Friday, April 19, 2024

Too Smooth: When Austin’s Musical Outlaws Were Rockers

originally published in the Austin American-Statesman 2011

by Michael Corcoran

Austin made its musical hotbed reputation nationally with the progressive country movement in the 1970s, as Rolling Stone, Time and the record-buying public discovered the “cosmic cowboy” scene. But perhaps the most popular act on the local nightlife circuit that decade was a progressive rock group with the name of a wedding band.

Too Smooth played the 1,500-capacity Armadillo World Headquarters 76 times during its 1974-1979 heyday, more than any other band besides Greezy Wheels (123) and Balcones Fault (84), and yet, because they weren’t part of the romanticized outlaw country, psychedelic rock or electric blues revival scenes, they’ve become almost forgotten excepting a small, yet devoted cult called the Smoothies.

Interlocking guitarists Brian Wooten and Jeff Clark, bassist Danny Swinney and drummer Tom Holden were each distinctive players who brought something special to the group. Two sang, three wrote songs and all four worked out arrangements, making for a sound that was all over the place but rooted in riff-wailing guitar rock.

The members regarded their unclassifiable repertoire to be their strength, but it was regarded as a lack of focus by an industry that kept passing on them. Not grandiose enough to be lumped with King Crimson or Yes but more creatively reaching than Grand Funk Railroad, Too Smooth was just not easily marketable at a time when the labels decided who got to be stars. The band broke up in 1981 without ever releasing an album.

“I think we just had the worst timing in history,” says Clark, 58, who now owns an insurance business. “We were in the studio making our first album when we heard that the label was sold.”

Too Smooth formed in 1973, when Wooten replaced Stevie Ray Vaughan in Stump, which also featured Clark and Holden. “Stump was always a compromise because Stevie and (bassist) David Frame wanted to play blues, and Tom and I were more into rock,” says Clark. “When Brian joined, it took us in the direction that became Too Smooth.” The band moved in together on a 42-acre farm near Lake Travis, where they practiced at least six hours a day. Their rent of $500 a month was paid by manager Jon Fox, a former West Coast radio exec who saw Stump at the Black Queen club on West Sixth Street and signed them to a management/publishing deal.

The band’s new harder rock sound, solidified with the addition of bassist Swinney, Wooten’s best friend from Beeville in South Texas, necessitated a name change. Fox had a friend nicknamed “Too Smooth” and thought that would fit. The pair had a handshake that ended with a finger snap, so the band had artist Ken Featherston incorporate that image into their logo.

“The thing that really set Too Smooth apart from the other bands was their dual lead guitar sound,” says Lowell Fowler, who ran the light show at Mother Earth (the original home of Whole Foods and current Cheapo’s location) and went on to co-found concert lighting giant High End Systems/Barco. “I’m a harmony freak, and when Jeff and Brian got into those octave leads and harmonies, there was nothing better.”

Fan Rusty Eastburn, who photographed more than 30 Too Smooth shows, says the band worked hard on getting a pure tone. “They were loud without being distorted,” Eastburn says. “There was a lot of thought into everything they did.” Although Too Smooth retained a boogie blues feel on numbers such as Holden’s “Texas Hospitality,” they didn’t adhere to basic rock music song structure and could easily turn a three-minute pop song into a meandering, eight-minute opus with complicated time signatures. Their shows usually ended with an epic segue of crowd favorites “Mamie Mama” and “Nobody Knows Me.”

When touring acts such as Golden Earring, Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd made their initial forays into Austin, the Armadillo bookers would put Too Smooth as the opening act to ensure a full house. It was a common tactic at the club, which had the more popular Greezy Wheels open for Willie Nelson at his August 1972 Dillo debut.

“Most of the bands we played with were really cool, but (Canadian R&B crooner) Gino Vannelli was just so pompous,” Clark recalls. “They wouldn’t move any of their equipment (after soundcheck), so we had to play in this little space onstage.” Rocking out with a vengeance, Too Smooth stole the show that night.

“The Armadillo was our home,” Clark says. “One of my favorite nights there, we did a full acoustic set, then did an electric set. We got to show all our different sides that night.”

The band was also popular in San Antonio, where superfan Sid Hagan first saw them in 1978 as a soldier at Fort Sam Houston. “I had to pay a cover charge, which I wasn’t too happy about,” Hagan says of the show at the Roadrunner Club on post. “I asked, ‘Who is this Too Smooth?’ and then they played and blew the top of my head off. I became a true believer that night.” A sound engineer who now lives in Paris, Hagan has been working the past few years archiving and remastering old analog recordings of the band from mixing board cassette tapes.

If the sexual revolution began in the ’60s, it had been steered to “meet” markets by the next decade. Guys with mustaches and unbuttoned satin shirts with coke-spoon necklaces would go to rock clubs to meet chicks in feathered hair and shiny pants; it didn’t matter who was playing. This was the club circuit Too Smooth, who always played nothing but original tunes, was able to break out of with their success at the Armadillo and Mother Earth. It wasn’t long before the labels started circling.

Too Smooth signed with Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine label in ’74 and recorded an album at the legendary Record Plant in Sausalito, Calif. ”(Parent company) Gulf & Western decided to get out of the music business, and they sold Just Sunshine to ABC Dunhill,” says Clark. The new folks didn’t know who Too Smooth was, and they didn’t care.

The band’s second chance came in 1976 when they signed to Buddah Records, the home of bubblegum pop that was looking to branch out. It was disco, however, not progressive rock, that became a big moneymaker for Buddah. While Too Smooth was at Criterion Studios in Miami, Buddah was selling millions of copies of “More More More” by the Andrea True Connection. Too Smooth released only one 45 for Buddah, “Song For the World,” which was named single of the week by Billboard, then quickly disappeared.

“We tried to write songs that would please the labels, but it didn’t work out,” says Holden. “We were a fan-driven band. We’d try out new stuff live and if the fans didn’t get into it we’d put it back on the shelf.”

Later, the band thought they had a deal with Mercury Records on the table, but after months of courtship, the label stopped returning manager Fox’s calls. “Mercury came down to see us at the Armadillo, and it was one of our best shows ever,” says Clark. “We were wondering just what we had to do to get a deal.”

A long process of getting out of their contract with Fox kept the band’s recording hopes in limbo for more than a year after the Mercury fiasco.

Why didn’t Too Smooth make it? The name? Bad luck with labels? Those things were a big part of it. But a lot of great bands never break out nationally. Rock ‘n’ roll is a vicious game, as the Ray Wylie Hubbard song says.

Holden was the first to leave, in the fall of ’78, followed by Wooten about two years later. When Swinney quit to join Christopher Cross on the road in 1980, Clark kept Too Smooth going with new members, including drummer Chris Skiles, guitarist Don Townsley and bassist Ron Ward. The group still drew well, but it was never quite the same, and Clark retired Too Smooth in late ’81.

The band’s last promo before breaking up

There was money to be made playing cover music at Steamboat on Sixth Street, so Clark and Wooten formed 14K, which lasted about six years. Then, a “born again” Wooten moved to Nashville, where he played guitar on several best-selling Christian rock albums (Petra, Whiteheart) before joining the road band of country singer Trace Atkins five years ago. After fronting his own band and playing drums for Duck Soup, Holden started the Howler Entertainment music production company, while Swinney is doing well with cover band Suede.

But Too Smooth remains a defining musical moment of their lives. “Brian wrote a song called ‘Where’s All the Magic Gone?’ and a lot of it was about the band,” says Holden. “We were four like-minded, like-spirited guys who had a purpose playing music together. It was an amazing time. But when it wasn’t just us four, it couldn’t be duplicated.”

Clark says the group’s chemistry was built on mutual respect. “We knew that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, so there weren’t any heavy egos.”

The first reunion was in 1988 at Steamboat. Too Smooth has had four more since, including a 2007 taping for a “Texas Music Cafe” DVD that chronicled the band’s history. Another reunion might be on the way in January, this time for a CD release celebration.

That’s right. Clark and Paris fan Hagan are close to finishing a compilation that, 37 years after the band started rocking the rafters, will be Too Smooth’s debut CD.

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