The Head of the Class

Allen Hill, Houston's High Priest of the Oldies, never thought of himself as an American Idol kind of guy. Like a lot of hip people, he deemed the show cheesy, an example of everything that is wrong with music in America.

Until now. This season he's riveted to the show, going so far as to organize a weekly Idol-watching party at Sig's Lagoon, the Midtown record and gift shop. That's because one of his buddies has gone to Hollywood and is seen by many seasoned observers of the show as the unofficial front-runner to win the whole thing. "You always support the home team," Hill says. "Especially when it's a friend of yours."

The friend and occasional music-making companion in question is Sundance Head, the son of pioneering Gulf Coast rocker and blue-eyed country-soul man Roy Head. (The Heads all live in Porter out by Humble.) "Only Roy Head could have generated any interest in me to watch this series," Hill says.

I catch up with Hill at the first of the weekly Idol-watching parties at Sig's, which Hill has renamed Sundance HeadQuarters for the duration of Sundance's Idol run. Thus far, the turnout has been light. Very light: At the first gathering the attendance consists of Hill, an obsessive record collector guy whose name we never catch, Sig's proprietor Thomas Escalante and Racket, gathered around a borrowed TV with rabbit ears and no remote. (Hill and Escalante are hoping that the people will come as Sundance's run continues.)

"Sundance has sung at the Continental at least three times," Hill says, as we catch the tail end of the Simpsons episode leading into Idol. "Roy's such an awesome dude. And it's such a cool story -- the son makes good. And he auditions with a Bobby 'Blue' Bland song? That's awesome."

Idol is Sundance's time to shine. Thus far, he has had a hard time escaping his father's shadow. Most of his public appearances have come when he has acted as a sort of relief pitcher for his father, stepping in and ripping through a few tunes with whatever band is backing his dad.

"He's just a singer -- he's not really a band guy," says Hill. "So he works with bands that know songs like 'Mustang Sally' and 'Stormy Monday,' and he sings like crazy. But he hasn't been in a working band where he's at it night after night."

Living up to a legacy as large as Roy Head's is no small feat. The word "legend" gets thrown around a lot in music journalism circles, but if anybody truly qualifies, it is Roy Head. One of the only white artists on Houston's black-owned Back Beat label (an imprint of Don Robey's Duke-Peacock empire), Head was, along with the Righteous Brothers, one of the true pioneers of what came to be called "blue-eyed soul."

"People didn't know Roy was white back then, and in some ways it kind of backfired on both sides," Hill says. "He told me about the time he played the Apollo in Harlem, and he said he was in the wings thinking, 'I'm not going out there,' and when he hit the stage he said you could hear a pin drop. But then he started dancing and doing his deal and he had them in 15 seconds." (Like father, like son: A couple of years ago, Roy insisted that Sundance be allowed to sing with the Calvin Owens-led all-star band at the Duke-Peacock reunion show at the Eldorado Ballroom in Third Ward. Some of the older guys resented the imposition, until Sundance's performance quieted the grousing.)

"On the flip side, Roy was quite the ladies' man and he had all these guys who wanted to kick his ass," Hill continues. "He would be going out with their sisters and these guys would hear the record, and let's just say these people didn't think they were hearing blue-eyed soul."

He may have had only one major pop hit -- "Treat Her Right," which charted number two in 1965, right behind the Beatles' "Help!" -- but he has racked up a host of lesser hits in both country and pop, and few people who ever saw him perform have ever felt cheated.

You can see why on YouTube, where several clips show Head in his prime. Watch the first one that pops up when you search his name -- not only did the man have James Brown-fast legs, but he pulls some double- and triple-jointed moves that would do an Indian fakir proud. Quite simply, legs aren't supposed to do those things. (Head once toured with James Brown, and legend has it that Brown threw Head off his bus for copping his dance moves.)

My father, John Lomax III, used to see the elder Head perform at battles of the bands at small clubs on South Main. "Him and B.J. Thomas used to duke it out on stage," he says. "These teen clubs had these cheesy little applause meters. But Roy and B.J. both took these things very seriously. They had these big eight- and nine-piece bands and they really wanted to win. B.J. had some moves, but Roy, man, I remember watching him and just thinking 'That sumbitch is somethin else.'"  

Still is, according to Hill, who has backed him at several shows. "Even today, in 2007, Roy Head is a better front man than the majority of today's 20-year-old shoegazers," he says. "Roy goes out there and puts on a show. Nobody knows what's gonna happen. He jumps off the Continental Club stage, does a flip, dives into a mass of people, dances, humps the ground...And then just runs off. And nobody ever forgets they were ever in the room with Roy Head."

As the son of a guy like that, Sundance thought success would come easily. "He thought, 'My old man is famous, I can sing and I know all the right folks, so I'm gonna be famous, too,'" Hill says. It hasn't worked out like that, of course: Sundance is now ten years older and still living and singing with his dad, which is where Idol comes in. This is his big second chance, and Hill says he both deserves it and is taking it very seriously. His earlier mistakes stemmed from ignorance rather than arrogance.

"Sundance is a super dude -- the way he presented himself on the show is not an acting job," Hill says. "He's very humble, he works hard and he wants to make his dad happy." Hill adds that Simon strongly suggested that Sundance lose his beer gut, and that Sundance responded by shedding 35 pounds.

"It's so cool how this has brought Roy out of the woodwork," Hill says, just before the first Hollywood episode. "I was flipping through a Star magazine in line at Fiesta the other day and there's this grainy old picture of Roy in there...I mean -- Star magazine!"

Sadly, Sundance's first performance at Hollywood is most definitely not up to snuff. He forgets some of the words to one of the songs he performs and is flat on some of the ones he remembers. In the group auditions, the other two members of his all-Texan group -- one of whom is Robyn Troup, winner of the "My Grammy Moment" contest -- are sent packing, while an impromptu supergroup consisting of a beatboxer with a dorky faux-hawk, a funny-looking fat kid with a white boy 'fro and two other guys completely outclass everyone else. "I am not an example for anyone that is trying out for this show," a weary-looking Sundance says post-performance. "I'm probably one of the best singers on here, but that doesn't help if you don't know the lyrics. Aw, man, I've got to get something right or they will send me home, and I don't want to go back home."

Acid-tongued Idol judge Simon Cowell has even harsher words. "You sang through your nose, and halfway through it looked like you'd been boiled," he says. "You were all red."

A hush falls over Sig's. Thomas Escalante and Hill are both professional singers, and they can't comprehend Head's forgetting the lyrics.

"You've got 24 hours to learn the lyrics to one song, and you can't do it in that long?" Escalante asks. "If nothing else, American Idol offers people a chance at relevancy," Hill says. "You can't forget the lyrics."

The show moves on to the mass firings -- the purges of contestants by the roomful as the contestant pool is whittled from 172 to 40. The cameras give the pensive Sundance ample face time, to milk the drama of his possible dismissal. The judges walk in the room that contains Sundance. As usual, Randy is sadistic when he delivers the verdict. "I might as well put you out of your misery right now," he says. "I am sorry to say that...You are going to see a lot more of us! You are through to the next round!"

"Yeeeeeeah!" Hill shouts. "I didn't doubt it for a second!"

Postscript: The next night, the final 40 are whittled down to 24. (Since it's Valentine's Day, there's no party at Sundance HeadQuarters.) One by one, 11 of the 12 allotted slots for male singers are filled, until only one remains. In the waiting room where the final 40 are assembled, only Sundance and a very talented neo-soul singer named Thomas Daniels remain. They're summoned together to face the judges, knowing that only one of them will continue on. And after yet another sadistic mindfuck from the judges, Sundance is put through to the semifinal round.  

"Yeah, Sundance Fever's what I got," exults Hill, when reached the next day. "Even American Idol is no match for the Power of the Oldies!"

There will be Idol-watching parties at Sig's Lagoon, 3710 Main, for the remainder of Sundance Head's run in the competition. Call 713-533-9525 for more info.

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