Texas has been prominent in the history of the recording industry, although there has never been a record label in Texas comparable to the major labels in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. The sales of so-called "cowboy," "hillbilly," and "ethnic" recordings in the 1920s and 1930s bankrolled the growth of the recording industry in America. At the time, the recording companies considered the audience for "popular music" "lower-class," but it was certainly a larger and more profitable market than that for classical and operatic music recordings and remains so today. Texas was and is the source for much of that popular music.
The recording industry is an interdependent but not-always-harmonious mix of music, technology, marketing, and ego. A change in any of these elements affects the development of the others. In the earliest days of American recording, the scarcity and expense of the requisite equipment, coupled with the technical knowledge necessary to operate it, limited the market for recordings mostly to the wealthy. As recording technology developed, the audience for recordings expanded, to the point where even the Mexican immigrant communities in South Texas had an average of 118 records for every 100 people by 1936.
The constant search for new songs and artists led the competing record labels to Texas because of the state's broad variety of musical scenes and styles. The popularity of these recordings spread the influence of Texan artists' musical styles across America and into the world at large.
Early recording pioneers. Thomas Edison made his historic first recording on a tinfoil-covered cylinder in 1877. Though originally intending only to record telegraph signals, he had invented a machine that could record intelligible audio. He then designed a commercial recorder to be used for dictation, but its real value turned out to be making and playing recordings for entertainment. Edison introduced the first commercial version of his cylinder recorder in 1887. In 1893 a team of Edison's engineers on a field trip made the first known recording in Texas, a performance of Los Pastores in a San Antonio hotel. (see FOLK DRAMA).
Piano rolls were also made at that time, and it was on these that one of the earliest recordings of the performances of a Texan was made. Ragtime innovator Scott Joplin made piano rolls of his compositions from 1896 until shortly before his death in 1917.
By end of the nineteenth century there were three major competing formats for recording audio, none of them electronic. Each of these systems had an associated label in fierce competition with one another. Edison's vertical-groove cylinder system was utilized by Victor Records. Emile Berliner's "Gramophone" used a zinc photo-engraved lateral-cut disc. Charles Tainter's "Graphophone," a vertical-groove cylinder-type recorder, was used by Columbia. Until the advent of electronic recording in the mid-1920s most recording systems funneled sound from the musicians into a trumpet-like horn, where the vibrations caused a needle to engrave a groove in a rotating wax-coated cylinder or disc. The mechanical limitations of these acoustically-driven systems severely limited frequency response and were scratchy, but the sheer novelty of listening to recordings created a great demand. The Columbia Phonograph Company was formed in 1889 to market the graphophone system for dictation but soon found that music sold far better. Columbia produced its first record catalog in 1890—a list of Edison and Columbia recordings on cylinders.
One of Edison's star recording artists was Texan Marion Try Slaughter, who recorded as Vernon Dalhart. Dalhart sang operatic and popular compositions in New York and recorded for Edison around 1915. Edison was constantly improving his cylinder recorder's design, and Dalhart was one of the artists whose recordings introduced the famous "Blue Amberol" cylinder that would last through many playings. Dalhart's recordings sold well enough, but his greatest success was in 1924 when, given the success of Dalhart's Edison recordings, he persuaded Victor Records to let him record some "hillbilly" tunes. Dalhart set aside his vocal training and sang in a nasal twang a number of the songs he had heard in his youth. One of these recordings, "The Wreck of the Old 97," backed with "The Prisoner's Song," became the first million-selling country record in history, propelling Dalhart's career and alerting Victor Records to the profitability of the "hillbilly" market. Victor claimed that six million copies of the songs were eventually sold. Dalhart's hit recording of "Home On the Range" in 1927 established him as the first true star of country music.
The first country music performer known to be commercially recorded was also a Texan--legendary fiddler Alexander (Eck) Robertson of Amarillo, who went to New York with fiddler Henry C. Gilliland in 1922 and persuaded RCA to record six of his hillbilly fiddle tunes. These recordings established the fiddle band tradition, and their popularity created a demand for hillbilly music as well as cowboy music.
Field recording. What we call country music today began with some of the earliest recordings made in Texas. John A. Lomax made field recordings of Texas cowboy songs in 1908 that were published as Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. In many cases he brought cowboy informants to his home to record. Lomax had grown up in Texas and as a teenager wrote down the words to the songs he heard the cowboys sing. Supported by private funds from two Harvard University professors because his alma mater, the University of Texas, was not interested in his study of what were termed "tawdry, cheap and unworthy" cowboy music and lore, Lomax traveled by automobile with his portable recording rig to cities, towns, prisons, and ranches in Texas, where he recorded cowboys and others singing the old songs of the original American West. Because of his efforts, songs like "Home on the Range," "The Streets of Laredo," "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," and "Git Along Little Dogies" did not fade into obscurity, but rather became the musical identity of the Old West. Lomax and his son Alan went on to record throughout the southeastern United States in the 1930s for the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song. One of their sessions at the Angola Prison in Louisiana brought Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, to the attention of the world.
Though John Lomax, a cofounder of the Texas Folklore Society, was the earliest and most famous, there were other notable folklorists who recorded regional music in Texas. William Owens, from Pin Hook, traveled with a gramophone-type recorder producing embossed aluminum discs that were played back with needles made of cactus thorns. Owens, who had taught at Texas A&M University, recorded in East Texas and Louisiana in the mid-1930s for his doctorate from the University of Iowa. That institution was not interested in keeping his collection of recordings, but the University of Texas was, perhaps recognizing their initial mistake with Lomax. In 1941 J. Frank Dobie hired Owens as a folklorist and UT acquired Owens's collection. Owens continued to add recordings to the collection into the 1950s. Also recording in Texas in the 1940s for the Library of Congress were John Rosser, Jr., and famous Texan folklorist John Henry Faulk. Another folklorist–recorder was Dallas attorney Hermes Nye. In the 1940s he recorded and at times performed on the radio some old Texas songs for national distribution.
Among the most influential major label Texas field recordings were those made of Jimmie Rodgers, the "Blue Yodeler,” by Ralph Peer from Victor. Peer recorded five songs by Rodgers in August 1929 at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Six more songs were recorded there in October 1929. In January 1931 Peer recorded three songs by Rodgers, including the "T. B. Blues" and the "Travellin' Blues," at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio. The last sessions in Texas by Rodgers took place during February 1932 at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas where Peer recorded eight songs. Victor released 110 recordings by Rodgers during his short career, twenty-two of which were recorded in Texas. He built a large house in Kerrville in 1929 but moved to San Antonio shortly before his death in 1933. Also known as "The Singing Brakeman," Rodgers was enormously popular and his records sold in the millions. He is widely considered to be the "Father of Country Music," and through contemporary re-releases of his recordings his influence is still felt today.
Continuing the field-recording tradition, Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records came from California to Texas beginning in the 1960s to record local musicians, including Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins. In 1960 Arhoolie made the first recordings of Mance Lipscomb, a sixty-five-year-old Navasota musician who had never previously recorded. Lipscomb recorded for Arhoolie until just before his death in 1976, influenced countless musicians, and became famous for his varied stylistic repertoire, which included gospel, rags, ballads, and other traditional songs as well as Texas-style blues.
In more recent years popular demand for archival field recordings has diminished, probably because recordings are no longer a novelty and because many more musicians are now able to record themselves. Even Arhoolie Records exists only because it has other sources of income than record and CD sales. However, field recordings can still have appeal, as evidenced by singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked, who achieved commercial success and critical acclaim with the release by Cooking Vinyl Records of a cassette recording of her singing offstage by a campfire at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival.
The "race labels." Record companies in the 1920s noticed how well "ethnic" recordings were selling along with hillbilly music and began to search actively for new artists and music for their "race labels" as well. Because there were few real studio facilities outside of New York and Chicago, major record labels of the time such as Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Brunswick, Vocalion, and American Record Company (aka ARC or American Record Corporation) sent teams of engineers and equipment around the country (and the world) to record regional music. A regular destination for these teams was Texas.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s recording sessions in Texas were held in hotel rooms, churches, office buildings, banquet halls, and radio stations, including WFAA and WRR in Dallas and WOAI in San Antonio. Finding suitable locations at that time was often difficult because of segregation at hotels and other commercial locations, and because churches would not always approve of the music being recorded. There was also the need to store the twenty or more trunks of equipment and supplies necessary for a remote recording trip.
Recording onto wax-coated cylinders or thick beeswax discs presented a number of problems, especially in the Texas heat. The engineers would keep the wax on ice before and after recording. When electronic recording began in the mid-to-late 1920s, high temperatures also caused noisy crackling in the carbon microphones used at the time, so they were often kept on ice along with the wax until just before starting the recording. The record companies tried whenever possible to avoid summer sessions in Texas.
The conditions at these recording sessions were primitive by today's standards. Musicians usually were in one room, and the equipment and engineers were in another, so they could not see one another. The musicians had to wait quietly until a yellow light went on, which meant "get ready!" When a green light came on, it was time to play, and there was no stopping because of mistakes. Needless to say, the process of cramming a group of musicians into a room without windows or air-conditioning did not always foster creativity and reflected the inherent conflicts between achieving technical sonic excellence in recording and musical "groove" in performance that still exist today.
Artists recorded at these remote sessions were not always Texans, but the "race label" recordings are of note because they were virtually the only recordings done in Texas during this period. Among the major blues and gospel sessions, Victor Records and a later subsidiary label, Bluebird, recorded in Dallas and San Antonio almost once a year from 1929 to 1941. Artists recorded in Texas by Victor include Hattie Hyde, Sammy Hill, Jesse "Babyface" Thomas, Bessie Tucker (Dallas, 1929), Jimmie Davis, Eddie and Oscar, Pere Dickenson, Ramblin' Thomas, Walter Davis, Stump Johnson (Dallas, 1932), the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Joe Pullum, Rob Cooper (San Antonio, 1934), Boots and His Buddies (San Antonio, 1936), Andy Boy, Walter "Cowboy" Washington, Big Boy Knox, Ted Mays and His Band (San Antonio, 1937), Bo Carter, Frank Tannehill (San Antonio, 1938), and the Wright Brothers (Dallas, 1941).
The Atlanta-based OKeh label made its first field trip to Texas in 1925. In Dallas it recorded Rev. William McKinley Dawkins, though this recording was for Sunshine Gospel Records. In 1928 and 1929 Okeh returned to record Alger "Texas" Alexander, Lonnie Johnson, Troy Floyd and His Plaza Hotel Orchestra, George "Little Hat" Jones, Lonesome Charlie Harrison, and Jack Ranger.
Columbia came to Dallas in 1927 and 1928 and recorded Washington Phillips, Lillian Glinn, Blind Willie Johnson, Billiken Johnson and Fred Adams, Coley Jones, Willie Tyson, William McCoy, Willie Mae McFarland, Hattie Hudson, Gertrude Perkins, the Dallas String Band, Laura Henton, Le Roy's Dallas Band, Frenchy's String Band, Blind Texas Marlin, Bobby Cadillac, Mary Taylor, Baby Jean Lovelady, Emma Wright, Rev. J. W. Heads, Willie Reed, Charlie King, the Texas Jubilee Singers, Billiken Johnson and Neal Roberts, Otis Harris, and Jewell Nelson.
In late 1929 Columbia bought OKeh, one of a number of mergers in the recording industry brought about by the Great Depression. The joint OKeh–Columbia field trips to Texas took place in December 1929 and June 1930. Although records were released on both labels, only one recording team was sent. In Dallas and San Antonio they recorded many of their artists again, completing recordings for the Columbia label before recording for OKeh.
Brunswick and Vocalion preferred to record in New York or Chicago, but made field trips to Dallas in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Artists recorded there include Texas Tommy, Ben Norsingle, Ollie Ross, Hattie Burleson, Eddie and Sugar Lou's Hotel Tyler Orchestra, Bo Jones, Luis Davis, Sammy Price and His Four Quarters, Bert Johnson, Douglas Finnell and His Royal Stompers, Effie Scott, Perry Dixon, Jake Jones, Blind Norris, Gene Campbell, and Coley Dotson. Vocalion also had successful sales with Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas of Big Sandy. Brunswick later established an office in Dallas.
The American Record Corporation made perhaps the best-known and influential of the race-label field recordings in Texas—the Robert Johnson sessions of 1936–37. ARC and its legendary producer Don Law recorded Texas Alexander at their first Texas session in San Antonio in April 1934. In September 1934 they returned to Fort Worth and San Antonio, where they recorded Perry Dixon and Alfoncy Harris. In 1935 they recorded Bernice Edwards, Black Boy Shine, and "Funny Papa" Smith in Fort Worth; the Dallas Jamboree Jug Band in Dallas; and J. H. Bragg and His Rhythm Five in San Antonio. In early 1936 B. K. Turner (the Black Ace) recorded for ARC in Fort Worth. In November 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson recorded by various accounts either sixteen or seventeen of the twenty-nine legendary songs, including "Cross Road Blues," that became both his legacy and a fundamental root of rock-and-roll. In June 1937 the remaining twelve or thirteen songs of the twenty-nine were recorded at the Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, along with Black Boy Shine. Later that year ARC recorded Son Becky, Pinetop Burks, Dusky Dailey, the Jolly Three, Kitty Gray, and Buddy Woods in San Antonio. In 1938 and 1939 ARC returned to record Gray, Woods, and Dailey. In 1940 ARC recorded the Wright Brothers Gospel Singers at the Burrus Mill Recording Studio in Saginaw, Texas. (This studio belonged to the Light Crust Doughboys.)
Other Texas R&B race-label musicians left the state to be recorded. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded for Paramount in Chicago from 1925 until 1929. He recorded his first national hit, "Long Lonesome Blues," in 1926 and went on to record more than eighty songs for Paramount in Chicago and two for OKeh Records in Atlanta. He was the first country blues player to record commercially, and he was the most popular blues singer of the 1920s until his untimely death in 1929. Jefferson's music has influenced countless musicians, from the first electric bluesman, Aaron (T-Bone) Walker, who combined Jefferson's acoustic guitar blues style with Charlie Christian's electric guitar style, to Bob Dylan, who recorded a Blind Lemon song, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," on his first album, and Jefferson Airplane, the band named for him.
T-Bone Walker made his first recordings in Dallas in 1929 for Columbia, but many of his major recordings in later years were made outside of Texas. In 1929 Columbia recorded Alexander (Whistlin' Alex) Moore, one of the originators of the Texas boogie barrelhouse piano style, at its studio in Chicago. OKeh Records recorded Beulah (Sippie) Wallace, in Chicago and on a field trip to St. Louis (1926), where they also recorded jazz singer Victoria Spivey of Houston for the first time.
Mexican-American border music was also proving to have a profitable regional market, so some of the major race labels began recording Tejano artists. Most of the early recordings of Mexican Americans were done in Los Angeles and Mexico. In the late 1920s some labels on their recording tours through Texas brought a few Tejano artists to their sessions in San Antonio, most notably accordionists Bruno Villareal and José Rodríguez, both from the San Benito area. The vocal duet of Pedro Rocha y Lupe Martínez, La Orquesta Típica, and El Cuarteto Carta Blanca were also recorded in the late 1920s. In 1928 the great Lydia Mendoza, with her family troupe Cuarteto Carta Blanca, made her first recording, for OKeh Records.
Recordings of Mexican-American music increased in the 1930s, with Tejano artists occupying more of the recording slots at the temporary studios in Texas. One of the Victor–Bluebird San Antonio sessions in 1934 recorded Octavio Mas Montes, Los Hermanos Chavarria, Gaytán y Cantú, Trio Texano, Pedro Rocha y Lupe Martínez, Bruno Villareal, Los Hermanos San Miguel, and Rafael Rodríguez. The hillbilly band W. Lee O'Daniel and His Light Crust Doughboys and bluesman Texas Alexander were also recorded at that session. Lydia Mendoza left Okeh Records and began recording on the Bluebird label in 1934. An extremely popular singer worldwide, she recorded more than 200 songs for them by 1940.
Accordionist Santiago Jiménez, Sr., made his first recordings in San Antonio on the Decca label in 1936. He later switched to Victor because they paid $75 per recording and Decca only paid $21. Also in 1936, Narciso Martínez, accompanied by his bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida, of Skidmore, Texas, recorded twenty titles in one session. These recordings on the Bluebird label cemented the use of the bajo sexto, a Mexican double-coursed twelve-string bass guitar, as the preferred rhythm instrument with the accordion, replacing the traditional tambora de rancho, a drum that drowned out the accordion on recordings. Martínez had lived for a while near Corpus Christi among many Bohemians, Czechs, and Germans. He was among the first to blend the European and Mexican accordion styles, along with Camilo Cantú of Central Texas and Santiago Jiménez, who was doing the same in San Antonio. Martínez's recordings for Bluebird began the popularization of the conjunto style and were distributed worldwide. They were well-received in many places, except Mexico City, where music from "El Norte" was frowned upon at the time. Sadly, even though he is in the Conjunto Hall of Fame, Camilo Cantú was never recorded and his music is lost.
During the 1930s a clear difference in styles evolved between the border music of California and Texas. The popularity of the recordings from Texas helped to establish the Texas-Mexican conjunto as a genre of its own. Contributing to this style was another San Antonio musician, Adolph Hofner, who recorded there for OKeh and Columbia. His band, Adolph Hofner and the San Antonians, played western swing mixed with Czech and German polkas.
Recording, radio, and western swing. When electronic recording began in 1925, there was some promise for expanding record sales, because discs were easier to replicate than cylinders. Electronics also brought about radio, however, and the expansion of commercial broadcast radio put a crimp in the growth of record sales in the early-to-mid 1920s. Radio was free and records were expensive, and the marketing relationship between the radio industry and record industry had not yet developed. Much of the recording in the 1920s was done at radio stations such as WOAI in San Antonio and WFAA in Dallas, where musicians would perform and be recorded on transcription discs for later broadcast. Transcription recording equipment was expensive, usually found only at the larger radio stations, and was not a consumer format, although some radios with built-in disc recorders were in the homes of wealthy people. The large transcription discs could be played only a few times, so copies of these are extremely noisy, but a few survive. The Great Depression further reduced the demand for records, which sold for about seventy-five cents, a fair amount of money in those days. However, the increasing use of jukeboxes created a market for records, and the major record companies that survived the depression saw their market expand in the 1930s, though prices of the 78-rpm records had dropped to about thirty-five cents each.
W. Lee O'Daniel's Light Crust Doughboys, a hillbilly precursor of western swing bands, was one of the first groups to exploit and be exploited by the powerful mix of radio and recording that began in the late 1920s. The popularity of their radio show on WBAP (Fort Worth) led to the creation of one of the first radio networks in America, the Texas Quality Network. The Light Crust Doughboys grew popular enough to afford their own recording studio in Saginaw, Texas, and may have been the first band in Texas to have its own studio. Though personnel in the band changed, the Light Crust Doughboys continued to record for decades, all the way into the twenty-first century. O'Daniel capitalized on the fame his band brought him by becoming governor of Texas and later a U.S. senator.
Several members of the Light Crust Doughboys had a significant impact on Texas music and recording after leaving the band. Milton Brown of Stephenville formed what is generally recognized as the first western swing band, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, in 1932. Brown made more than 100 recordings for Victor and Decca before his untimely death in 1936. His blend of white hillbilly ("cowboy square dance") music with blues and jazz and even polka and Mexican music became known as western swing. Bob Wills of Kosse, Texas, left the Doughboys in 1933 and formed the Texas Playboys, the most well-known of the western swing bands, which often incorporated a horn section and played in a variety of styles. Wills and the Texas Playboys made their first recording in 1935, for American Record Corporation's other famous producer, Art Satherley. Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, a longtime member of the Doughboys, became a successful record producer and studio owner in the decades after World War II.
Bill Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers, another top western swing group of the 1930s, recorded the popular "Under the Double Eagle." Boyd, from Ladonia, Texas, first recorded his band for Bluebird in San Antonio in 1934, with a style and instrumentation that was more traditional than Wills's. The Cowboy Ramblers were also different in that they performed mostly in the recording studio and on the radio, rarely touring. They recorded more than 200 songs for RCA–Bluebird and appeared in six Hollywood films in the 1940s.
In 1939 the Houston dance band Cliff Bruner and His Boys recorded "Truck Driver's Blues," written by East Texas musician Ted Daffan, a steel and electric guitar pioneer. This record was a hit for the Decca label and was the first song of the "truck-drivin'" genre of country music, which remained popular for decades. Moon Mullican, from Corrigan, was the vocalist.
World War II, the postwar era, and the rise of Texas record labels and recording studios. When World War II began, commercial recording in the United States slowed dramatically. The shellac used for discs was needed for the war effort, as was the beeswax used for the master recordings. In addition, a general strike by the American Federation of Musicians in 1942 prevented the labels from recording for two full years. The strike was called to seek royalties from the record companies for a fund to compensate musicians who lost work because of competition from recorded music. Until the strike, musicians were paid only a flat fee per recording, and were not compensated when their records were sold, played on jukeboxes, or broadcast on radio. By 1943, through an agreement with the AFM, this work stoppage induced the United States Army to produce its own records, called V-discs ("Victory-discs") for the entertainment of American soldiers. Texan jazz musicians Jack Teagarden and Oran (Hot Lips) Page recorded on V-discs, as did Bill Boyd, Bob Wills with the Texas Playboys, and Tex Ritter. Between 1943 and 1949 more than eight million of these vinyl twelve-inch records were manufactured. Most of the V-discs were destroyed after the war, in keeping with an agreement made with the AFM.
After the war, the American recording industry grew and changed. Innovations in materials and electronics developed during the war were adapted to commercial recording. Once again, Texas had a large role to play in the artistic, technical, and commercial areas of the recording industry. Technology derived from antisubmarine acoustic listening equipment was adapted to audio recording and record production. The development of the first working transistor by Texas Instruments in 1954 further improved electronic designs, allowing higher fidelity with lower noise levels than vacuum tube circuitry, along with reduced size and heat levels. Although immediately after the war smaller labels often made new records of melted old ones, advances in plastics ended the use of shellac and led to discs that could have grooves much closer together, allowing longer playing times and eventually slower rotation speeds. Masters were no longer recorded on wax but rather on magnetic tape, a new medium developed from captured German tape recorders. The reviving American economy and the baby boom were creating a huge audience for recorded music and its consumer technology. Broadcast television began to have as much of an impact on the recording industry as radio did in the 1920s and 1930s, and Hollywood had discovered the "singing cowboy." After the war, the large record companies did not resume their field recording trips. They were making large profits from national hits recorded at their studios and decided the extra expense of location recording did not justify the return from sales in regional markets. This was typically shortsighted on their part, but it opened the door for the growth of the Texas recording industry.
The postwar decade saw the rise of smaller regional labels to fill the void left by the larger companies. The cessation of location recording by the larger labels also created a need for recording facilities in Texas. Many GIs returned from the war with electronic skills, which they put to use by building recording studios. In the late 1940s studios and record manufacturing plants were built in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and even Alice and McAllen by entrepreneurial engineers and businessmen to facilitate recording for their record labels. The lack of commercially manufactured professional-grade audio-recording equipment meant many studio engineers had to design and fabricate their own microphone preamplifiers and mixing consoles until the 1970s, when designers such as Englishman Mr. Rupert Neve began producing high-quality manufactured equipment. Neve, widely regarded in the professional audio industry as one of its foremost designers, relocated to Wimberley, Texas, in the 1990s.
Houston and East Texas. One of the premier Texas studios of the period, ACA Studios, was built in Houston in 1948 by Bill Holford, Sr., after he left the service, where he had been a radio and sound-reinforcement technician. ACA (Audio Company of America) had its own label, ACA Records, but many other regional Texas labels hired Holford, including Peacock, Bellaire, D Records, Starday, and even the diminutive but no less significant Sarg Records label of Luling. (Sarg released the first recordings of KBOP disc jockey Willie Nelson and San Antonio child prodigy Doug Sahm.) Known for the quality of his recordings, Holford was well-liked and respected by such artists as B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Winter, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown, Johnny Copeland, T-Bone Walker, Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton, Little Richard, and many other famous musicians who enjoyed recording at his studio.
Native Houstonian producer, label owner, and songwriter Don Robey was one of the most important figures in Texan pop, jazz, gospel and R&B music. In 1949 Robey, a nightclub owner, was managing Gatemouth Brown, of Orange. In order to get Brown recorded, Robey, aided by the managerial savvy of his associate Evelyn Johnson, started his own label, Peacock Records. The first successful black-owned record label, Peacock produced hits by Brown, Big Mama Thornton ("Hound Dog"), Floyd Dixon, Memphis Slim, and Marie Adams. Peacock also released progressive jazz recordings by Betty Carter and Sonny Criss. Robey bought the Duke label of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1953, adding Bobby Blue Bland, Roscoe Gordon, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace to his roster of artists. In 1957 Robey started the Back Beat label and had hits by O.V. Wright, Joe Hinton, and country-rocker Roy Head of San Marcos. Robey built Peacock Studio in Houston in 1954, and added gospel artists to his R&B roster, including the Dixie Hummingbirds, whose solo recording of “Loves Me Like A Rock” (a song written by Paul Simon and for whom they had previously provided backing vocals on his recording) won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance in 1974. Robey sold Duke-Peacock Records to ABC-Dunhill in 1973.
Houston became a major center of rhythm and blues and zydeco in the 1950s and 1960s, giving rise to a number of record labels, studios, and record-manufacturing plants. Bill Quinn built Gold Star Studios there. He had found success when East Texas musician Harry Choates recorded his famous arrangement of "Jole Blon" for Gold Star Records in 1946. Moon Mullican's version of Choates's song on King Records a year later took the nation by storm. Quinn had started Gold Star to record country singers, but the label became known for its blues artists. In the 1950s J. P. "Big Bopper" Richardson recorded "Chantilly Lace," and Johnny Preston recorded "Running Bear" at Gold Star. Lightnin' Hopkins recorded his first songs at Gold Star. He would often stop in to record a song or two, sometimes written on the spot, when he needed cash. Gold Star was one of twenty labels on which Hopkins recorded. Wilson (Thunder) Smith, Melvin (Lil' Son) Jackson, and Smokey Hogg also recorded at Gold Star.
Harold (Pappy) Daily of Houston bought Bill Quinn's Choates masters in 1955 and released them on his independent D Records label. D Records started the commercial careers of the Big Bopper, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band. It ceased operations about 1976, but started up again in 2002. Daily's larger Starday label, established in 1952, was distributed by Mercury and is best-known for releasing George Jones's first recordings. The label moved to Nashville in 1957, and Daily sold it in 1958.
Quinn's Gold Star Studios eventually became SugarHill Studios in 1971, purchased by legendary producer Huey Meaux who had earlier used it for his Crazy Cajun, Jetstream, Pacemaker, and other labels. It subsequently hosted many noted artists (some not on Meaux's labels), including Archie Bell and the Drells, Barbara Lynn, Clay Walker, the Who, B. J. Thomas, Sunny (Sunny Ozuna) and the Sunliners (the first all-Tejano band to appear on American Bandstand), Roy Head, the Sir Douglas Quintet with Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender (who had a hit with "Before the Next Teardrop Falls"), Smash Mouth, Destiny's Child, and even the Rolling Stones. Tejano star Selena Quintanilla recorded her first album at SugarHill in 1983 for Freddie Records.
International Artists was a Houston label of the 1960s. Its management eventually included Lelan Rogers (brother of Kenny Rogers) to run its national promotion efforts, and the label recorded early psychedelic bands, most notably Austin's Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, Bubble Puppy, and Endle St. Cloud at Gold Star Studios. The psychedelic scene provided contrast to the country music scene in Houston that centered on Mickey Gilley's Jones Recording Studio in North Houston and, later, Gilley's nightclub in Pasadena. Gilley built a new studio next to the club, where part of the soundtrack to the film Urban Cowboy (1980) was produced.
Tyler also has a recording history. Studio recording there began in the 1960s, with facilities like Robin Hood Brian's Recording Studio, where ZZ Top, John Fred and His Playboy Band, David Houston, the Uniques, the Five Americans, Southwest F.O.B. (later England Dan and John Ford Coley), Mouse and the Traps, Jon and Robin, and Gladstone, along with hundreds of other regional acts, recorded for larger labels such as Epic and Paula and smaller local labels such as Ty-Tex and Custom. LeAnn Rimes has recorded many songs, including the Grammy-winning "Blue," at Rosewood Studios in Tyler. From a handful of studios after the war, by the early twenty-first century there were almost 150 studios in the Houston and East Texas area listed with the Governor's Texas Music Office.
Dallas and Fort Worth. The recording industry in Dallas included pioneering sound engineer J. E. "Pop" Sellers who began recording professionally as early as the mid-1930s. His Sellers Company Recording Studios has been credited as the first independent sound recording studio in the Southwest, and J. E. and his son Jack operated the studio for almost six decades. Dallas also had its share of recording business in the postwar period. Though there was still musical activity in Deep Ellum, much of the R&B recording of the time was done in Houston, but some small, musician-owned labels were established, including Timothy McNeally's Shawn label and Roger Boykin's SoulTex label. Country artists continued to record in Dallas, along with some rockabilly pioneers. Bill Boyd was recording at Jack Sellers's studio, Sellers Company, during the 1950s, where Eck Robertson had recorded a comeback try in the 1940s. Rockabilly pioneers Gene Summers, Johnny Carroll of Cleburne, Gene Vincent of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" fame (the Lost Dallas Sessions), Dallas's rockabilly pioneer Groovey Joe Poovey (later known as "Johnny Dallas") and Bob Kelly, who also owned Top Ten Studios in Dallas, all recorded at Sellers Company.
Dallas studio owner Jim Beck discovered William (Lefty) Frizzell. Beck, who recorded the singer from Corsicana in 1950, took the recordings to his friend Don Law, then with Columbia Records. Law came to Texas and recorded Frizzell singing "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," which sold 2½ million copies in two months, thus launching Frizzell's career. Also recording at Beck's studio were George Jones, Ray Price, Floyd Tillman, and Marty Robbins. Beck was very influential with the major labels, and if not for his untimely death in 1956, Dallas might have gained the stature of Nashville as a country music recording center.
In nearby Fort Worth, producer "Major Bill" Smith's Le Cam label released several national hits in the 1960s, including Bruce Channel's hit "Hey! Baby," Delbert McClinton and the Ron-Dels' "If You Really Want Me To I'll Go," Paul and Paula's "Hey Paula," and, on Smith’s Josie label, J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' "Last Kiss."
Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery of the Light Crust Doughboys, who produced "Hey! Baby" and "Hey Paula," built, with Ed Bernet, the world-famous Sumet-Bernet Studios in Dallas. Montgomery produced and recorded albums by the Doughboys and many other Texas bands there for decades. Sumet Studios saw many famous musicians from all over the world, including Helen Reddy, who recorded "I Am Woman" there in 1971.
In 1974 engineers Glen Pace and Phil York built Autumn Sound, the first twenty-four-track recording studio in Texas. Within a month of its opening, Willie Nelson recorded his album Red-Headed Stranger there. Willie's first Number 1 hit as a singer, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," was on that Grammy-winning album, and he went on to record three more platinum albums at Autumn Sound. The studio was called Audio Dallas in 2015. Dallas Sound Labs hosted Stevie Ray Vaughan for three albums in the 1980s and was still open in 2015 as both a studio and recording school known as MediaTech Institute. Planet Dallas, Palmyra Studios, and Indian Trail were among the 160 or more studios that are continuing the Dallas-Fort Worth and North Central Texas recording tradition in the twenty-first century.
West Texas and the beginnings of rock-and-roll. In West Texas during the 1950s, a new musical style was emerging that took the world by storm. Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids with Jimmy Bowen in 1956, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets in 1957, recorded their first hit songs at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, just across the state line. Roy Orbison also recorded there, as did Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. There were some small studios in West Texas, like Bobby Peeble's Venture Recording Studio in Lubbock, where Holly recorded once in 1956, and Nesman Recording Studio in Wichita Falls, where Holly recorded the acetates that led to his short-lived contract with Decca, but Petty's production skills and equipment quality were well-known and in demand. The songs Holly and the Crickets recorded there, including "That'll Be the Day," were released on the Brunswick and Coral labels. Musicians such as Tommy Allsup, who built Westex Studio in Odessa in the 1960s, met the need for studios in the region. Allsup had played lead guitar for Buddy Holly. In Amarillo Ray Ruffin (aka Ray Ruff) established Checkmate Studio in 1964. The Checkmates and Buddy Knox are among the artists who recorded there.
Longtime Lubbock saxophonist and four-track studio owner Don Caldwell, with the help of Lubbock banker-musician Lloyd Llove, built a multi-track studio where Texas artists such as the second-generation Maines Brothers, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and many others recorded and continue to record. Petty required long-term contracts from his artists and was known for sometimes keeping their royalties, so Caldwell's studio along with his Texas Soul Records label and Phone Publishing Company, which often allowed artists to retain ownership of their material, was popular for many years and operated well into the twenty-first century. In El Paso, Bobby Fuller built a studio in 1962 and released on his own Exeter label the first recording of "I Fought the Law," which he later recorded again in Los Angeles. In West Texas and the Panhandle there were approximately fifty studios in 2015.
South Texas and San Antonio. In South Texas, labels sprang up to present the music of Tejano and other artists abandoned by the major labels. In Alice, jukebox business owner Armando Marroquín was frustrated with the postwar lack of Tejano records from American labels. To supply his jukeboxes, Marroquín started Ideal Records at his home in 1946. He recorded his wife, Carmen, who sang with her sister Laura as Carmen y Laura, and released the recordings as mass-produced 78s. Marroquín was the first Mexican American to produce a conjunto record in the United States. Paco Betancourt, a record distributor from San Benito, partnered with Marroquín that year. They moved the studio to a building in Alice, where hundreds of recordings by artists, including Narciso Martínez, Chelo Silva, Beto Villa's Orchestra, Valerio Longoria, Carmen y Laura, Juan López, Maya y Cantú of Nuevo Laredo, Paulino Bernal, Johnny Herrera, and Linda Escobar, were made over the next decade. In this decade Martínez made recordings in which he added vocal duets to the accordion conjunto, pioneering yet another musical style. When a Mexican bolero singer, María Victoria, recorded one of Johnny Herrera's songs for RCA Victor in Mexico and the song became popular, the long-standing Mexican resistance to music from "El Norte" began to break down. Eventually a strong market for Texas music developed south of the border.
Ideal also recorded corrido singers such as Jesús Maya and Timoteo Cantú, reviving an old tradition of singing ballads about current events and politics that had gone dormant in the 1940s with the demise of the major labels' field trips. The partnership of Marroquín and Bentancourt ended amicably in 1959, with Marroquín starting Nopal Records in Alice and Betancourt moving Ideal to San Benito. Ideal opened a new studio and record-pressing plant in San Benito, where one of the singers on the label, Baldemar Huerta, also engineered at times. Huerta, who recorded regional music at the time along with Spanish translations of American pop tunes, went on to popular music fame under the name Freddy Fender.
Arnaldo Ramírez founded Falcon Records in McAllen in 1948. With several subsidiary labels, including Bronco, ARV, Impacto, El Pato, and Bego, it became the largest of the conjunto labels. Many artists who recorded for Ideal recorded for Falcon, whose roster included Los Alegres de Terán, Chelo Silva, Lydia Mendoza, Dueto Estrella, Steve Jordan, and the woman duets of Hermanas Degollado, Rosita y Aurelia, Hermanas Cantú, Hermanas Mendoza, Hermanas Segovia, and Las Dos Marías. Musicians from Nuevo León, Mexico, also recorded for Falcon and Ideal as the cross-border exchange of musical styles increased.
In San Antonio, Manuel Rangel, Sr., with a recording of Valerio Longoria, started the Corona label in 1948. He was soon followed by Hymie Wolf, who founded Rio Records. Rio had a relatively brief lifespan but recorded many established artists of the period, including Pedro Rocha; Jesús Casiano, who was another pioneer conjunto accordionist; Juan Gaytán; Frank Cantú; Manuel Valdez; and Lydia Mendoza's sisters, Juanita and María. Some new artists who later became popular made their first recordings on Rio, including Longoria, Fred Zimmerle, Tony de la Rosa, Leandro Guerrero, Felix Borrayo, Frank Corrales, Los Pavos Reales, Pedro Ibarra, Los Tres Diamantes, Los Chavalitos, Conjunto Topo Chico, Conjunto San Antonio Alegre, Armando Almendárez, Alonzo and his Rancheros, and ranchera singer Ada García. Also making his debut on Rio in 1956 was Santiago Jiménez, Sr.'s, son Leonardo, better-known today as the great Flaco Jiménez, who has recorded on many major labels. Flaco's younger brother, Santiago, Jr., continues their father's musical tradition and has been recorded on Arhoolie Records and his own Chief Records. Other San Antonio Tejano labels included Discos Grande, Lira, and Magda.
The Texas Top Hands owned Everstate Records, a small country label in the late 1940s and early 1950s. San Antonio disc jockey Joe Anthony's R&B label, Harlem–Ebony, and Bob Tanner's TNT (Tanner 'N Texas) Records, which also had a studio and a record manufacturing plant in the city, were also important labels. Some other early studios in San Antonio were Jeff Smith's Texas Sound Studios, Abe Epstein Studio, and Eddie Morris's Studio. The KENS Radio-TV studio was also used to record music; Adolph Hofner recorded there for Sarg Records in 1958. Blue Cat Studio opened in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s Augie Meyers built CAM Studios. There were fifty-nine studios in the San Antonio area listed with the Texas Music Office in 2015.
By the 1960s a new generation of Tejano artists was emerging, as was the Chicano movement, and new labels were created to record their music. Roberto Pulido, with Los Clasicos, debuted on the Lago label. San Antonio's Sunny Ozuna, who blended Tejano with American pop as Sunny and the Sunliners, recorded on Joey Records, and bandmate Manny Guerra started his GC and Mr. G labels and built Amen Studios, still in operation after the turn of the century. In Corpus Christi, Freddie Martínez, Sr., started Freddie Records to release his own recordings. Still in business today, the label added artists like Tony de la Rosa, Ramón Ayala, Little Joe y La Familia, and Jaime de Anda y Los Chamacos, among others, and owns the Legends Studio. Hacienda Records, also based in Corpus Christi, recorded the famous Los Hermanos Ayala and, later, Linda Escobar, La Tropa F, Mingo Saldivar, David Lee Garza, and accordionist Eva Ybarra. Newer artists include Victoria Galván and Albert Zamora. Hacienda Records also built the first twenty-four-track recording studio in South Texas in the late 1970s and was still a major South Texas studio in 2015. In the Corpus Christi region and the Rio Grande valley there were nineteen studios listed with the Texas Music Office in 2015.
Austin and Central Texas. In the late 1950s Austin had a local label called Domino Records, which released records by George Underwood, Clarence Smith (later Sonny Rhodes) and the Daylighters, Ray Campi, the Slades, and Joyce Harris. Domino shut down in the early 1960s, leaving a few other smaller labels including jazz–funk keyboardist James Polk's Twink Records and Bill Josey's Sonobeat Records. Sonobeat built a small studio and made records released on other labels by Polk himself, Johnny Winter, Ray Campi, the Lavender Hill Express, and others until it closed in the early 1970s. These labels faded away just as Texas saw the emergence of its own blend of folk, rock, and country musical styles variously called "alternative country," "progressive country," and "redneck rock."
Austin was the epicenter of this musical scene, and the city's reputation for alternative country really caught on when Willie Nelson moved back from Nashville in the early 1970s. Willie, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, Carolyn Hester, Steve Fromholz, B. W. Stevenson, and Ray Benson were joined by a new generation of progressive folk-country-rock musicians, including Alvin Crow, Michael Martin Murphey, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Butch Hancock, Rusty Wier, Gary P. Nunn, Walter Hyatt and David Ball of Uncle Walt's Band, Joe Ely, Junior Brown, Stephen Doster, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen, to name just a few. This influx of talent demanded good recording facilities. There were some small studios in the back of clubs like the Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters, but there were no real commercial studio facilities for recording in Austin until the 1970s, when several studios arose to serve the city's expanding music scene.
Willie Nelson built the Pedernales Recording Studio, where he has recorded most of his albums, for his Lone Star label at his estate outside Austin in the mid-1970s. He later built Arlyn Studios at the Austin Opry House complex in the early 1980s. Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, the Indigo Girls, and Little Joe y La Familia recorded gold records at Arlyn, in the company of major recording artists from around the country. Johnson and Little Joe now have their own studios. Odyssey Studio was opened in 1972 by a group of Austin musicians. It was remodeled and became Pecan Street Studios, the first Texas studio to be recognized by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services. In 1981 Pecan Street Studios was rebuilt once more and as Studio South became the first automated studio in the Southwest. At the Studio South facility, FreeFlow Productions recorded numerous successful projects for major-label release and international distribution before it closed a few years later. Among these were projects by Carole King, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, Shake Russell, Joe Ely, Al Kooper, and the Lost Gonzo Band.
The Austin Recording Studio also opened in the early 1970s, and Asleep at the Wheel recorded several Grammy winners there before building their own studio. ARS is still in business. In the late 1970s Riverside Sound Studio opened; before it closed in the early 1990s, it recorded tracks for Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood (1983) and Soul to Soul (1985) albums, and Eric Johnson's Ah Via Musicom (1990), in addition to many albums for its Austin Records label. Electric Graceyland Studios and associated label Jackalope-Rude Records opened in 1978, and has produced recordings for Kimmie Rhodes, Alejandro Escovedo, Joe King Carrasco, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alvin Crow, the LeRoi Brothers, Wes McGhee, Calvin Russell, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Campi, and Willie Nelson. In the late 1980s the Hit Shack studio made the first of many albums for Texas artists including Jerry Jeff Walker, Bill Carter, Chris Smither, Stephen Bruton, Sue Foley, Jerry Lightfoot, the LeRoi Brothers, Charlie Sexton, Terry Allen, Hal Ketchum, Ian Moore, Alejandro Escovedo, and others.
By the mid-1980s digital recording technology was making rapid gains, and more major labels such as WEA International, Sony Discos, and Arista Texas were recording in Texas. Digital Services in Houston had the first digital multitrack in Texas, followed closely by Fire Station Studios in San Marcos and Arlyn Studios in Austin. The first digitally-recorded album released in Texas, Doug Sahm's 1989 Juke Box Music on the Antone's label, was recorded at the Fire Station and won an Indie, the award of the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers, in 1989. Other albums recorded there include the Texas Tornados' Texas Tornados (1990), which won a Grammy on the Warner Reprise label; Tish Hinojosa's Indie-winning albums Homeland (1989) on A&M and Culture Swing (1992) on Rounder Records; and even a Lucha Villa record for WEA International in Mexico. The Fire Station became the home of the Sound Recording Technology program at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in the early 1990s. In 2015 in the Austin area and Central Texas region there were more than 220 studios. The sound archives in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin hold one of the state's most extensive collections of musical and spoken-word recordings in all formats from early cylinders to the modern CD.
The "digital revolution" in recording technology that began in the 1980s dramatically reduced the cost of professional-quality recording equipment. Many more musicians began building their own project studios and started their own record labels. The rapid proliferation of studios and labels, coupled with the growth of the Internet as a low-cost digital distribution and marketing medium, is having an even more dramatic impact on the major-label recording industry than the advent of radio and television. Just over four decades ago there were a few dozen studios and labels in Texas. Today, at the dawn of the second decade of the twenty-first century, there are more than 800 studios, and nearly that many record labels, listed with the Texas Music Office. Undoubtedly, many more unlisted private home studios exist across the state, and the trend towards releasing music on private labels shows no signs of slowing down.