By Jef With One F
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Forty-seven years after his breakout hit, "Treat Her Right," 69-year old wildman Roy Head is still fighting the entertainment wars, continuing to perform and record. He's also his son's, former American Idol contestant Sundance Head, biggest fan.
The elder Head's history is the stuff of myth. As unlikely as it seems, for a few months in 1965 the hard-nosed, fast-talking Humble resident was standing toe-to-toe with the Beatles, duking it out with the evil forces of the British Invasion.
"Treat Her Right" quickly rose to No. 2 on the pop and rock charts and stayed there for weeks – 16 weeks at No. 2, then longer than any song in history – but it could never bump "Yesterday" or "A Hard Day's Night" from the top spot.
According to Head, he and longtime musical compadre Gene Kurtz wrote "Treat Her Right" in a club in East Bernard, Texas, "on a roll of toilet paper." The song, which had originally been "a stupid song I wrote about a cow" was wildly popular on the teen-dance and party circuit Head and his group at the time, the Traits, worked from their inception in San Marcos in 1957. At that time, Head was a measly 14 years old.
Recording for the San Antonio-based Tanner and Texas label, Head and the Traits had several regional hits in the late '50s as a five-piece party band. In 1961, they added two horns to the ensemble, making the Traits "the first cracker band in the world with a horn section," Head says.
Their big break came in late 1964 when Charley Booth, an associate of "Crazy Cajun" producer Huey P. Meaux, saw the band. Booth proposed that the Traits come to Houston's Gold Star Studios, the precursor to SugarHill, and record "Treat Her Right."
"We blew in there one night and did that whole thing in one take," Head recalls. "And Huey kept hollering, 'It's a hit, it's a hit!' It cost us about $600 to cut it, and I thought we'd never figure out how to get that money back."
Even though he didn't have a contract with the band, Meaux, the legendary swamp-pop guru, hit-maker and wheeler-dealer, steered the record to Duke/Peacock owner Don Robey, who issued the song on his Back Beat subsidiary. But while "Treat Her Right" was doing well with regional radio, it hadn't broken out nationally.
That all changed when Head performed the song for a convention of black disc jockeys and radio executives at Third Ward's legendary Eldorado Ballroom.
"Robey told me to be there, but then he got cold feet about me performing in front of an all-black audience," says Head. "I'll always be grateful to Skipper Lee [longtime KYOK/KCOH disc jockey Frazier], because he told Robey, 'Go on and put the boy up there.'
"Well, I was singing with Bobby Bland's band, which was fronted by Joe Scott," he adds. "I walked out there and the whole place went quiet, and Joe just counted it off and we did it. The next morning black radio stations all over the country were playing it and it just spread like wildfire from there."
Unfortunately for the often belligerent and cantankerous Head, he would never achieve that kind of success again in his career, although he had a nice string of charting tunes after he changed to country music in the '70s.
"Things just got crazy after 'Treat Her Right' hit," reflects Head today. "The guys eventually sued me, wanting six-sevenths of everything I made, and that split the sheet for me. I was out of there. We had an offer to do Ed Sullivan, but it was too big a legal mess for us to perform."
Head would eventually land in Nashville, where he returned to his other true love, country music. But while Head could do a "panty-dropper" ballad with the best Nashville had to offer and had some chart success, his personality was never cut out for Nashville.
"I just got frustrated with all the politics, everybody trying to get credit for something and blocking your way if they didn't," Head explains. "And I completely burned out on recording. I'm an entertainer first and a recording artist second. I like to be in front of a crowd."
And talking about shows he's done, people he's performed with, and people who helped him along the way is much more interesting to Head than talking about his records.
"So many people took an interest in helping me," he says. "The great Joe Tex showed me how to do all those tricks with the microphone. He was a prince of guy and he always had time to show me something, tell me how to be an entertainer, not just a singer."
Head also recalls sharing stages with royalty in both rock and roll and soul music.
"We had so many things happen so fast, and one reason for that is we were sort of in between rock and roll and soul," Head explains. "I've been on bills with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, guys like the Manhattans, all the big names.
Asked to name the biggest thrill of his career, Head immediately says, "playing the Apollo Theater."
"You've heard the stories about the first time Charley Pride played Panther Hall in Fort Worth?" Head asks. "Well, that's what playing the Apollo was like for me. The place was just loud and crazy until I was introduced, but it got real quiet when I walked out.
"I had Joe Scott's band behind me again, and I just started doing some of the moves I'd copped from James Brown and Jackie Wilson, and by the time I walked off they were showing me a lot of love," continues Head. "That's a very hip crowd, and winning them over was definitely a high point in my career."
While he loves to revel in the past and tell old war stories, Head is also looking ahead. Last year he released Still Treating Em Right, a 14-track mix of country ballads and blue-eyed soul that includes a smoking remake of "Treat Her Right."
According to Head, the album has done well in the secondary radio market and has helped revive interest in his live shows. He'll soon be heading to Toronto for a festival. But these days, he seems as excited about his son Sundance's budding career as he is in tooting his own horn.
"I'm so proud of him and how he's going about this," says Head about the 2007 American Idol semifinalist. Universal Motown signed Sundance after his 13th-place finish, but he has since parted ways with the label and released his first album, 2016 and Gruene, only weeks ago.
A mix of blues, country, and ballads, Gruene showcases the 32-year-old's triple-threat talents as singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
"He's trying to do it the right way," says Sundance's proud papa. "He cut the whole thing at a little studio here in Houston [Stone Logic], paid for it himself [and] is putting it out himself. It makes an old man proud."