In 1965, Roy Head, who headlines the second annual Memphis Pops Festival at the Hi-Tone Café Saturday, July 26th, was a spastic, seething force of nature whose frenetic, hip-hunching dance moves made Elvis look like an arthritic altar boy. His biggest hit, "Treat Her Right," was a horn-drenched slice of power soul that evolved over three minutes into a straight-up rocker with an ecstatic Head wildly shouting, "Hey, hey, hey, hey!" at the climax. And he hasn't slowed down.
Forty years later, when he appeared onstage at Memphis' Gibson Lounge during the 2006 Ponderosa Stomp, Head proved that he could still thrill even the toughest crowd and out-wiggle rockers young enough to be his grandsons.
"Performing is all I've ever done," Head said in a recent interview with the Flyer. "And when I get up on that stage, it's just like going to bed with a lady. I've just got to let it all hang out.
"Somebody once asked my wife what it was like being married to me, and she told him it was like being married to a washing machine," Head joked, and then he started singing into the telephone.
"I keep a close watch on this girl of mine," he crooned, gruffly approximating the tune of Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line." "I keep her pants up with a ball of twine/ Because she's mine, I can pull the twine."
Head started his career in show business as an ensemble player in a Texas band called the Traits but quickly became that group's front man.
Head ended up at Goldstar Studios on Broad Street in Houston where he was joined by Huey Meaux, a hit-making record producer and out-of-control radio deejay known as the "Crazy Cajun." For $500, they recorded "Treat Her Right."
"We got it on the first take, and I remember Huey saying 'That's a hit.'" Meaux was genuinely excited about the song and quickly introduced it to Don Robey, who operated a variety of labels such as Back Beat, Songbird, Peacock, and Sure Shot, all of which distributed music recorded by a stable of predominantly black artists such as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Junior Parker.
"I was supposed to play a black disc-jockey convention in Houston, at one of the biggest black clubs in the country, but Robey thought it would be a bad idea for me to perform there. He didn't want people to know I was white and tried to keep me from going on." But Head did go on.
"I felt like Charley Pride at Panther Hall," Head says, describing the deathly silence that settled over the club as soon as he walked on stage. "Oh God, I thought. I gotta do something now. So I went out there and started moving around like a monkey on a football, and everybody in the place went crazy." The next day "Treat Her Right" was a hit on black stations all over the country.
- Roy Head, circa '65, backed by the Traits
"Treat Her Right" eventually rose to number 2 on the pop chart and would have probably gone all the way were it not for the release and meteoric rise of the Beatles' "Yesterday." In 1965, British bands obsessed America, and American bands who didn't want to adopt a lilting accent and mop-top hairdo were often SOL.
"I cut a few of those too," Head said, referring to his less than successful attempts to sound British. Later in '65, he charted the songs "Apple of My Eye" and "Just a Little Bit," before disappearing from the pop charts for good.
After an on-again, off-again relationship with Nashville ("The whole Hee Haw thing was awful," Head says. "They wanted you to stand in a fake cornfield and tell jokes that weren't even funny."), Head recorded his last honky-tonk song in 1986 and returned to Texas, and relative obscurity. In 2007, Head's career got a shot in the arm when his son was selected to compete on American Idol.
"The phone was ringing off the hook," he said. "I asked this one British reporter, 'Where have you been all this time?' And she said, 'I'm sorry, but you've got to understand. Two of my editors thought you were dead.'"
"LOOK OUT!" Head shouts into the phone, after recalling memorable Memphis shows at Ernie Barrasso's Thunderbird Lounge and the time he bit Elvis' leg at the Memphian Theatre. "I'm coming to Memphis!"
Head will be joined at the Pops festival by local art rockers the Warble and Terry Manning — the storied producer who worked on Led Zeppelin III and whose '70s Memphis recordings opened the door for local '90s-era garage heroes like Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright. B.B. Cunningham and the Hombres, who hit the charts in 1967 with "Let It All Hang Out," are also scheduled to perform.
The Memphis Pops Festival kicks off at the Hi-Tone on Friday, July 25th, with a "Top of the Pops" competition where four of Memphis' most exciting local pop bands — the Barbaras, Two Way Radio, Hi Electric, and Mike Dees — will compete to win a $3,000 recording session at Ardent studio.
"This is a celebration of Memphis music past, present, and future," says Sherman Willmott, the show's producer.