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photo of Sonny West Oh Boy! Sonny West Raves On
With Graham Lees


In May of 2002 rockabilly singer Sonny West played at Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Festival. Back in the mid 50's Sonny recorded his song "Rock-Ola Ruby", which was only a local US hit, but has become a most popular standard in Europe. Taking the opportunity to talk to Sonny, he told me about his friendship with Waylon Jennings and how he came to co-write two of Buddy Holly's biggest hits.

"Starting in 1956 I met both Waylon and Buddy. If I had ever run into them before then I didn't know it, because we were not in the same business." Sony had gone to Memphis in early 1956 to see Mr Sam Phillips of Sun Records, but got a pretty negative response due to Phillips having so many people coming in to record. "My sister lived close to Lubbock, Texas. I called her up and she said I could come over there, because I had spent all my money and was broke. I still had my car and got as far as Fort Worth, which is a couple of hundred miles from there. (laughs) I called her up and she wired me some money through Western Union to get over there to her place."

Sonny's family didn't readily accept his working in the music business. "Her husband Mr Anderson pretty well took a liking to me, of course he was always fond of music...country music, he grew up with that. So I found a home for a few months Sonny West with his guitarthere."

Looking around for somewhere to do some recording, Sonny West managed to get a little recording time at the AM station KLVT, Levelland, Texas. "They had one of those 15 IPS slap Echo that they used for commercials. That way I could go in with just a guitar and vocals and could make something, kinda like I wanted. Of course I was just doing those demos and stuff." One of the DJs there (Bob Kaliff) had a regular show and began playing Sonny's recordings on air. "He started getting a few phone calls from listeners and for a laid-back community like that...to get a few phone calls about somebody's songs was pretty different and gave me a little encouragement."

Looking for somewhere to make a commercial recording, Sonny got in touch with Norman Petty in Clovis. "My brother-in-law backed me up to get a session going in Clovis. We talked to Norman to arrange the session, but he didn't like the taped Echo. I tried to get him to do that, but he wouldn't do it. So I told him that I wanted something to give it the ambiance. So he said 'I'll see if I can get you in the theatre after they close'. The Lyceum Theatre in Clovis, was built by one of the big movie companies such as United Artistes. As the building had perfect acoustics it was here that "Rock-Ola Ruby" was recorded.

From the age of 12, Waylon Jennings gained a job as a pop DJ at a radio station in Waylon Jenningshis hometown of Littlefield, Texas. His father played guitar in Texas dance halls and by his teens, Waylon could play guitar and sometimes played backup with local bands. One time when Sonny was coming back from Clovis he stopped by at the station (Littlefield is on the highway between Clovis and Lubbock) and Waylon asked him to do a song on air. "I think it was just me with a guitar and a drummer did the song on the air. At that time I didn't realise that Waylon was interested in doing music himself...he'd never expressed it to me!" Waylon and Sonny struck up a close friendship and later on Waylon moved to the radio station KLLL at Lubbock. "Whenever I went to visit him over there he always had his guitar with him. When he was playing records on air, he would play along. Oh, he had to show you everything that he learned. I thought, well this guy is going to be a big singer someday. He was playing around Lubbock opening shows with a couple of guys."

Sonny first met Buddy Holly at a radio station in Lubbock around June 1956. "I don't remember if it was the Crickets that were with him or if Jack Neal was with him. He was at KDAV Radio and they had a show with open mike on Sunday (Sunday Party). If they approved of you, they let you do a song or two.(laughs) I remember Buddy was there and when he got through, I went into the studio and did a couple of songs. That was actually how I became acquainted with Buddy and after that we both started recording in Clovis".

Sonny West teamed up with Bill Tilghman and wrote "Oh Boy" and "Rave On" which were both recorded by Buddy Holly. "Bill lived in Levelland where I was living. It's a small town...word gets around. He knew that I had this song out, "Rock-Ola Ruby". I was actually going down the street one day and he stopped me. He yelled at me in the street to stop me and he came over and introduced himself. He reached back into his hip pocket and pulled out a bunch of papers. He had written some stuff down on the papers...he liked to mess around writing songs. They were words and he had some sort of idea as to what sort of tune he wanted with it. But usually he would pick out a tune that was already written and try to write the words to that. So we kinda struck up a friendship and would go over to the bootleggers and get a six-pack of beer once in a while. And that was how we started writing out."

Sonny and Bill wrote "Oh Boy", which was recorded by Buddy Holly and The Crickets Buddy Hollywhich made #3 on the British charts in December 1957 following their #1 hit "That'll Be The Day" in September that same year. "Our biggest song "Oh Boy" was actually that was my song. The way that worked out...he kept saying, 'well, we should be partners in all this stuff.' And when you're a young kid you go along with it. Also you say...you know with something like that...if it works out. If we ever gets big and famous...you have your part back, things like that. You know that even happened with Paul and John! They traded songs and there was a little kinda bad feeling, because on got a little bit more recognition than the other one."

Sonny recorded a demo of "Oh Boy" in 1957, but it was never released until this year (2002) when Sonny included it on his current album. "During that time I didn't have any idea that the song would go anywhere. You know it's been said that I wrote the song for Buddy...it's been said that I was trying to get Fats Domino to do it. The whole truth of the matter was that I wanted the song for myself, but I just could not get that going! I sent the record off to a few people to try and get some action. I didn't care what kind of action...I actually would have wanted to record it myself with the proper background and everything...but it just didn't work that way! As the Gods arranged it...however that happens. Buddy's record with the Crickets, "That'll Be The Day" had busted out big. Buddy had already recorded "Oh Boy" in July. Norman Petty overdubbed the background vocals with the Picks and they made a beautiful sound. Those guys were good!

At the time they had already talked to me about recording the song, but I had not actually got back to them, nor them with me and I didn't know about this. About the time "That'll Be The Day" was right at the top of the charts, Norman called me and said ' we want to release your song as a follow-up to "That'll Be The Day". I said Gollyyy! Really! (laughs) I'd been rocking along there, trying to figure out what direction I was going in, and I didn't even know some of this stuff was happening. It was a finished product before I even heard it. Then I went over to Clovis and got to listen to it, just a few days before it was released"

Sonny was still trying to get his own recording career into first gear. "I was working on "Rave On" when we signed the contracts for "Oh Boy". We'd been working on "Rave On" for a while..."Rave On" was a harder song to write. We started out going in a different direction with it and it kind of evolved into the song that it is today. We had changed it quite a lot. One time I took it over, and was going to do a demo at Clovis, just myself and the guitar. I was still looking for that kind of echo or something to give it that little bit more excitement. Anyhow, Norman said 'No! That's not going to work'. He wouldn't even record it....he stopped me about half way through the song...he wouldn't even let me listen to whatever he had recorded...I guess he erased it or something. So we went home and worked on it a while...worked on something else."

Sonny arranged to record and release "Rave On" with a Mr Oliver...the man behind one of Roy Orbison's first recordings, The Teen Kings. A few days before the completion of the agreement, Norman Petty called to say that he had a band out of Dallas that he wanted Sonny to record "Rave On" with. "Norman acted like he could get me a contract...which he eventually did with Atlantic and I thought at the time that it was the best way to go. I don't know if it was the correct decision to make...I wasn't satisfied with the "Rave On" record with the Big Beats. They were resident musicians out at Norman's place for a while and he was trying to get them some work."

When Buddy picked up on the song, he arranged the song much as Sonny hadBuddy Holly with guitar visualised it. "It was more inline with the thumping background. Instead of a booming background that we had with the Big Beats, bass and saxophone. The way Buddy did it in New York with real professional people. It was slower than mine. It has more feeling...the kind of feeling that it should have had. I don't think anyone could have done it any better than that at the time. Those guys back in New York who played on it added a few cords in between the normal cords. They did pop and jazz They did the song good. You could tell it was a good song, although it was not great in the States, it was good, but it had a very short life in the States, because the record buyers in the States were not head over heals with that style at that time. They were going more for the Frankie Avalon or somebody like that"

"Rave On" was scheduled for cutting in New York on 26 January 1958. Norman Petty says, "It was a real hillbilly number, brought to me by Sonny West and Bill Tilghman. I was playing the tape in the control room and Buddy came in and said. "I rather like that melody, but it's a real hillbilly thing". So I said "Would you like to do it if we changed the lyrics?" So Buddy said, "Sure" As this was not a Clovis session (and rather hurried one at that), the opportunity for recording the background voices later was lost, and the recording was all done together in only a couple of takes. "Rave On" made #5 on the British charts the following June.