13th Floor Elevators - Biography

The revolutionary Texas psychedelic innovators 13th Floor Elevators were one of the most groundbreaking, significant, influential and creative rock & roll bands in American music history. Distinguished by the ferocious pipes of singer Roky Erickson and lyricist Tommy Hall's unique amplified jug playing, the Elevators combined big beat savagery with lyrics that delivered a progressive, deeply spiritual philosophy that sought enlightenment through the use of hallucinogens. Hall's weird, and strictly enforced, MO required members to both rehearse and perform while under the influence of LSD, an approach that led to many out of this world events, both real and imagined. Despite their immediate, if moderate, success (a chart hit, an appearance of Dick Clark's American Bandstand), each of its members ultimately paid a terrible price. Hounded ceaselessly by local police, thoroughly ripped off by their record label, and battered by the heavy acid use, within a few years Hall wound up living in a cave, Erickson was committed to a state hospital for the criminally insane, the band's guitarist was incarcerated, the bassist reduced to life as an incoherent street preacher, and its drummer subjected to involuntary shock treatment.


Without James Thomas Hall (born Sept 21, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee), the Elevators would never have existed. An intense, driven figure whose need to manifest his own radical socio-theological agenda--a sweeping, complex doctrine based on Eastern and Christian spirituality, radical intellectualism and psychedelic insight that he believed would actually evolve an entirely new social order, if not a new type of human being--is the sole factor that led to the bands formation. Hall seemed to have fate on his side; after a chance summer of  65 meeting at a gas station with several members of the Lingsmen, a rag tag combo who performed cover tunes at seaside Gulf resort joints, he formed an alliance with the musicians: guitarist Stacy Sutherland (born May 28 1949 in San Antonio) a lapsed bluegrass picker influenced by Lightnin' Hopkins unhinged blues, drummer John Ike Walton (born November 27, 1942 in Beeville TX), a rocker who had toured with Sun Records alumnus Sleepy LaBeef in 1962, and Benny Lynn Thurman (born February 20, 1943 in Austin, TX) a classically trained violinist who dug country more than rock but also got his kicks playing bass in the band. The unlikely quartet, each of whom were reared as upright God-fearing Baptists also shared a common (and voracious) taste for drugs (be it weed, peyote, downers or glue), and were all eager to form a new band, one far more substantive than the Lingsmen (Ling, Sutherland said, was Chinese for “crazy“).


In mid-November 1965, Hall brought them to Austin’s Jade Room where Roky Erickson & the Spades were appearing. The eighteen-year-old Erickson, the unusual moniker was melded together from given names Roger Kynard, was a natural born star--as ZZ Tops’ Billy Gibbons said “Roky Erickson, to this day, is one of the out and out wildest rock singers.” Born July 15 1947, in Dallas, Erickson was a high school dropout  who at age 15 had written “Your Gonna Miss Me,” the song which, after he cut it with the Spades, was already getting a lot of airplay on area radio stations that autumn. A post-Jade Room gig jam session at Hall’s place that night convinced Erickson that this was where his future lay; by the end of the month, the Spades had disbanded and Erickson was the lead singer for the still unnamed new band. Rehearsals, all conducted under the influence of LSD, commenced forthwith and the set list, a handful of covers, some Erickson originals (“Your Gonna Miss Me,”  “She Sells Soul“) and several of Sutherland’s Lingsmen originals (“Tried to Hide”) were re-tooled and readied for flight. How they managed to get anything done is hard to comprehend, and yet they wasted no time.


The origin of the name 13th Floor Elevators is unclear (Hall claims it as his) but either way the group debuted on December 8, 1965 at the Jade Room. High on LSD, it was also the first time Hall’s scheme--to have the musicians literally “play the acid” (in hopes of instilling a mass state of synesthesia, the condition where the five senses are perceived as colors)--went into effect. Between Erickson’s powerful delivery, Hall’s bizarro jug playing (an unconventional use of the instrument where he didn’t just blow, but also hummed and vocalized into the vessel, creating a weirdly melodic new sound) Sutherland's freaked-out reverb and echo drenched guitar, the 13th Floor Elevators were an immediate sensation. They had created the very first version of psychedelic rock, a breakthrough that would quickly permeate not only rock & roll, but also popular culture as a whole, affecting everything from youth fashion to TV sitcom plot lines.


The Elevators high flying remake of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” b/w “Tried to Hide” became their first recording in January of 1966, a 500 copy pressing of a 45 rpm on the newly minted Contact label (get it?), and they settled into a twice weekly residency at the Jade Room and soon began booking other dates in the Houston area. Word of mouth was rabid and their notoriety spread like a virus. The Austin police department were quick to recognize the Elevators as a threat to the “peace and dignity” of not just their city, but all of Texas, and launched a relentless campaign to bring the band to justice. Elaborate cat and mouse tactics were used on each side, and before long the band was required to live as outlaws, hiding out in remote locales, posting look outs, burying their stash and vacuuming their cars endlessly, lest any trace of marijuana be detected during the frequent police searches. They quickly developed a rep among the local hipsters as “un-bust-able,” emboldening the band and further enraging law enforcement. Of course, that didn’t last, but even when the cops did nail them, convictions (for a variety of unlikely reasons) were hard to obtain, throughout 1966 anyway.


Houston indie label International Artists snapped up the 45 and re-issued it, and by the summer, the band saw it reach #55 on the Billboard charts. The Elevators finally got out of Texas, heading West for a bizarre West Coast jaunt. In San Francisco, few were prepared for their tumultuous assault, and the fact that Erickson had just gotten a straight barber shop haircut (for court appearances) made them even more anomalous. In Hollywood, they made their infamous American Bandstand appearance, one of the only times the band was captured on film (during the interview segment, Clark asked “Who’s the head man of the group?” to which Hall replied, “Well, we’re all heads.”). Returning to Texas, they set to work on their classic full-length debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966 International Artists). Although Benny Thurman, the bands first casualty, remained in San Francisco spreading his cracked gospel around Haight Street, Sutherland quickly brought in his old pal Ronnie Leatherman and the result was one of rock’s most engaging, challenging and groundbreaking sets.


Despite the increasingly acid battered psyches, and the fact that they received virtually no payment from International Artists (who paid only for food and lodging), the Elevators maintained a decent schedule, while the record company, to protect them from arrest, went so far as padlock them inside their own van and hire off-duty cops to stand guard inside their hotel rooms. Nonetheless Hall kept up the steady diet of LSD (except in one case; following two very bad trips, Walton refused to use LSD further, doubtless a boon to their live performances) and the Elevators, despite all the chaos, were firmly established as the top band in Texas. But their insane joyride took a toll when Walton left the band in mid-67, as did Leatherman (drummer Danny Thomas and bassist Danny Galindo filled their spots). Their second album, Easter Everywhere (1967 International Artists) was an even more ambitious and impressive effort, with stand out tracks like “Slip Inside This House” and “Levitation” demonstrating that the Elevators were an artistic force unlike any other, although the disc only made the 122 spot on Billboard‘s chart. Galindo soon dropped out and was replaced by another Danny, last name Valero (Duke Davis later replaced him).


By 1968, the band was based in Houston, but Erickson was becoming increasingly unstable, often having to be physically dragged to shows and then resorting to continuous marathon blasts of feedback; Hall eased up a bit on the control freak role, but increasingly preached a strange mix of LSD worship and both outsider Gnostic and trad Christianity; Sutherland was smoldering about the lack of payment, and the band seemed ready to implode. International Artists issued the bogus 1968 Live album, a smorgasbord of old material with overdubbed audience noise. The Elevators managed to concentrate long enough to record their fourth and final LP, Bull of the Woods (1969 International Artists) but it was too little, too late. The law caught up with them, and Erickson, busted for weed in 1969, wound up being committed to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane; Walton, a self-proclaimed acid-induced 'paranoid schizophrenic' had a complete mental breakdown, while Sutherland also was busted and spent time in prison (after his release he tried to keep going with a series of local blues-rock bands and was shot to death in a 1978 domestic dispute). Hall disappeared, living in a cave, before returning to San Francisco, where he still resides. Roky, of course, re-deemed himself during the late 70’s as one of rock & roll’s finest eccentrics, still impressively active in 2009.


Long shrouded in myth and misinformation, the band’s epic struggles and stunning achievements were finally told in author Paul Drummond’s riveting Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators  (2007 Process Media), but, ultimately, it’s the music that matters, and their first two albums stand today as unrivaled, mesmerizing works of rock & roll art.

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