SAN MARCOS, 2007: It doesn’t get much more incongruous than this: a group of men in their 60s playing up-tempo sock-hop blues in a vacant house next door to the funeral home owned by their bassist. But the Traits, former San Marcos High School mates who had regional hits soon after forming in 1957, have been practicing almost daily for a month to get ready for a reunion of original members, including renowned singer Roy Head. Coming down from Nashville for the group’s 50th anniversary performance tonight (Oct. 20, 2007) at Texas State University’s student center are representatives of the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame, who will induct the Traits before the show. Since it’s also homecoming weekend for the San Marcos High School Rattlers, the sold-out program is the hottest ticket in San Marcos. But fans can also catch Roy Head and the Traits at 1:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Cheatham Street Warehouse, where they’ll play a benefit for guitarist Bill York, whose medical bills have been mounting since he fell off the roof of his church while cleaning the gutters last month.
“That was a big setback when Bill got hurt,” says Traits piano man Dan Buie, “but we’re back into it hard and heavy and Bill might even play with us.” Although not an original Trait, York had been added to replace guitarist Tommy Bolton, who passed away in 2004. Besides Buie, original Traits who’ll back the ageless Head tonight and Sunday include bassist Bill “Hound Dog” Pennington, drummer Gerry Gibson and guitarist Clyde Causey. Repping the later version of Roy Head and the Traits, who had an international smash with “Treat Her Right” in 1965, is Gene Kurtz, who co-wrote the song.
The son of migrant farmers from South Texas, Head moved with his family to San Marcos when he was a high schooler and sought out musicians who shared an affinity for the hard-driving rhythm and blues he grew up loving. His first band was a trio with Bolton and Gibson called the Treys. Even after adding Buie, Pennington and Causey (who joined the service after high school and was replaced by George Frazier), the band was called the Treys. But one day a radio announcer mistakenly introduced them as “the Traits” and the name stuck. “It didn’t feel right being in a six-piece band called the Treys,” Buie says.
The group’s first single “One More Time,” which resembled “Summertime Blues” by band fave Eddie Cochran, came out on San Antonio’s TNT Records and got a lot of airplay from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin. Similar regional success with “Live It Up” and “Summertime Love” established the Traits as one of the top rock bands in Central Texas. The dancing dynamo Head set them apart from the breed of new bands and the Traits made good money playing frat parties.
Around 1960, the frontman asked that his name be put before the band’s and they became Roy Head and the Traits. “Roy was 110 percent into making a living from music,” Buie says, “but the rest of us kinda had the attitude that we were having fun and all, but it would soon be time to go to college and get jobs.” The exception was Gibson, who everyone agreed was the best drummer in these parts. Years later, he would tour with Sly and the Family Stone for a year and add drum parts to Sly’s 1971 magnum opus “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
Gibson will be flying in for tonight’s reunion from Nashville, where he works as a horticulturist for Lowe’s Home Improvement. Pennington quit the band, which was partially financed by his mother, Edra, in 1963 to work in his family’s mortuary business. Buie graduated from the University of Texas in 1970 and worked for many years as a health administrator specializing in substance abuse cases. Causey worked as an auditor for the IRS before retiring in 1995.
When Head moved the band’s headquarters to Houston around 1963, only drummer Gibson followed him from the original Traits.
Today, singer Head is best known to the “American Idol” generation as the father of last year’s hopeful Sundance Head. But in 1965, he was neck and neck on the charts with the Beatles. With its thumpin’ beat, blazing horns and Head’s soulful delivery, “Treat Her Right” was the hottest number on the radio, perched at no. 2 on the Billboard Top 40 and rarin’ to take over when “Help!” dropped down. But “Treat Her Right,” released on Don Robey’s Back Beat Records, was leapfrogged by another Beatles single. A little ditty called “Yesterday.”
Head and the Traits had two more minor hits in ’65, “Just a Little Bit” and “Apple of My Eye,” but the British Invasion wiped out the fiery R&B showband style that Head honed in Texas hotspots.
Ironically, Head remains a rock god in Britain and continues to tour sporadically both overseas and in the States. “There’s no drop off in the intensity of his performances,” says Dianne Scott of the Continental Club, where Head played last month. He’s become a cult artist for roots fanatics, a real deal marvel who can still do the splits.
But for a time there he was nipping at the heels of “Yesterday.” Chasing yesterday; a good theme for this weekend’s reunion shows, when the Traits try to bring it “One More Time.”