Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Treat Her Right, "Just one of them songs that hangs around"
Roy Head and the Traits made some pretty square-headed moves in their day. They all attended High School. They hired an undertaker named Edra Pennington to pick out their suits. What’s more, before Edra agreed to manage them, she insisted on having the boys’ parents’ permission. To this demand the Traits consented. Then, once their second single “Live it Up” earned them an invitation to go on Bandstand, the Traits allowed Edra and their parents to nix the appearance on the grounds that they were too young.
Despite all of this, Roy Head & the Traits, unlike a lot of other American kids of the period, didn’t need the Rolling Stones to hep ‘em to Rhythm & Blues.
The Traits got their name when a San Marcos, TX, radio announcer mis-handled their handle, originally the Treys⎯“Trey,” of course, meaning three, and more specifically, in Texan, meaning the third generation of males with the same name, (eg., Senior, Junior, Trey). The re-naming turned out to be an auspicious accident, because while the Traits might have begun as a trio, with Roy Head singing, Tommy Bolton on guitar, and Gerry Gibson on drums, they soon filled out to become a six-piece, adding Dan Buie on piano, Bill Pennington on bass, and Clyde Causey on lead guitar.
Meanwhile Edra Pennington earned her keep, landing the Traits their first recording contract.“Live it Up,” and “One More Time,” a couple of rockabilly thumpers that each received regional airplay, were recorded for the Tanner ‘n’ Texas (TNT) label, of San Antonio, in 1959. By 1960, during that period when the Traits spent weekends criss-crossing Texas, playing dances⎯chaperoned no doubt by level-headed adults⎯the singer convinced the rest of the group to update their name yet again, this time to Roy Head and the Traits. The front-man had arrived. Around the same time, some of the original Traits quit the band, favoring their square futures with the Navy, or Sears Roebuck & Co. These members were replaced⎯one of the more influential of the new personnel being Gene Kurtz, bassist and co-writer of their 1965 chartbuster “Treat Her Right.”
The Traits had played “Treat Her Right” live for years before Kurtz joined the band. However, Kurtz had the bright idea of making the song about a woman, instead of a cow, and helped to arrange it into the bit of radio-ready trade it became.
From a 2007 interview by Austin Chronicle music writer Margaret Moser:
ROY HEAD: The song was a mistake. I wanted to do "Ooo Poo Pah Doo" by Jessie Hill, and the guitarist played the wrong riffs. So I made up a song about talking to a cow. "If you squeeze her real gentle, she'll give you some cream." It was risqué, but in a hillbilly way. The dance floor packed.
GENE KURTZ: I saw that little horn riff would fit at the end of the song. We didn't do it before that; it was my suggestion. Turned out it was a good lick. I was aware of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," and I liked their other songs, but it's much more likely I got it from the Ajax ["stronger than dirt"] commercial than the Kinks. Let's face it: Riffs on horns or anything are not copyrightable, and it got used again. There are only so many notes.
Eventually the Traits cut THR at Houston’s Gold Star Studios, at which point they were descended upon by DJ, promoter & producer Huey Meaux, aka the Crazy Cajun (who also produced records by the Sir Doug Quintet, Barbara Lynn, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and the Hombres), and Don Robey, owner of Duke/Peacock/Backbeat Records, the “Black Ceasar” who had supposedly beaten Little Richard to within an inch of his life a decade earlier. Thanks to Robey’s connections, Roy Head sang “Treat Her Right” at a black DJ convention in Houston that year. Robey apparently didn't want Head to go onstage, didn't want the mostly black audience to discover that Head was white. But on he went, backed by Bobby Bland's band. "I felt like Charley Pride at Panther Hall," Head has said. Apparently he went over, and "Treat Her Right" first broke on a Houston R&B station. It would go on to hold the No. 2 spot Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts during the Fall of 1965, edged out of the top spot only by the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
Again, from Margaret Moser’s interview:
ROY HEAD: The real key to that song was that it had that push and pull that every little garage band in the world could play. You didn't have to rehearse it for days. All you had to do was hit close to the tempo and melody, and people love it. It's been recorded by Otis Redding and Mae West! Just one of them songs that hangs around. "Treat Her Right." That'll be on my tombstone.
Roy Head & the Traits’ follow-up to “Treat Her Right” was “Apple of My Eye,” a sort of stepped-up, white-boy soul hybrid of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry, a highlight of which is Kurtz’ crazy bass guitar on the break. Another great RH & the Traits number is their version of Jimmy McCracklin’s “Get Back,” on the Scepter label. And finally, a psychedelicized Roy Head, fronting Johnny Winters’ Great Believers (was Keith Ferguson in this band?) “Easy Lovin Girl” from the Voxx comp “Acid Visions.”