Dr. Roger Wood's eyes have that professorial twinkle in them, like he's finally getting the major point of the lecture across to the slowest dolt in class.
"Look, this is what you've got to understand because this is what makes this story so Houston. Bill Quinn's [founder of Gold Star Studios] motto was 'King of the Hillbillies,' but if you look at the chart records discography, the hits" — here, Wood rips his new book, House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios, from our hands, flips to the correct page and stabs it with his finger — "starting in 1947 you see the hits are all either Cajun music or African-American blues. It's eight years, 1955, before Quinn has a hillbilly hit with George Jones, 'Why, Baby, Why.'
"So the real story is this great Gulf Coast mixture of ethnic styles that Quinn captured," he continues. "It's a time of racial segregation and discrimination, but Quinn's door is open to one and all. And that's the story, this big port city with all of these ethnicities blending. And when you finally take in all the songs — and these are songs in so many different genres — then you start to get how important SugarHill is in the history of American popular music."
And Wood is right. The list of songs in SugarHill's chart discography is staggering, both in quantity and eclecticism: the Cajun national anthem, "Jole Blon," Lightnin' Hopkins's "T-Model Ford," "Chantilly Lace" by the Big Bopper, Roy Head's monster hit "Treat Her Right;" the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About A Mover;" a monumental list of Freddy Fender hits; and Destiny's Child's string of No. 1s.
To say Wood gets fired up talking about his new book, co-written by SugarHill co-owner and chief engineer Andy Bradley, is a supreme understatement. The man lives and breathes this stuff, and is quick to give his co-writer due credit.
"Andy has been working on this for years, trying to compile all the data at his disposal into a book," says Wood. "He did all of the heavy lifting, assembled and compiled all kinds of old studio notes from recording dates to invoices, before he brought me onboard.
"Plus he conducted and transcribed over 90 interviews. That's a Herculean task alone. But that's the kind of information and scholarly attention to detail that makes this book significant."
Wood, author of Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues and Texas Zydeco, notes Bradley's interviews helped set the rigorous standard for the book.
"We were writing history, not some half-baked tale with unsubstantiated rumors and whatnot," says Wood. "Andy is an engineer, and he interviewed many of the studio engineers. That alone gained us a lot of credibility because the engineers are often the only sober people at these sessions."
The book begins with Bradley's first-person account of the darkest saga ever to unfold at the southeast Houston studio, the arrest of legendary producer Huey P. Meaux on charges of cocaine possession, child pornography and sexual assault on a child. Bradley admits the events of January 26, 1996, were traumatic, but within days he realized that, for all the high-profile negative press the case received and the ensuing short-term loss of business it cost the studio, the event was "just one small chapter in the story of this historic building."
Indeed, that chapter reads as though Bradley is still distancing the studio from the Meaux affair. But according to Wood, leading with the Meaux arrest was an integral part of the duo's strategy in planning the layout of the vast amount of information at their disposal.
"Huey's arrest is the first thing almost anyone thinks of, so we decided to just deal with that up front and get it behind us," Wood says. "Andy tells it in first person, and that establishes Andy's credentials as a true insider to the full story. I think what it really does, though, is move the reader through that event fairly quickly and on to the more important musical history we've tried to flesh out."
Wood notes the book contains plenty of other weird characters and questionable behavior. He sees shadowy former owner J.L. Patterson as one of the most interesting aspects of the book. According to Wood, House of Hits marks the most complete version of the sordid history of International Artists, the famous Houston label that recorded the 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, Bubble Puppy and other important late-'60s local and Texas acts. The label actually owned the studio for three years and renamed it International Artists Studios.
"The IA story has been incomplete until now," says Wood. "But through the archival material Andy had and the interviews with the major players like Jack Clement, we came to realize that J.L. Patterson literally sold IA a studio he didn't own. And that just contributed to a spiral of mismanagement and bad deals that brought IA down so fast."
"The IA story is so integral to the history of the Houston music scene," adds Wood, "that tying up the loose ends with the Patterson connection and all the wheeling and dealing that went on may be the most significant historical aspect of the book."
Yet Wood notes that even Patterson's treacherous dealings caused a chain reaction that eventually led to more greatness at SugarHill: "The fallout from IA dealing with Patterson and crashing in 1970 was the event that opened the door for Huey to buy the studio and rename it SugarHill."
Wood's eyes get that twinkle again and he chuckles, "Sometimes things just work out great for the rest of us, because between 1971 when he bought the studio out of bankruptcy until 1986, when he sold the studio, there were over 50 charting hits produced at SugarHill."
As the authors note in the book, "Together with Pappy Daily and Don Robey, Meaux helped put Houston on the musical map of the world."
"And, of course, in 1975 Huey changed the entire landscape of American pop music when he cut Freddy Fender's 'Before the Next Teardrop Falls,'" notes Wood. "That was monumental. Not only was it the first single to go No. 1 on both the country and pop charts at the same time, it was also the first bilingual song to make No. 1."
What followed is one of the greatest success stories in American musical history. Between 1975 and 1983, Meaux and Fender issued 28 charting singles from SugarHill.
Houston music fans can reacquaint themselves with the great music detailed in House of Hits at the Continental Club Sunday, when numerous local artists will cover many of the greatest hits produced at this historic landmark.
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