The Powell St. John Quartet
Gig Seeker Pro

The Powell St. John Quartet

Berkeley, California, United States

Berkeley, California, United States
Band Americana Acoustic


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"Pscyh Rock legend Powell St. John returns"

Psych rock legend Powell St. John returns
<< Blasts from the past: Billy Blues and TkOH! | Main | Review: Boondock Saints II - The MacBoys are Back in Town >>
Andrew Dansby at 2:22 pm on November 19, 2009

Powell St. John retired not terribly long ago and picked up a music career he left behind four decades earlier. St. John was a prominent figure in Austin’s mid-1960s folk and psychedelic rock scene, having written or co-written six songs covered by the 13th Floor Elevators.

By the time that band was making its mark, though, St. John was gone, having relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. He dabbled in music for a few more years and had songs covered by Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs and others. But by 1970, he was out for the most part.

photo courtesy of Tompkins Square Recordsphoto courtesy of Tompkins Square Records

St. John lived in Berkeley, Calif., and worked for a wholesale jewelry manufacturer, picking up the guitar or harmonica from time to time. He started a family in the early 1980s and put the guitar away until recently.

Now he’s on his way to Houston, where it all started. St. John will perform twice this weekend in the town where he was born in 1940.

St. John believes he was only three or four when his father’s work took the family to Laredo. He says the musical culture there was more prominent than the football culture at the time. The high school would send people to the area grade schools with instruments hoping to nurture talent early. St. John received a flute, which he took too immediately. “But,” he says, “as a kid I had horrendous ear infections. The doctors were concerned that playing the flute was pushing impurities into my ears.”

Out with the flute, in with the drum, which he said “was murder for somebody who likes melody.”

He found a harmonica in a dime store and it stuck.

St. John graduated from the University of Texas “despite being very distracted by Austin.” He earned an art history degree “which I’ve never actually used to make money. But it has enriched my life immeasurably.”

Like many other arty student types, he fell under the spell of Bob Dylan, and at the urging of a songwriter named John Clay, St. John began writing songs.

It wasn’t long before St. John felt the need to move, though. He says there were murmurs of a big police bust that would sweep up all the members of the city’s freak culture. “I knew what the Elevators were doing to get in trouble,” St. John says. “I was associated with them, and guilt by association back then seemed fine by the authorities, so I left.”

He went west. His friend and former bandmate Janis Joplin (they worked in a group called the Waller Creek Boys) was doing well for herself in California. “I knew she was either going to burn out and explode or do some great things,” he says. “She did both, I suppose. I was disappointed she didn’t last longer than she did. It was obvious she was a special person.”

In late 1966, Joplin recorded St. John’s Bye Bye Baby with Big Brother and the Holding Company on their debut album. “It gave me the idea that I maybe had some kind of talent, that there was some value to my songwriting,” he says.

But a career in music didn’t happen for him in the Bay Area. He took a job and ceased to be a professional musician. He says he pulled his guitar out from time to time in the ’90s to play for his kids when they were a little older. His jewelry job was shipped overseas, so St. John went back to school and came out of it with a job as a computer tech, which he retired from in 2005. That was the same year he received a call from two admirers. One wanted to bankroll PowellSt. John’s first album. The other wanted to play guitar on it.

The result was Right Track Now, which put a re-emergence into motion. He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame that year.

He later joined the Elevators’ Roky Erickson on stage at a subsequent South by Southwest, singing and playing harmonica. That caught the attention of Josh Rosenthal, who runs the New York-based Tompkins Square label.

Soon after St. John was presented with a contract to make a record for the label, which resulted in this year’s On My Way to Houston, a great garage folk recording that has enjoyed greater distribution than its predecessor. So, 40 years after leaving Texas, St. John has an album that can be found in record stores. The songs are mostly his own, though the two covers — like the album’s title — bring everything back home. The album opens with Erickson’s Hardest Working Man (the author has never recorded the song). It also includes a song titled Jerry Lightfoot, about St. John’s friend, a blues institution in these parts, who died in 2006. St. John will perform at an annual Lightfoot tribute concert Sunday.

And two songs serve as bookends of sort for the album. John Clay is about the songwriter who encouraged St. John to write his own tunes. He also covers Clay’s Ballad of Travis Rivers.

It’s an unofficial history of a time and place St. John was lucid enough to remember and document, which is a rare thing given the troubled fates of his contemporaries at the time. He almost seemed to be referencing it in Bye Bye Baby: “It seems you just got lost somewhere out in the world/And you left me here to face it all alone.”

Having already returned to Texas at large, he’s finally making his way back to Houston.

When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth
Tickets: Free

St. John will also perform at the annual Jerry Lightfoot Tribute Concert with Mary Cutrufello, the Zydeco Dots, Steve Krase, George Kinney, Rock Romano and others
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: the Continental Club, 3700 Main
Tickets: $10 donation at the door goes to Musicans’ Benevolent Society of Houston. More information: - 29*25 Music

"Powell St. John - On My Way to Houston"

Powell St. John may not be a young man, but he has enough energy to run with the young guns on On My Way to Houston. Each song displays a far-reaching knowledge of American music history. Through his knowledge and devotion, he taps into the blues, rock, and folk traditions. Luckily for the listener, this isn’t merely some dry history lesson. The songs are braced with melody and boundless energy, and his voice is warm with wisdom. There’s the barn-rattling rock of “Hardest Working Man”, the bluesy chug of the title track, and the gentle country feel of songs like “Jerry Lightfoot” and “Ballad of Travis Rivers”. You hear each song as a distinct and separate branch growing off the same sturdy, old trunk. On My Way to Houston is the sound of a man who knows the American musical tradition and enjoys contributing to it. - Pop Matters

"Powell St. John"

My introduction to Powell St. John came in the early 1980's when I started buying 13th Floor Elevator albums and saw that several of the songs were written by "John St. Powell." I later found out that the Elevators label, International Artists, had intentionally re-arranged his name in an attempt to not pay him royalties. In the decades that followed, the name Powell St. John continued to be a mystery of mystical proportions. Besides writing the lyrics to Kingdom of Heaven, You Don't Know and Monkey Island for the first 13th Floor Elevators album "The Psychedelic Sounds of" he wrote the lyrics to Slide Machine on the "Easter Everywhere" album, and You Gotta Take That Girl on the "Live" album. He also wrote the lyrics to Bye, Bye Baby for Janis Joplin and I Will Forever Sing The Blues for Boz Scaggs, he was a founding member of the Conqueroo and an original member of sixties California band Mother Earth, and played and wrote lyrics for their first two albums. In 2005 Powell was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame and he then went back into the studio in Austin Texas and recorded the two disc CD "Right Track Now" that includes former 13th Floor Elevator members Roky Erickson, Ronnie Leatherman and John Ike Walton. He also started playing out live again backed by Roky Erickson's former band the Aliens and their has been talk of future shows and recordings with the legendary Austin Texas band Cold Sun and their founder Billy Miller. It's comforting that some 60's icons never sold out or compromised what they know to be true. On to the interview....

Where did you grow up and how did you get started in writing and music?

I was born in Houston, Texas on September 18 1940. In 1943 my dad quit his teaching job at Pershing Junior High and moved the family from Houston to a truck farm ten miles down river from Laredo, Texas on the boarder with Mexico.

For the next five years I ran wild in the desert, the only kid on the farm most of the time. It was a great growing up experience.

In 1948 my dad went back to teaching and two years later we moved in to Laredo proper. I graduated high school there in 1959.

Music was not a big thing to me during my formative years. I discovered harmonicas when I was about twelve and learned to play a little but it was only for my own amusement and I had no thoughts of pursuing music as a career or anything of the kind.

Once I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin my world opened up. I thrived in the academic environment and soon met kindred spirits and began to experience a wealth of new ideas and experiences. This was the time of the Folk Revival and homemade music was everywhere. Everyone had a guitar. As luck would have it one of my room mates had a little brother who was an accomplished guitarist and banjo player and he encouraged me to play along with him on my harmonica. I did and it was great. It was quite a revelation to a lad who had long ago despaired of ever getting a symphony orchestra to back him up like John Sebastian Sr. or Larry Adler had.

The guitarist/banjoist was a guy named Lanny Wiggins, and he and I formed a duo we called the Waller Creek Boys. In the summer of 1962 we added another Waller Creek Boy, this one named Janis Joplin. After that music became a big thing, maybe the biggest thing in my life.

As for song writing, I suppose the example of Bob Dylan's writing had a lot to do with that. He gave me permission, so to speak, to compose my own songs when the traditional material did not quite carry the message I wanted to convey. Remember too, the Vietnam War was heating up and songs of social protest were being generated apace. This too was validation of my desire to write my own music. So I did.

How long were the Waller Creek Boys a band? Did you do any recording and what kind of places did you play?

I suppose one could say we were playing together from sometime in the summer of 1962 through 1963, maybe into 64. The association was rather informal anyway so it is hard to say exactly when it began or when it ended.

Lanny Wiggins and I had been playing together since the previous school year but the enterprise expanded enormously once Janis hit the scene, and things cooled down considerably for the WCB after Janis departed on her second, trip to the west coast, the bum trip.

By then however, Lanny and I were involved with other interests and with less time to devote to hanging out and playing, we were drawn in different directions. Besides, by then I had begun to work now and then with Kenneth Threadgill and different avenues for expression were opening up for me.

As far as recordings by the Waller Creek Boys there are a few. Remember that in those days recording devices were just being introduced as consumer electronic products. My friend Jack Jackson had the first one I ever saw. Jack recorded a number of tapes of the WCB, Janis, and everything else. Soon after I saw Jack's machine I had to have one of my own. I recorded the same things as Jack. It was a real novelty. The WCB never saw the inside of a professional recording studio however, so those "garage tapes" are all there are.

I have been trying to remember the places we played in those days. The folk revival was sweeping the country and we played a lot of places because that was the kind of music we played and it was popular. I don't think we were ever paid or even offered any pay. Beer, yes pay, no. Our venues were basically any place where they didn't run us off, parties, the University folk sing, the back yard of the Ghetto, etc. and most significantly, Threadgill's Tavern.

How did you get to know Janis and what was your impression of her?

I mentioned earlier about the accelerating effect the arrival of Janis Joplin had on the musical fortunes of the WCB. Janis had just returned from her first trip to San Francisco where she had been hanging out on Grant St. with the last of the Beat Generation. She said they called her their "little jive chick from Texas".

I was an art student with a subscription to the Village Voice, a guy who read everything he could find about bohemian culture and the hip scenes so far away. So the arrival of Janis brought me someone who had actually been to one of these hip places and could teach me the language and maybe make me hip too. Then I heard her sing!

Needless to say I was smitten. Here was a cool chick, savvy to the ways of the world outside my limited frame of reference, who was also a dynamite vocalist and folk musician with a knowledge of the genre far greater than mine and probably Lanny's combined. Besides, at 19 Janis was pretty hot. She had to become one of the Boys.

Was Janis outrageous and loud when you hung out with her and at Waller Creek Boys shows?

Janis was the sort of person that could call attention to herself just by entering a room. Yes she was loud, sometimes obnoxious, and definitely outrageous, especially to those we referred to as "squares" and "straight" people, and that was not just at shows, rather it was all the time.

Have the recordings with Janis ever been released?

As for the home made tapes I mentioned, there has been at least one abortive attempt to release some of the material commercially. As I understand it the effort failed due to conflicting claims of ownership which caused the label involved to abandon the project. To my knowledge no other official releases have been attempted. I would like to change that and am working to do so however there are many pit falls and navigating them is a real challenge.

Yeah, It would be great to see that stuff get released. It's amazing that there is still unreleased Janis Joplin music! So how did you meet Tommy Hall and the 13th Floor Elevators?

How did I meet Tommy Hall? At this point I have no recollection of actually meeting Tommy for the first time. It would have occurred sometime around 1962 or 63. Tommy attended our parties and gatherings. In those days he was somewhat more conventional than he became in later years and maybe that is why I don't remember our initial encounter. Tommy was a jug player even way back then and, since no one else played that instrument he found a place in our impromptu musical sessions. He and I became friends because of our mutual interest in music. We were big Bob Dylan fans as well. One thing we never did was talk politics.

By the time Tommy set out to form a band to push his ideas he and I had been friends for quite a while. The band he formed rehearsed in a secret location and I met them like everyone else did when they were unveiled at their debut concert. Actually I had met Roky sometime before this when Tommy and his wife Clementine took me to the Jade Room to see Roky perform with his band The Spades. Tommy allowed as to how he was going to woo this kid away from The Spades and put him with some guys he knew from Port Aransas down on the coast. He did and that was the genesis of The 13th Floor Elevators.

And how did St. John and the Conqueroo Root get started?

As for the Conqueroo, the Band was first called "St. John and The Conqueroo". After I left town for California in 1966 the band became just "The Conqueroo". There never was any "root" on the end of it. We formed in response to the times in late 65 or early 66, I forget the exact date. The Brits had invaded the American music scene in a big way, The Elevators were playing gigs, Bob Dylan had turned electric and was not looking back, and it seemed to us that we could get in on that action too.

I remember on August first 1966 the Conqueroo had been rehearsing at a place out on the lake and I had left early to go over to the east side to get tickets for a James Brown concert that was to take place that night. On the way I turned on the radio to hear that there was something happening on the UT campus. Some guy was up on the tower shooting at people! The cops were understandingly in an uproar and students and citizens of Austin were advancing on the tower, deer rifles at the ready. Little did I know at the time, as I was driving down Martin Luther King, (then called 19th street), that I was within range of this former Eagle Scout and Marine sharpshooter.

When I got to the ticket outlet, I don't recall the name of the place, it was filled with black folks listening to the radio account of the happenings on campus and looking anxious. When I entered they looked at me and I looked at them and we each knew what was on the others mind. They were thinking, "Dear Lord don't let this guy be black." I was thinking, "Dear Lord don't let this guy have long hair." We each knew that if our fears were true that our communities would suffer as never before. We were saved when it turned out that the guy was white and had a crew cut. Whew!

About three weeks later I left Austin for Mexico, vowing never to return.

Can you talk about what instruments you played in the Conqueroo, and how did you become such a great harmonica player?

In The Conqueroo I played harmonica mainly. I did play amplified kazoo on Land of a Thousand Dances but basically I was a harmonica player and occassionally, the singer.

As for being a "great harmonica player", thanks for the compliment. I don't know about "great" but I think I'm pretty good. I got into playing harmonica after I was forced to abandon my original goal of becoming a flautist. As a child I suffered from raging ear infections. These were not the kind of affliction that causes babies to be cranky. These were the kind that causes the victim to writhe on the floor screaming in agony. Anyway, the doctors thought that playing the flute caused infections in my throat to be blasted up into my ears. So it was determined that I was to drop the flute. Bummer!

What was your vision for this band, any memorable shows, and are there any unreleased Conqueroo recordings?

Well there must have been something in my psyche that had a need to play music because after losing the flute I then endured a year of lessons in rudimental drumming. Learning rudimental drumming would allow me to march in the band with a trap drum strapped to my body. I hated rudimental drumming and I was not enthusiastic about marching in the band lugging a trap drum. I gave up rudimental drumming on my own.

Sometime during all this, I'm not sure when exactly, I was cruising the dime store, probably on a Saturday since that was the day I usually took the bus into town and went to the Saturday matinee at the picture show. After the movies I would hit the dime stores looking for anything interesting so as to blow my allowance. On this particular day I found a harmonica. It was a small diatonic job, probably a Marine Band model made by the Hohner company. In those days one of those sold for under a dollar.

(Today they list at $30.00 by the way). Riding home on the bus I sat way in the back and tried to see if I could play anything. Lo and behold, by the time I reached my stop I was playing a Steven Foster song. It was the old, very politically incorrect song Foster wrote about the passing of an old and beloved slave, Uncle Ned. The chorus goes:

"Lay down the shovel and the hoe

Hang up the fiddle and the bow,

They'll be no more work for

Poor old Ned,

He's gone where the good

Darkies go."

That experience got me going. I no longer felt the necessity to be in the band. I had my ax. The only thing was, I never heard any blues harmonica so I knew nothing about that, and, in fact, the only harmonica I heard on the radio was John Sebastian senior playing classical music or maybe the Harmonicats doing Peg O’ My heart. At eleven or twelve years old I could see no way that I could enlist the services of a symphony orchestra so I couldn't do classical music and I didn't know any other harmonica players so anything like the Harmonicats was out as well. What to do? I kept playing, just for me and just for fun. It was that way through the rest of my formative years. It was only after I came to Austin and met Lanny Wiggins that I realized that I might be able to play in an ensemble after all. Then I really began to concentrate on learning all I could about playing the instrument.

You asked what was my vision for the Conqueroo. I remember having visions occasionally in those days but I don't recall having one specifically for and about the Conqueroo. If there was a vision I guess it would have been to get out there and get some attention like the Elevators were getting.

I don't remember many of the shows we did. We did play a club called "The Fred" which was frequented by the usual rowdy bunch of good old boys. There were fist fights almost every night and belligerent drunks were the norm. My friend Steve Porterfield would come down to the place when we were playing and set up his "Jomo Disaster Light Show" to accompany our set. This was how we found out that a strobe light could bamboozle a drunken red neck to the point that he couldn't throw an effective punch and sometimes would even nauseate him to the point of regurgitating his beer. Too bad we didn't get anything on film, these were the days before video cameras.

While I was with the band we were not recording as The Conqueroo. Ed Guinn, Bob Brown, Walli of Austin, Minor Wilson and I (I hope I haven't left anyone out), went down to Houston one weekend and spent the entire time recording with Frank Davis as the engineer and Bob Simmons as the producer. None of us had ever recorded before and the results were somewhat short of spectacular but it was all experimental anyway and a good introduction to marathon recording sessions. I don't know if any of this has survived.

After I departed Austin in 1966 the Conqueroo made several recordings which were released commercially.

How did you come to write for the 13th Floor Elevators?

I was a personal friend of Tommy Hall and his wife Clementine. I suppose I had known them for two or three years prior to the formation of the Elevators. We shared tastes in music and the written word. Tommy was a big fan of Bob Dylan and so was I. I used to go over to their house to visit and chat. I enjoyed their wit and sophistication. Tommy made me aware of a lot of things.

Where did the insight come from?

Being a friend of the Halls, I was around when Tommy got the initial conception of what came to be the Elevators. This was Tommy's insight. He told me he wanted to use the power and drama of rock n roll music to spread the message of altered consciousness and higher mind. He knew that I had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, (Tommy may have loaned me a copy, I'm not sure), and he knew also that I myself had been experimenting with mind expanding substances, so I guess he figured my head was in the right place. At the time I was drawing inspiration from those mind/spirit expanding experiences and my songwriting reflected this. Tommy listened to my material and chose several tunes right away.

What was your impression of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators?

Once the skepticism of Austin's hip community was swept away by the Elevator's debut concert at the Jade Room, and it was accepted that we had a first rate rock n roll band in town, the Elevators became one of Austin's hip icons.

I was able to get to see these guys on a regular basis, sometimes even attending rehearsals. The rehearsals were an eye opener for me because in those days I naively believed that a band made up of "experienced" individuals would not have disagreements and would not behave like ordinary human beings. Everything would take place on a higher level I believed. Well they did behave like ordinary human beings and they did have disagreements. John Ike and Roky mixed it up quite a bit. That revelation led me to begin considering the band members individually rather than as some sort of nebulous superbeing. What I saw was a group of highly skilled musicians working as a unit. John Ike, Benny and Stacy formed the basic unit. They were already a seasoned band, used to one another. Added to this was Roky, the phenom vocalist and Tommy the jug virtuoso and constant looming presence.

What was the artistic statement?

The Elevators' artistic statement was a fusion of the musical minds of guitar genius Stacy Sutherland and Roky Erickson and the haunting lyrics of Tommy and Clementine Hall. The statement which resulted from this musical stew consisted of rock solid rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, performed flawlessly and with tremendous energy. Atop this was Roky's singing, wailing out the vocals, delivering the message loud and clear. The result was stunning.

What was the public reaction?

The public reaction to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators depended on which "public" you meant. Remember this was 1965 and the youth culture had already found a number of reasons to be at odds with the dominant paradigm. Among those of us who were on the youth culture side, especially those with pretensions to hipness, all reacted favorably. The Elevators played good music and they were exciting. How many young folks actually received the "message" I do not know but I know many of them did.

The reaction of the rest of society was totally predictable and has been well documented. The Elevators scared the hell out of them.

Benny Thurman, original bassist for the Elevators, recently passed away. Could you share some of your memories of him?

Benny and Roky were the local boys in the Elevators. I remember that when the authorities descended on Tommy and Clementine's home to arrest them for being a pernicious influence, Benny was the only member of the band that was not apprehended. Somehow he managed to be somewhere else that day.

I remember that when he played he had a habit of whooping from time to time. I believe he can be heard doing that on the Elevators' cut of You're Gonna Miss Me. I always liked his playing. Benny was a good old boy.

The Paul Drummond book, "The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound," has a lot of emphasis on Stacy Sutherland and really made me rethink his role in the band, him as a 60's rock "outlaw" and just him as a person. Could you talk a little about how you saw Stacy?

It is my opinion that Stacy's guitar work was fundamental in shaping the sound of the band. On stage he had a smoldering presence, like a burning gasoline tanker just before it erupts into a full fledged conflagration. It was that energy and drove the band.

Do you play any of the harmonica on the 13th Floor Elevator recordings? Did you ever play with them live or in recordings?

I never recorded with the Elevators. I sat in with them only once. I don't recall the venue.

How did your involvement with the band Mother Earth come about?

In the December of 1966 I arrived in San Francisco with the vague idea of finding work as a harmonica player or some such in the vibrant music scene that was flourishing at that time. Nothing presented itself immediately however and the spring found me still scratching my head as to how to proceed. At this point enter Travis Rivers. Travis is an old friend, a member of the Austin scene and one of the many Texas expatriates, (The Texas Mafia) that had settled in San Francisco at that time. Travis was the editor of the Haight Street Oracle, a street sheet type of community newspaper created to allow the throngs of homeless kids something to offer for sale when bumming spare change so they could not be rousted for panhandling. The paper was free to anyone who came to the paper's offices and asked for some to sell.

Due to his position as the paper's editor, Travis knew a lot about what was going on in the community. Knowing that I was in town and looking to get into music, Travis introduced me to Ira Kamen, a Chicago guy who played a Hammond B3 organ. Ira had the same idea about getting into the music scene as I did, and he knew chick singer from Madison Wisconsin named Tracy Nelson who was also looking to get into music in SF. Ira and I travelled to Berkeley and met Tracy. We hit it off and the three of us decided to see if we could form a band of our own. All we needed was a rhythm section and a lead guitarist. We found a guitarist, eighteen year old Herbie Thomas straight out of college in Ohio where he had been known by the nickname "Five Pack Thomas" in reference to a small retail operation he had going there. Herbie was a hot shot guitarist. I heard he went on to work with the Funkadelics.

So now we were four but still lacking a rhythm section. Once again Travis came to our rescue. Through mechanisms unknown to me Travis managed to lure the entire rhythm section, bass, drums and keyboards away from the Sir Douglas Quintet, and put them with the four of us. This is the way Mother Earth was born. Ira came up with the name and Travis became the manager.

How was it living in San Francisco at that time and what are some of your memories of playing out with Mother Earth?

Playing with Mother Earth was the fulfilment of a dream for me. With a Hammond organ on one side of the stage, a piano on the other, guitar, bass and drums in between, and two vocalists up front the power was exhilarating. One thing that helped us greatly was the fact that the rhythm section, George Rains on drums, Jance Garfat on bass, and Wayne Talbert on keyboards, was used to playing together and could fill in as a jazz trio when Tracy and I ran short of material. This was a boon in the early days before we had a long set list. There is a set featured on the website Wolfgang's Vault, recorded at the Fillmore which features this first iteration of Mother Earth. So far as I know it is the only recording made of this early band. The personnel had changed somewhat by the time the first album was cut.

Looking back on it from many years of experience I now see our success as nothing short of miraculous. In the early days we played a lot of benefits and appearances in the park to build our fan base, and rapidly, (it didn't seem so at the time), we became a fixture on the scene. The scene, you see, was very receptive. Thousands of young people were coming to San Francisco to get in on it, and since music was a dominant force in youth culture at the time, Mother Earth was in the perfect position to succeed. Within a year or so we were signed by Mercury Records and went into the studio to cut our first LP.

It seems that your role in the band changed quite a bit between the first and second album, can you talk about that?

The first LP, titled "Living With the Animals" was cut in San Francisco during the summer of 1968. In fact, while my compatriots were battling the police at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, I was in a tiny studio in a basement under the confluence of Kearny St and Columbus Avenue doing overdubs for the album.

Once the album was finished and released Mother Earth went on tour. New Years eve 1968 found us opening for the Chambers Brothers at Fillmore East in New York. The tour took us to a number of venues across the northeastern US, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Lexington, Minneapolis etc. Touring was all I had been told it would be; great excitement in small doses and large doses of boredom and loneliness. Besides this it was winter and I really dislike cold weather. So, all in all touring was not a greatly rewarding experience for me. The tour ended in Nashville where we were to cut another LP.

Being in Nashville had its charms. I strolled around town whenever I could, sightseeing etc.. Still, I was homesick and Nashville was not home to me. I visited the Rhyman Auditorium and the fact that the building was abandoned and crumbling because the Grand Ole’ Opry had moved out to some soulless location outside of town just contributed to my dismal mood. It seemed that everywhere I turned some sad and forlorn scene forced itself upon my consciousness. During this time I decided to resign from the band. I wanted to get back home to the West Coast. This decision was reinforced when it was announced that Tracy, by now the headliner of the band, planned to buy the farm in Mount Juliet where band had been staying, and move the operation to Nashville permanently.

The second album was not as successful as the first one had been. For my part I believe that given my mindset coming off the tour, and with the negative experiences fresh in my awareness I was not in the proper mood for making an album. Also knowing that we would be going our separate ways when the project was finished cast a pall over the endeavour for everyone. For whatever reason, the LP seemed to lack something that was present in the first one and even the best engineers at Bradley's Barn could not provide it.

It seems that when the Elevators went to California in 1966 it was a turning point that they never quite recovered from. Were you there during this time and why do you think the San Francisco audiences didn't really embrace them?

Good question. Unfortunately I am as puzzled by this as you. Jack Jackson, (Jaxon), once speculated that a band so accomplished and professional coming out of Texas of all places, and dressed like Texans just baffled the SF audiences. The message was so raw and bold and delivered with such a stunning impact that the audiences went away in confusion.

For my part, though I was in The City at the time I was preoccupied with my own career and, in fact, never saw the Elevators perform in San Francisco. Roky came by the place I was staying once and picked up the words and music to Slide Machine. Beyond that we had no contact.

I heard the band had a difficult time on the west coast. Their equipment was stolen at one point I believe. There were probably other difficulties as well. But I think that, even with hard times, they might have caught on if they had stayed in California longer. My understanding is that International Artists compelled them to return to Houston, ostensibly to cut another record. I could speculate that IA wanted them back in Texas not only to record but because they were concerned that their dynamite act might be lured away by some other record label, but that is only speculation. Maybe someday I will be fortunate enough to get Tommy Hall to talk about it. This could happen but it is not likely. Tommy has moved on and no longer wants to discuss his illustrious rock n roll past.

I see Tommy from time to time, and these days, when one can steer him away from politics, he talks about his work which now seems to involve a great deal of mathematics. I have never been clear as to what it is that Tommy is doing. Now that his explanations are couched in mathematical terms they are more opaque than ever as far as I am concerned. As to when and if his production will ever see the light of day, I asked him awhile back if he thought I should drop acid again since I was back into music, and his response was, "Why don't you wait, my work will be done soon, then you can use it."

Go figure.

Can you talk about what you've done musically since you left Mother Earth?

After Mother Earth recorded it's second album at Bradley's Barn outside Nashville I decided to resign and return to California. I was tired and disillusioned with the music scene, having come off a tour of the northeast in winter time. Add to that the fact that the band had decided to relocate to Nashville. I had no desire to live in Tennessee. Not to take anything away from the Volunteer State, but I was homesick for the West Coast.

So I returned to Berkeley and signed on to the unemployment rolls as an out of work band leader. Times were lean but during this stretch I became involved with the elder daughter of Tom Donahue the famous radio pioneer/promoter, band manager etc. Tom was quite a guy. His daughter, Kathleen, (commonly known as "Buzzy") is still a dear friend to me today. We made several attempts to put together working bands but to no avail.

About this time Tom dreamed up a tour. It was to be called "The Medicine Ball Caravan" and the plan was to lease a bunch of Winnebagos, fill them with counter culture types from San Francisco, including the band he was currently managing, Stoneground. The band would be booked into venues across the country and the Winnebagos full of "freaks" would caravan along. The lead vehicle was to display a large banner across the front reading, "The Medicine Ball Caravan We have come for your daughters!" Everyone taking part in the tour was to receive a round trip ticket to London where the tour was to end. The participants could then go wherever they wanted secure in the knowledge that they would be able to return to the US whenever they desired to do so.

I must say, to a permanently paranoid person like me, this seemed to be a wild and dangerous venture. I had misgivings from the start. It was not only my paranoia but also the fact that although Tom assured me that I would be playing harmonica with Stoneground, I couldn't help but notice that no one from the band had invited me to do this and there was no indication that they needed or wanted a harmonica player. I worried that I would wind up being a fifth wheel, just there because I was tight with the promoter's daughter.

In the final days of preparation for the tour my ongoing job search bore fruit and I landed a position with a small mom and pop jewellery manufacturing operation in Oakland. I took the job I think, because I never really intended to go on the tour with this bunch of crazies, and besides that, having the job gave me a chance at a future on the West Coast. Music, it seemed, did not afford me that. In any case, the day of departure arrived and I came to the assembly point more or less determined not to go. When I saw the preparations in progress my resolve grew and I told Buzzy that I simply could not bring myself to go. I chickened out.

The tour pulled out of San Francisco without me and I went on to work as a jewellery fabricator for the next fourteen years. As it turned out the tour was a great success, there were only a couple of altercations only one of which involved the use of potentially lethal weapons, (knives), and no one was hurt. They got to London, did their thing and dispersed. Buzzy went on to Paris where she lived and worked for the better part of a year.

So now with a day gig, (my first believe it or not), music became a weekend thing. I worked with some Texas friends of mine, Tary Owens, Jerry Lightfoot, Minor Wilson, Bob Brown, etc. Most of the ensembles we got together during this time, Stucco Duck for instance, never made it out of the garage. The only one to ever perform in public was a unit called "The Angel Band". We performed occasionally to little acclaim. The most interest we ever stirred came from The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club a chapter of which showed up at one of our gigs and demanded that we change the name of our band. We instantly became "The Leapin' Lizards".

Gradually my Texas cohorts drifted back home and I, not having any contacts with other musicians in the Bay Area, lost touch with the performance side of music. I played guitar, wrote some songs and generally made music at home for my own amusement. Besides, around 1979 I fell in love again, this time forever. In 1983 the first baby arrived and in 1985 the second one came. My family responsibilities left little time for music and for ten years my guitar stayed stowed away in the closet under the stairs. It was not until the kids were grown and I retired in 2005 that my music career began to revive, but that's another story....

Interview feature and photo of Powell by Carlton Crutcher

Editing, artwork and layout: Phil McMullen

© terrascope online September 2009 - Terrascope Online

"Dusted Reviews"

Powell St. John’s story looks a little like labelmate Peter Walker’s. During the 1960s, St. John was on the edge of great things – he was pals with Janis Joplin, wrote songs for the 13th Floor Elevators, and co-fronted a proto-roots ensemble with Tracy Nelson called Mother Earth – but never really got his career off the ground. Family obligations eventually obligated him to retreat into day-job anonymity. And like Walker, he has enjoyed a late-in-life comeback on his own terms.

Paradoxically, On My Way To Houston is very much an old man’s album even though it is probably not that different from anything St. John might have done had he recorded during those intervening years. It’s split between acoustic folk ‘n’ blues tunes that he could well have played at some college hootenanny in Austin during the 1960s and psych-tinged electric rock songs cut with his old buddy Roky Erickson’s post-Elevators band, the Aliens. And he touches on topics that likely interested him back in the day. There’s an ode to his first crush, a couple songs that protest governmental misdeeds, and three acoustic instrumentals played with a whimsy that reaches back before the dawn of rock.

St. John voice is cracked and a little uncertain, but it well suits his material, sounding just right framed by rustic, bluesy guitar and fiddle. Even in the mid-’60s, the man displayed latent geezerish tendencies; the chorus to one of the songs he wrote for the first Elevators album goes “You don’t know how young you are.” Now he looks back on his own young love and other people’s misadventures with wistfulness and amusement.

But St. John hasn’t forgotten how to rock. The record kicks off with “Hardest Working Man,” a hitherto unheard Erickson song that is studded with swell, fuzzy leads played by Duane Aslaksen, and “Song of The Silver Surfer” recalls the trippiness of yore even though it sounds more like the Seeds with Neil Young on lead guitar than the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

The record closes with “We Were All Born Free,” which voices outrage over encroachments on civil liberties and the dimming of hope as bluntly as the business end of a baseball bat. St. John is still paying attention, and he isn’t looking through glasses tinted by nostalgia or old age.
- Dusted

"Powell St. John - On My Way to Houston"

Very few names in rock carried the early mystery of Powell St. John. Several of his songs were recorded on the 1966 debut album by Austin’s psychedelic pioneers 13th Floor Elevators, but they were credited to John St. Powell. When his “Slide Machine” appeared on the group’s second release, at least his correct name was used. But by then the Elevators were getting ready to tear apart at the seams, and their brief run in the sun was over. St. John soon surfaced in Mother Earth, sharing lead vocal duties with Tracy Nelson and keeping the Texas flag flying high in the San Francisco rock firmament. Flash forward 40 years and the Berkeley-based singer-songwriter is back now with a second solo album that lets him play away at the boundaries of rock & roll like he’s always done, weaving in intriguing folk influences and the hallucinatory imagery of an early celestial traveler. Don’t forget, this is the man who formed the Waller Creek Boys in 1962 with Janis Joplin. Today, St. John’s voice is as strong as ever, emotional and effervescent, backed to the hilt when necessary by a dusty harmonica sound straight out of his Laredo hometown. He takes the rootsy influences at the heart of early country music and plugs in without obscuring where it comes from. Backed by Roky Erickson’s one-time band the Aliens, what the melting pot guru Powell St. John has created is a credit to his long history, and shows the strength of vision the man has always possessed. Erickson even contributes a new song, “Hardest Working Man” to the festivities, and along with John Clay’s “Ballad of Travis Rivers,” it joins nine St. John originals to prove age ain’t nothing but a number and it’s never too late for a sweet surprise. There is a timelessness to On My Way To Houston that shows like all good trips, the joy is in the journey and not the getting there.

Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins. For more reviews and music news, go to - My Daily Find

"Powell St. John - On My Way to Houston"

Longtime Roky Erickson/13th Floor Elevators watchers will know the Powell St. John name from a handful of songwriting credits on the first two Elevators' albums - although you'd be forgiven for any befuddlement stemming from the mistakes and typos dotting the '66 debut The Psychedelic Sounds Of..., which lists his name as "John St. Powell (and also spells Erickson's name "Ericson"). As outlined in longtime Els associate Bill Bentley's liner notes to On My Way to Houston, however, the Texas musician's storied legacy actually bookends his alliance with Roky & Co.: while a student at the University of Texas in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he formed the Waller Creek Boys, which include a non-boy by the name of Janis Joplin; later was a member of Austin's first bonafide psychedelic band, St. John the Conqueroo, foreshortened to The Conqueroo after St. John left for San Francisco in 1966; and with folksinger Tracy Nelson co-fronted Bay Area blues/roots outfit Mother Earth, cutting a pair of album for Mercury Records now widely regarded as proto-Americana classics (notably 1969's Make a Joyful Noise).

"Then," as Bentley writes, "reality set in." St. John more or less disappeared from public view for the next 3 ½ decade in order to earn a living and raise a family while living in Berkeley. Lo and behold, he resurfaced in 2006 with Right Track Now, a low-key psych- and folk-tinged affair featuring tunes he'd stockpiled over the years alongside several of those he'd penned for the Elevators. Now, thanks to the astute, archivally-minded folks at Tompkins Square, the Texas Music Hall of Famer has been coaxed out of his Bay Area digs once more, this time recording with members of one of Erickson's old bands, the Aliens, and the results are even more delightfully engaging than the material on Right Track Now.

On My Way to Houston kicks off with a cortex-burner, "Hardest Working Man," and it doesn't take more than a few seconds for the listener to surmise the song's origins: Erickson, no doubt repaying a 43-year old debt, contributed an unreleased composition to the project, and in its garagey vibe (pulsing organ, fuzz-distorto guitar) and edgy, sinister St. John vocal, it's suitably unhinged enough to rope in Erickson fans of all stripes. The title track follows, an overtly Dylanesque talking blues travelogue populated by hookers, pimps, politicians and soldiers and spiced by sinewy guitar riffs plus St. Powell's agile harp licks. Other highlights include a down-home bit of pickin' ‘n' grinnin', the fiddle-powered "Ballad of Travis Rivers" (written by another Austin alumnus, banjo player John Clay); the manifesto-like "We Were All Born Free," featuring harp, banjo and acoustic guitar and St. John's keening, earnestly populist vocal; and the churning, psychedelic "Song of The Silver Surfer" that's equal parts Elevators and Quicksilver Messenger Service (two years too late, unfortunately, for a tie-in to the Fantastic Four flick 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but with any luck, in plenty of time for the actual Silver Surfer film, due in 2012).

The album's unlikely to find a wide audience among indie-rock hipsters, for in both his laid-back, rootsy singing style and his retro-tilting arrangements, St. John clearly marks himself as a member of an earlier generation. But music lovers from either side of the divide are encouraged to listen up, as St. John is not only a vital, living link to the past, there's a spark and a spirit afoot in his songs and in his playing that's inspirational for the here-and-now.

Standout Tracks: "Hardest Working Man," "Song of the Silver Surfer," "We Were All Born Free" FRED MILLS - Blurt online

"Powell St. John to release new record in July"

Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Townes Van Zandt, Roky Erickson, ZZ Top, Spoon, the list is endless. Texas has nurtured plenty of legendary musicians over the course of the century and it could be argued that Powell St. John merits a mention in the annals of state’s esteemed music history for his songwriting alone. He has penned a number of ditties for the 13th Floor Elevators and many of his songs have been covered by the likes of Joplin, Erickson, Doug Sahm, and Boz Scaggs. A prodigious harmonica player, St. John was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2005 during SXSW; and while he was in town, he recorded Right Track Now, his first solo disc containing new material as well as a few gems he had written in the past.

On the 21st of next month, Tompkins Square Records will release St. John’s new album On My Way To Houston. Chock-full of harmonica fueled folk and blues-rock ditties, the album tells a series of Tejas tinted tales, be it biographies, odes, or personal viewpoints. The easy-on-the ears melodies are impeccably embellished by a variety of soothing instrumentation (fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar) throughout in this strong piece of work. Catch St. John live this fall, backed appropriately by (Erickson’s post-13th Floor Elevators band) The Aliens.

Born in Houston, St. John moved to Austin from Laredo in 1959 and soon landed a gig at Threadgill’s, performing as The Waller Creek Boys with band mates Joplin and Lanny Wiggins. The trio had already made a name for themselves by doing the rounds at the University of Texas (at the Chuck Wagon in the Student Union) and cultivating a new folk movement on campus. St. John went on to form The Conqueroo but left shortly after, before the band became regulars at the Vulcan Gas Company. In 1966, after a few months in Mexico, St. John moved to San Francisco and formed Mother Earth. A brief stint in Nashville followed but St. John eventually settled in Berkeley.

Earlier this year, St. John’s art was featured at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture -- check out some of his work here. The CD sleeve for On My Way To Houston also showcases St. John’s art.

We caught up with St. John recently to learn more about this storied life.

On My Way To Houston will be released next month -- when did you start working on this album and where was it recorded? Who are some of the musicians that worked with you on the album?

On My Way To Houston has been in the works for about a year and a half. It was recorded at Wally Sound which is a small recording studio in Oakland, CA, a very “laid back” scene where we were able to self produce the recording.

I was lucky enough to be able to work with some top flight musicians, Bob Fagan, Billy Miller and Duane Aslaksan to name a few. Austinite Ralph White added some parts as well.

How did your relationship with Tompkins Square Records begin?

There is a story behind this. A couple of years ago I was invited to sit in with Roky and the Explosives at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW. It so happened that Josh Rosenthal was in the audience. Josh is the human face of Tompkins Square Records. He was impressed by my harmonica playing I guess because subsequently he contacted me and suggested that I do an album for his label. I, of course, agreed and we began to kick around ideas for what the recording should be. Once we had a concept and I had a stable and reliable group of musicians, Tompkins Square set us up with Wally Sound and the recording began. Now that the project is complete and soon to be released they are doing a great job of promoting it.

We see that The Aliens will be your backing band -- what triggered that and how long have you known the guys in the band? Are you going to be touring in support of On My Way To Houston?

A few years ago when I was looking to get a band together I chanced to meet a gentleman named Craig Luckin. Craig was Roky’s manager in the 1980’s when Roky was working with The Aliens. Craig suggested that I get in touch with Aliens electric autoharp player, Billy Miller and see if our association could produce a band. Bill and I met and decided that a collaboration would indeed be a good thing. Bill introduced me to Aliens guitar phenom Duane Aslaksen, one thing led to another and Powell St. John and The Aliens was born. All this happened around two years ago. Since then we have gigged around the Bay Area and worked on this upcoming CD. Things are looking good for us -- we are now a six piece ensemble and are looking forward to touring in support of the CD.

Powell St. John by Toby St. John
Tell us more about Austin when you first moved here back in 1959 -- what was the city like and what are some of the things you miss from those days? Did the tacos taste as good back then?

I came to Austin to attend UT. I believe there were 18,000 or so students then and Austin was a small town compared to what it is today. Being a small town there was a deeply conservative atmosphere. I found this atmosphere restrictive, and my fondest memories of those days are of the friends I made, people who also found the atmosphere restrictive.

Today things have changed a great deal. The town is a lot bigger and that is not a good thing in my opinion but in spite of that the relaxed, laid back atmosphere that my friends and I enjoyed in the old days seems to have spread over the entire the city. Maybe this offsets the blight of urban sprawl.

As for the tacos, I’d say they taste better than ever. Thanks to the influx of Hispanic residents there is a much greater choice than there was in the past.

Take us back to when you first met Janis Joplin and Roky Erickson -- any interesting anecdotes from the 60's you can share with us? Describe a day in the life of The Waller Creek Boys in, say, 1960 or 1961.

Here you take me into a misty and dimly remembered realm. Janis and I first met in 1962 when she moved to Austin. Lanny Wiggins and I worked as a duet we called The Waller Creek Boys until Janis arrived. At that point The Waller Creek Boys became a trio starring Janis Joplin. Yes, she was a star even then. She starred at gatherings in the back yard of an apartment building at twenty eight and a half Nueces, a place we called The Ghetto, she starred at the weekly folk sing at the UT Student Union, and within a year or so of her arrival in Austin was starring regularly at Threadgill’s Bar out on the old Dallas highway.

On a typical day at the Ghetto we might get up about ten AM, scrounge up some breakfast and move out into the yard. We were then off the street and we could play our music and drink our Grand Prize Beer in peace, sometimes all day. Come evening there would often be a party either at the Ghetto itself or at the pad of some other counter culture type. We would go and play music at the party and drink beer. The same thing we would have been doing if we hadn’t gone to the party.

Roky I first met around 1964 through a mutual friend, Tommy Hall. I vividly remember the first time I saw him perform. Tommy and his wife Clementine took me to the Jade Room to see him. Roky was 18 years old appearing with his band The Spades. That was the first time I heard “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and I was blown away. That was when Tommy informed me that Roky was going to be the lead singer in a band that Tommy was putting together. That band was The 13th Floor Elevators.

Some of your songs have been covered my quite a few legendary musicians -- at what age did you write your first song? What inspires your songwriting?

I began playing harmonica when I was 12 but I didn’t begin writing songs until around 1962. I was initially inspired by two songwriters, Austin’s own John Clay and Bob Dylan. I didn’t know whether or not I would be any good at songwriting but it was a cool thing to do so I made the attempt.

Your art was featured at the South Austin Museum Of Popular Culture this year -- do you still paint/sketch, and how often?

When I came to the University I entered the school of fine arts with the intention of becoming a painter. I emerged in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History. After graduation I never put my degree to work and along about 1990 I decided that since I had this degree I should get busy and create some art. So, during the 90’s I produced an average of one drawing about every three weeks. I no longer do that but I do have plans to get back to it ASAP.

Lastly, who are some contemporary musicians you admire and would like to work with?

I like The Dixie Chicks; The Black Angels are darn good too. Does anyone need a chromatic harmonica on a recording? I stand ready to deliver.

Thank you speaking with Austinist. - The Austinist

"The Hear and Now"

Before he celebrates the release of his new CD, On My Way to Houston (Tompkins Square), at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse next Tuesday night (Aug. 4), Texas/Berkeley legend Powell St. John brings his band, the Aliens, into the KPFA studio for rousing electric and acoustic sets. Best known in Bay Area music history as a founding member of Mother Earth (with Tracy Nelson) and the composer of "Living With the Animals," "Marvel Group," "The Fly," and other psychedelic-tinged folk-R&B classics), St. John is powerful singer and harmonica player--and a 2005 inductee into the Texas Music Hall of Fame--whose career has crossed paths with Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs, Roky Erickson, the 13th Floor Elevators, and Doug Sahm. - KPFA radio


Powell St. John

An ASCAP member for 40 years, Powell St. John was a major influence on the 1960s psychedelic scene in Austin, TX and beyond. At the beginning of his musical career, St. John moved to Austin from Laredo, TX and performed in a trio with Janis Joplin and Lannie Wiggins called The Waller Creek Boys. Within a few years, he was contributing songs to Roky Erickson's seminal psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevator. The late 60s saw him move to San Francisco and form a band with Tracy Nelson called Mother Earth. His songs have been recorded by such legends as Joplin, Boz Skaggs and Erickson. Many years later, in 2005, St. John was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame during the South by Southwest Music Conference. This trip to Austin led to a comeback that has seen St. John record his first ever solo album, Right Track Now. The album showcases his harmonica playing and unique knack for songwriting and melody that instantly recall his early days. St. John is already looking towards his next solo release, which he will be recording for Tompkins Square Records. - ASCAP Playback magazine

"The Kingdom of Heaven"

The band's been playing at least an hour, but it feels like five minutes. Besides "You Really Got Me," "Roll Over Beethoven," and Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," they've done a dozen originals that seem like the beginning of a new age. There's one called "Roller Coaster" that sends shivers through the audience of 50, massed together at La Maison on the edge of downtown Houston.

It opens slow, speaking of one "whose eyes are clear to see," then hits a hurtling midsection announced by the lyric, "It starts like a roller-coaster ride so real it takes your breath away." For 10 minutes, the music pushes everyone in the room through a twisting, turning trip, with Stacy Sutherland's lead-guitar lines feeding back far beyond what rock bands in 1965 seemed capable of.

When the song ends, there's an audible sigh of relief in the crowd. We've all just taken a journey of incredible intensity, and now, newly baptized, we look at one another with a bond of brotherhood. We glance around the room, shake our heads, and smile at one another with knowing glances that each person there has been shown a deep secret. We can only guess where the 13th Floor Elevators will take us next. For the five musicians onstage, there's no question. It's time now to deliver the words they know we've come to hear:

Here you are at my place

And within your glistening eyes

I'm watching your reactions

As the thing within you cries

And I'm bringing you this message

Because I think it's time you knew

The kingdom of heaven

Is within you

The song is slower than a ballad. In fact, it isn't really a song at all. More like a prayer. It begins with a roll on John Ike Walton's snare, followed by Benny Thurman's fearsome bass pattern, and an ominous drone by jug player Tommy Hall. It takes the crowd into a glowing room, filled with flashes of infinity and, well, love. We stand in front of the stage, "fixed with fascination" as one of the earlier songs has proclaimed, not really sure that what's happening is real. It's as if the music is making us levitate, a reminder that there's a true center to life waiting just outside our physical dimension. The chords blend, treble notes melting together into a searing sonic wall. Singer Roky Erickson is lost in his own world, eyes shut tight, his whole body a vessel of vibrations.

Through the incense and the candle

And the colors on the wall

Your image stands reflected

As a princess come to call

Your suspicions you're confirming

As you found them all quite true

That the kingdom of heaven

Is within you

The quintet is now playing the music of the spheres. As the two guitars become one, overlapping instruments of dedication and desire, the emotions of everyone present have moved La Maison, itself a former church, onto an astral plane. Who's this band giving us such a mesmerizing gift of music and meaning? Coming out of an extended instrumental break, the singer steps up to the mic with a beatific smile, one that shoots through everyone in the audience.

Through the blazing stained-glass windows

Moonlight falls upon the choir

And it splashes across the altar

As a flow of liquid fire

And it bathes you in its glory

As your life begins anew

For the kingdom of heaven

Is within you*

Erickson, secure in the sanctity of the song and feeling its power, begins a scream from somewhere beyond the soul that builds to a tremulous shriek of belief. The sound bombards our molecules until it feels like we'll explode. When the song ends and quiet fills the room, the 13th Floor Elevators walk offstage, leaving La Maison humming with electricity from our close encounter with the beyond.

Make a Joyful Noise (l-r): John "Toad" Andrews, George Rains, Tracy Nelson, Bob Arthur, Mark Naftalin, and Powell St. John
Photo By Jim Marshall

For the next year, everyone there searches out the Austin act's first LP, and once procured, we scour the back for that song. There it is, "Kingdom of Heaven," by John St. Powell. For me, it's the start of a 40-year mystery, trying to find out exactly who this person is, this man with the power to put into music what entire religions are forever seeking.

The first thing I discovered, shortly after seeing several songs by St. Powell on the Elevators' 1966 Psychedelic Sounds, was that John St. Powell was really Powell St. John. The band's record label, International Artists, had thrown a curveball into the songwriting royalties. Beyond that, the initial story I found on St. John was in the second issue of Mother, a short-lived Houston periodical devoted to the developing world of Texas rock. In a one-page piece, writer Larry Supulveda gave a quick rundown of St. John's new band Mother Earth, ending with an explanation by the artist of how he saw the new counterculture: "Spontaneity and juxtaposition are both happening everywhere simultaneously." This, obviously, was a man for the ages. Little did I know just how true that would turn out to be.

Rayward Powell St. John came to Austin in 1959 to attend the University of Texas. Born in Houston and raised in Laredo, he went to college to find freedom. In Laredo, his father had been principal at Powell's high school, which made the son "toe the line." Falling in with fellow seekers, fans of poetry, peyote, and other forms of intelligence-inducing agents, it wasn't long before St. John was playing harmonica and singing with Lannie Wiggins and Janis Joplin as the Waller Creek Boys. The early folk scene was being born at the Student Union's weekly hoot nights, then moved to Kenneth Threadgill's gas station/beer joint on North Lamar for even rowdier runs at musical fun.

"We all wanted to play folk music," says St. John, "and we became this small collection of like-minded souls who got together whenever we could. No one really thought beyond the evening's entertainment, but at that age we all felt anything could happen. Sometimes it did."

A few of those same souls began living in a string of small apartments on Nueces dubbed the Ghetto, giving birth to a bohemian stronghold that morphed into Austin's first hippie enclave. For St. John, it was a chance to pull out his pen and start writing songs. "I'd always been fascinated by songwriting, and felt it was something I could do," he says. "After playing folk music awhile, some of us gravitated to rock & roll. It was a natural progression, plus a whole lot of fun. In a rock band, I could play my kazoo on 'Land of a Thousand Dances,' and it'd be really loud."

By then, St. John the Conqueroo had formed, with Ed Guinn, Bob Brown, and a few others. "I'd played some gigs with the Chelsea too by then," he recalls. "But from what I could tell of music, I couldn't see a career doing music in Austin. This was before anyone had recorded any of my songs. I did have a mind that I could go to the West Coast and get serious, possibly. It was set up for me. People I knew were already there, and I had a place to stay. Chet Helms was running the Avalon Ballroom, and I felt there'd be room to maybe make it work.

"So I did something I'd always wanted to do, which was travel around Mexico for three months, and then made my way to San Francisco."

It was while in Mexico that St. John wrote "Slide Machine," where "the gods of gold are heard but seldom seen," which would turn up on the Elevators' second album, Easter Everywhere, in 1967. He remembers arriving in San Francisco on Dec. 16, 1966, a month before the Human Be-In and the rest of the upcoming craziness surrounding the Summer of Love. He was ready to roll.

"I'm somewhat cautious," he explains now, "but in those days it was close enough to my last acid trip, and I was living in the flow of letting the cosmos take care of things. I believe if I had a goal in mind, I would somehow achieve it, but with no specifics on how I would do that. I do remember getting a little concerned about food at first. I would go down to Haight Street and collect cans and bottles. This is before it was a trade. I'd get enough to buy a Mounds bar for lunch, and then the people I was staying with would help out with dinner."

His Austin friend Travis Rivers was already in the Bay area, running the alternative newspaper Oracle and looking to help St. John start making music. In the Sixties, before the entertainment business became formalized, sometimes all it took was a hope and some like-minded heads to get in the thick of the action.

"Travis had met some musicians from Chicago, and one of them was keyboard player Ira Kamin," St. John recounts. "I got together with him, and he knew this singer from Madison, Wisconsin: Tracy Nelson. Travis also knew the guys from the Sir Douglas Quintet, who he'd heard wanted to make a change.

"So right away we had a complete rhythm section with drummer George Rains, bassist Jance Garfat, and also pianist Wayne Talbert for a while. Wayne had some problems that didn't really fit with being in a band, so he was replaced by Mark Naftalin from the Butterfield Blues Band. We called it Mother Earth, after the Memphis Slim song that Tracy sang."

New bassist Bob Arthur and guitarist John "Toad" Andrews, who had both played with St. John in Austin band the Chelsea, soon completed the lineup. Like most Bay area bands at the time, Mother Earth found a recording contract fairly fast. Not even there a year, St. John had a band and record deal in San Francisco. The cosmos was definitely smiling on the singer.

The striking thing about Mother Earth was that, somewhat like Certs, they were really two bands in one. Powell St. John's songs, a rootsy blend of country, blues, and folk laced with large amounts of psychedelic underpinnings, were always favorites. Whether a big band arrangement of "Kingdom of Heaven," the captivating "Marvel Group," or even the debut album's title track, "Living With the Animals," each song could be counted on for ingenious lyrics and equally amazing musical structures. Nelson took a different tact, with soul-stirring versions of classic American blues and Crescent City favorites, along with originals like the wrenching "Down So Low." It was a thrill even for her to hear two such distinctive styles coming from the same bandstand.

"In the midst of the budding psychedelic sound, Powell's music was completely original and brilliant," says Nelson. "He gave us validation as something more than a derivative R&B band, and he inspired me to stretch out beyond my desire to be Irma Thomas. I think he was the most significant and profound artist around, and by the very nature of that, the least appreciated of the era."

Rest assured, those are no small words for someone not prone to praise.

Mother Earth played a lot of hometown benefits and free shows in Golden Gate Park in the beginning, but once their debut album appeared, the whole country beckoned. Their label, Mercury Records, released "Down So Low" as the first single, and it garnered airplay immediately. The problem, according to Mercury, was that most of the stations playing it were African-American, not exactly what the company had in mind for their prestigious San Francisco rock signing. So the label's press department hurriedly sent out a photo of Tracy Nelson to radio outlets, which stopped airplay cold in its tracks. Naturally that was the last significant chart success the band would have.

St. John, Nelson, and the group built a solid live following on the East Coast, particularly with college crowds, but even then, the band's singer-songwriter was already looking for the exit sign. Like airline workers on the Tarmac, he'd taken to wearing 100-decibel sound-suppression earphones onstage to protect his hearing, and after the band relocated to Nashville for the studios and musicians there, not to mention a relatively inexpensive lifestyle, St. John knew he was Berkeley bound.

"I'd left Texas to go West," he laughs, "not East. Plus I was tired of the business. I didn't want to have that experience the rest of my life."

He stayed in Music City long enough to record Mother Earth's second album, Make a Joyful Noise, with his classics "I, the Fly" and "I'll Be Moving On," but he was long gone before the band set off to promote their new release on the road.

Back in the Bay area, he played with some Texas friends, including Tary Owens, Minor Wilson, and ex-Conqueroo Bob Brown in the infamous Angel Band. They appeared at a club in North Beach one night, when a few certified Hells Angels came in, listened to several songs, then told the musicians they needed to find a new name. Right away. Not wanting to risk life or limb, the Angel Band became the Leaping Lizards, immediately. St. John, realizing the vagaries of making a living playing music, became a jewelry maker in the early Seventies, changing careers the next decade to work in computer maintenance. This being music, and Powell St. John being a man of intrigue, the story didn't end there.

In the past few years, fans of Roky Erickson, the 13th Floor Elevators, and all those associated with the Austin phenomenon credited with creating psychedelic music have grown exponentially and made themselves known. That includes musician Fred Mitchim and financier George Gershen, who approached St. John about recording a new album two years ago, an offer the singer didn't have to think twice about. During SXSW 05, when St. John was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame, he found himself in an Austin recording studio surrounded by some of the best players in the city, finally making his debut solo disc.

Together, they recorded Right Track Now, an exciting mix of most of St. John's early songs – first recorded by the 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, and Boz Scaggs – along with newer selections proving beyond any doubt that the man who started his career credited wrongly as John St. Powell has found a firm footing in the future. There's even a short second disc that includes three songs with former Elevators John Ike Walton and second bassist Ronnie Leatherman. Early next year, St. John heads back to the studio for round two, this time for the Tompkins Square label based in New York and featuring collaborations with several young players inspired by his music and a strength that's never been shaken.

Almost 40 years to the day I first heard the 13th Floor Elevators and the songs of Powell St. John, I stand outside the house at 1921 Oregon St. in Berkeley where Mother Earth once lived and were photographed for the cover of Living With the Animals. It's like going back to your elementary school, where things that once seemed so large now appear much smaller. That 1968 album cover made it seem like the whole world was waiting for the musician on that porch, St. John posed regally at far left, sitting on the stair's railing in a white dress shirt and natty vest, looking proudly into the camera. Today, the street is quiet, the house's facade tastefully redone with redwood shakes. It takes a few moments to pick out where each other person was in that original photo – Rains sitting in back, Andrews on the porch's top post, Nelson and Arthur together on the stairs, and Naftalin on a chair in the front yard to the right.

Gradually the image comes back, burned in my mind all this time, until I realize what makes that photo so indelible to me. It was the first time I'd seen Powell St. John and was finally able to put a face with the man who wrote "Kingdom of Heaven," the song in the top slot on my psychic radio, always reminding me just what music is really here for.

In so many ways, that 1965 night in Houston at La Maison listening to the 13th Floor Elevators for the very first time set me on my lifelong course. More importantly, that song has helped me find that course again and again, all the times I've gotten lost. For that, the message still feels brand new, and the kingdom of heaven really is within you. - Austin Chronicle


Right Track Now
On My Way to Houston
Living with the Animals
Make a Joyful Noise



Powell began his musical career in Austin in the early 1960’s, playing at parties and clubs around the University of Texas campus. Eventually he came to work with Kenneth Threadgill of Austin’s Threadgill’s Bar, performing with Janis Joplin and Lannie Wiggins in a small trio called The Waller Creek Boys. Later, in answer to a request for material from Tommy Hall of the 13th Floor Elevators, St. John wrote six songs for their two first albums. In the late 60’s, Powell formed with Tracy Nelson a blues and rock band named Mother Earth.

Powell St. John has written music which has been performed by some of the most legendary musicians in the world such as Janis Joplin (Bye, Bye Baby), Boz Scaggs (I’ll Forever Sing), Tracy Nelson (Livin’ with the Animals), & Doug Sahm (You Don’t Know).

Over the years, Powell has been interviewed by many of the top television stations from the US and Europe, BBC, CBS, E! Entertainment, Lifetime, and others, about Janis Joplin, the Psychedelic scene in Austin, and his own music career. After a 30 year run of royalties and licensing for film, stage and TV, the Texas Music Hall of Fame inducted Powell in 2005 as part of the South by Southwest Music Conference. At each event he attended in Austin during this time, he was mobbed by people, telling him how much they liked his music and asking for his autograph. Taking advantage of the fact that Powell returned to Austin, several of his fans arranged for him to record a CD of his material, “Right Track Now”.

In the summer of 2009 Powell released another CD “On My Way to Houston” on the Tompkins Square label. He was invited to SXSW for four years, played last year at the San Francisco Frisco Freakout and also flew to Cleveland, OH, for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's
American Music Masters’ tribute concert for Powell's long-time friend, Janis

These CD’s highlight this amazing lyricist, who has a timeless knack for song writing and a unique sense of melody. His music is both original and fully engaging, representing the best of the past and greatness for the future.

For more information, contact Toby St. John at 510-540-7981 or email at: