One of the first psychedelic rock bands to reach national prominence during the 1960s, the 13th Floor Elevators included founding members Tommy Hall, electric jug player, 1965–69; Stacy Sutherland, lead guitarist, 1965–69; Benny Thurman, bassist, 1965–66; John Ike Walton, drummer, 1965–67; and Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, 1965–69. Other personnel were bassists Ronnie Leatherman (1966–67) and Dan Galindo (1967–69) and drummer Danny Thomas (1967–69).
The Elevators originated in 1965 in Central Texas with Tommy Hall, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, who was studying philosophy, psychology, and chemical engineering. The band, which included members from the group, the Lingsmen, began with Stacy Sutherland on lead guitar, Benny Thurman on bass (who also had played violin in the Lingsmen), and John Ike Walton on drums. Although not originally a musician himself, Tommy Hall performed on an amplified jug. Seventeen-year-old Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for an Austin band named the Spades, joined the group on vocals.
Hall’s wife, Clementine, reportedly suggested the name 13th Floor Elevators. Since most buildings do not have a thirteenth floor, the appellation seemed to imply that the band had the ability to travel to other dimensions and levels of consciousness. Others have suggested that the name refers to the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, “m,” which stood for marijuana. In November 1965 Hall declared that the band had a “psychedelic” sound after reading the word in a book written by Timothy Leary, noted advocate of hallucinogenic drugs. Hall believed the garage rock band’s mixture of rock–and-roll, folk, R&B, and drug-induced lyrics, coupled with Erickson’s screaming vocals, was best described as “psychedelic.” The Elevators claim to have drawn much of their musical inspiration from marijuana and LSD, both of which they used openly.
In late 1965 the Elevators began writing songs. They soon signed with Contact, a small record label, and performed their first live shows together in Austin. Hall’s electric jug, along with Erickson’s dynamic vocals and stage presence, quickly set the group apart from other local acts and earned the Elevators a devoted following. Erickson’s previous band, the Spades, had recorded the song “You’re Gonna Miss Me” with the Austin-based label, Zero Records. The Elevators re-recorded the song with a harder sound, patterned more after their idols, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.
In 1966 the Elevators released their single featuring “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Tried to Hide” with Contact Records. Local media began to take notice of the band, and it began touring outside of the Austin area and appeared on regional television shows including Sump’n Else with host Ron Chapman in Dallas and The Larry Kane Show in Houston. Later that same year, the Elevators signed with a Houston-based label, International Artists, which subsequently hired Lelan Rogers, brother of pop/country singer Kenny Rogers, to promote and produce them. The label re-released the Elevators’ first single nationally in mid-1966. This single proved to be the group’s most successful recording, climbing to Number 56 on the Billboard charts. The label followed with the group’s debut album, Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, which has been praised by some critics as one of the greatest psychedelic albums ever released.
As the band’s popularity grew, it traveled to San Francisco to begin a West Coast tour. Thurman, the band’s bassist, chose to remain in Texas, so he was replaced by Ronnie Leatherman. The band was especially well-received in the San Francisco Bay area, where it played the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium, as well as several smaller venues. The Elevators appeared with such popular bands as the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. (Reportedly, the Elevators had asked Janis Joplin to join them. Although she declined the offer, Joplin acknowledged the band’s influence on her music.) Their growing popularity also earned them appearances on television programs, including American Bandstand and Where the Action Is.
The Elevators’ reputation for endorsing and openly using illegal drugs drew the attention of law enforcement officials, including the Texas Rangers. Once back in Texas in 1966, the Elevators were arrested for possession of marijuana. Due to a technicality, Walton and Erickson’s charges were dropped, and Sutherland and Hall received suspended sentences. All of the attention connected to illegal drug use convinced many Top 40 radio stations to ban the Elevators. However, as the group’s popularity grew, most stations relented to public pressure and lifted the bans. In the summer of 1967 Walton the drummer and bassist Leatherman left the group and were replaced with Danny Thomas and Dan Galindo, respectively.
In 1967 the band released its second album, Easter Everywhere, which many consider to be another masterpiece of psychedelic music. The Elevators cancelled several out-of-state tour dates, and touring was mainly limited to within Texas in 1967, due to personal problems and additional drug busts. International Artists released a “live” album in 1968, which was actually made from studio outtakes with a dubbed “audience.” The release was a commercial failure. The band began working on a new album, released in January 1969 as Bull of the Woods. It featured many of Sutherland’s songs but failed to attract critical acclaim or commercial success, in part, because it was recorded without the input of lead vocalist Roky Erickson.
The end of the Elevators coincided with Erickson’s arrest for marijuana possession in 1969. Since this was not his first offense, Erickson, an untreated schizophrenic, faced a substantial prison term. To avoid this, he opted for a three-year sentence to Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane. After the group disbanded in 1969, Hall moved back to San Francisco, while most of the remaining members stayed in Texas. Following his release from Rusk State Hospital, Erickson spent years struggling with mental illness. In the early 1970s he tried to get the group back together with Sutherland, Walton, and Leatherman, but it never fully materialized. Erickson did complete some solo albums and two books of poetry. He also worked with several bands, including Bleib Alien, the Explosives, and the Resurrectionists. In 1978 lead guitarist Sutherland was fatally shot by his wife. In 1984 Erickson, Leatherman, and Walton played a reunion show in Houston.
The legacy of the Elevators has continued through the numerous bands they have influenced. In 1990 ZZ Top, R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers, Primal Scream, and several other popular groups, released a tribute album on Warner Brothers honoring the Elevators—Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson. Other prominent musicians who have acknowledged the group’s contributions to rock music include Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins, and the White Stripes. The Elevators also had a major impact on the hippie counterculture scene in Texas during the late 1960s, as well as Austin’s punk rock scene during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early twenty-first century Roky Erickson, who had regained his health and was on medication for his schizophrenia, made a musical comeback and played his first full-length concert in two decades at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2005. He continued to perform some of the 13th Floor Elevators songs at his shows. The Elevators impacted a new generation of music fans and were the subject of a panel discussion at the SXSW conference in 2005. International Artists released a ten-CD box set of the Elevators, Sign of the 3 Eyed Men, in 2009. On May 10, 2015, at the Austin Psych Festival (also known as Levitation), band members—Roky Erickson, Tommy Hall, John Ike Walton, and Ronnie Leatherman—of the Elevators had a fiftieth-anniversary reunion performance.