music."
Bentley was obsessed from then on, and he describes the Houston from 1962 to 1968 as about as good a music town as you could find anywhere. Oh, the shows he saw: the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Coliseum with (ha ha) Ray Stevens opening; Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Cinder Club; Juke Boy Bonner in Fifth Ward jukes; Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in a long engagement in a dive off Almeda called the Mark IV; B.J. Thomas and Roy Head battling it out in Van's Ballroom... Bentley says the stories he tells set the British musicians he has come to know to drooling with envy.