If you were fortunate enough to live in Austin in the 1970s, you experienced firsthand one of the most bountiful musical eras in American history. The thing is, if you were there, you knew it was special while it was happening. You didn’t need a historian fifteen years down the road to let you know what you’d been through. The scene was anchored in the explosion they called Outlaw Country, which comfortably rubbed shoulders with a solid blues scene. One of the most popular acts in the city, though, was the rock band Too Smooth.
Formed in 1973, Too Smooth featured stunning songs and twin guitar runs; intricate time changes and fall-off-the-cliff dynamics; riverine vocal melodies, close gospel harmonies and bubbling musical improvisations. These were elements of what was coming to be called progressive rock and associated with acts ranging from Yes to Wishbone Ash - yet Too Smooth also offered a decided tip of the hat to the proud tradition of Lone Star boogie, blues, and hard rock. Too Smooth should have become one of the most successful rock acts in the world; as it turned out, they had to settle for simply being one of the best.
The genesis of Too Smooth came from the fortuitous collision of two groups, the Austin band Phoenix, with guitarist Jeff Clark and drummer Tom Holden, and Applejack from Beeville with guitarist Brian Wooten and bass player Danny Swinney. Clark and Holden were the primary vocalists and songwriters, and each had a distinctive compositional flair: Holden wrote with a bluesy, barroom energy while Clark’s tunes were more fluid and melodic.
Wooten co-wrote many of the early years’ staple songs and quickly developed into a songwriter of equal prowess to Clark and Holden. Swinney contributed to the material, as well, and each song underwent a filtering process wherein the entire group arranged and imprinted the songs in rehearsal and live performance. As such, despite a diversity of sonic possibilities on any given song, there was a without question an exuberant and distinct “Too Smooth sound.”
This was polished, early on, in what must have seemed a prescription setting for a young rock band; the quartet lived on a 42-acre farm outside Austin, paying $500 a month rent and subsisting largely on a diet of vegetables that had everything to do with poverty and very little with any attempts at nutrition.
Though the lushly fertile Austin scene was at the time drunk - literally and metaphorically - on the whole redneck rock movement, Too Smooth became hugely popular almost overnight, filling the big name clubs of the day and establishing a virtual residency at the town’s most famous venue, Armadillo World Headquarters.
In 1974, the band signed a deal with the Just Sunshine label and recorded an album in Sausalito — work was being completed at the same time as Just Sunshine was engulfed by ABC/Dunhill as part of a larger corporate takeover. Too Smooth returned to Austin wiser and optimistic — and continued a gradual conquering of not just Central Texas but the whole state. In addition to record crowds in nightclubs, they began to perform with national touring acts.
They appeared with - and frequently destroyed – headliners such as Ted Nugent, Spirit, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush, Judas Priest, Ten Years After, Roxy Music, Foreigner, Rory Gallagher, and The Kinks. Gigs at the Armadillo became concert events, and Too Smooth drew over 6000 people in one of the most successful shows of the city’s famous outdoor music series at Zilker Hillside.
The guys continued to write new material and, about a year after the Just Sunshine fiasco, the Artists & Relations exec who had originally signed them for that label surfaced at Buddha Records, which at the time was a considerable force in the music industry as home to such acts as Charlie Daniels and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
This time Too Smooth was flown to the legendary Criteria studios in Miami where they began to record. The idea was for the company to release a Too Smooth single, develop some momentum and name recognition for the band, and then follow up with a full length album.A Brian Wooten tune, “Song For the World,” was selected as the inaugural single. It was released in February, 1976, and Billboard magazine immediately proclaimed it a “Pick of the Week.”
In what must have seemed a spookily familiar occurrence, and in a development that would later become routine in the music industry, Buddha underwent swift and significant changes in management personnel, which included the A&R exec leaving immediately. This resulted not only in a quagmire in the label’s talent roster but also ultimately ushered in fatal financial problems for the company. So, even as “Song For the World” began to score some airplay from scattered distribution (and no company promotion) in markets across the country — and was heard as far away as Japan — a complete album was never recorded and the band’s contract was terminated.
Before Too Smooth had much time to develop full-scale depression over the situation, Mercury Records came calling. Reps flew to Austin and the band put on a blowtorch of a show before 1,300 screaming fans at the Armadillo. Unfortunately, though label personnel raved about the band, confusion in the company’s organizational hierarchy grew into a massive headache — and once again, for reasons that had nothing to do with talent, Too Smooth was left without a deal.
In ’78, understandably frustrated by ill fortune, the band explored the idea of recording their own album with the hopes of either selling it to a national label or perhaps forming their own record company. They also came up with the novel concept of performing a concert featuring an expansive set list of songs from their catalog -- and allowing fans to vote on which tunes would actually ended up on the record. By this point, Too Smooth had and could perform live over 80 original songs - including a handful of selections from a 19-tune rock opera penned by Clark called “Man of Fortune.”
But despite good intentions, the stress and disappointments over their meteoric rise and Job-like run of bad luck started to take its toll. Labels were still expressing interest, but the wide-ranging diversity of Too Smooth’s material, which had once been such an attraction, was suddenly a liability. Record companies were starting to focus on a new definition of what was commercial and began to target a lowest-common-denominator demographic.
And suddenly, the first shift in personnel occurred. In the Fall of ’78, Holden, whose songs had always defined the band’s most basic rock sound, left the group and was to be replaced by the renowned drummer Chris Skiles from the popular Dallas band Lightning. At the same time, Too Smooth decided to expand the cascading and melodic textures of the band by adding guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Don Townsley, another Lightning veteran. Prior to beginning rehearsals, Skiles withdrew from Too Smooth to explore a recording opportunity on the West Coast. Luckily the band found Phil Dalmolin from San Antonio who quickly learned the material and Too Smooth was up and running again.
Skiles returned and committed to the band in March of ’79. It was this five-piece lineup that recorded and released a single for the burgeoning Armadillo label, the house record company for Armadillo World Headquarters. Clark’s “Mamie Mama” was on the A side; if the band had a designated anthem among fans from its dozens of popular songs, “Mamie Mama” was it. On the B side was a catchy Townsley track called “Don’t Stop Lovin’ Me.” But despite new material and energy and a regional single, the band’s original core continued to dwindle. Wooten, following a spiritual calling, was the next original member to leave the fold. Months later Danny Swinney took an offer to go on the road with old friend Christopher Cross — leaving Clark the last original member.
Ronny Ward, who had played with both Skiles and Townsley, answered the call and the last incarnation of Too Smooth hit the road for two more years. But with half the band now living in Dallas, and continued changes narrowing the possibilities in the music business, Clark began to wonder if it was time to hedge his bets. And when the idea to form a cover band took hold, one that could provide a greater income while they pushed their original material, the band reorganized and ultimately resurfaced under the name 14K, a band that with its own distinctive sound became immensely popular in the Austin area. They performed until early 1987 — and about 18 months later, in September, 1988, Too Smooth played their first reunion show, on a bill with 14K, at the renowned Steamboat on Sixth Street in Austin.
At that point, the era of Too Smooth seemed to come to an end — leaving thousands of fans with only memories of the astonishing greatness of one of the finest musical outfits in Texas history. Fifteen years later, though, in January, 2003, the original Too Smooth quartet got back together for a three-night stand at the Saxon Pub in South Austin. Fans came from as far away as California, New York and Connecticut for the shows, and fellow alumni and drummers Chris Skiles and Phil Dalmolin also showed up to sit in.
In the summer of 2004, Wooten, Clark, Swinney and Holden reconvened at The Pier on Lake Austin for one special concert with their colleagues Krackerjack. All of the reunion shows were ecstatically received and confirmed that the band’s music is timeless — and perhaps as importantly, their chemistry and fan base are equally sturdy.
Given post-Too Smooth careers, family responsibilities and geographical differences, it was another two-and-a-half years before the band could get back together and continue their occasional gatherings. In January, 2007, Too Smooth in its original incarnation sold out three shows in two nights at the Saxon, and a film crew from the Texas Music Café recorded the last set and conducted interviews with musicians and fans.
Here's a few words from this project's mastering engineer, Sid Hagan who first saw the band in 1978.
The first time I saw Too Smooth in 1978 was a watershed event for me. I was in the U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston for a very long school after returning from a 3 year assignment in Germany and was somewhat jaded about who and what I thought was good musically being from Atlanta and having played in a number of great bands there and also LA before my Army adventure. I was completely unprepared for what I was going to witness that night so long ago and instantly realized that I was in the presence of a world class band that literally had it all. Their performance that night was flawless and breathtaking in every way imaginable with amazing harmonies and precision playing that bordered on the sublime. The songs were also memorable and although I didn’t know the song titles I couldn’t get the music out of my head ever after that night. I had to rethink everything I thought I knew about rock and roll after hearing them and was certain they’d be famous soon. I got to see them a number of other times in the San Antonio area as well as El Paso but I left Texas in 1981 and the only vestige I had of Too Smooth was one of their clear bumper stickers on the back of my 78 Toyota that I eventually sold. I never thought I’d ever hear any of that music again.
Segue to 2006 with me doing a casual search on the web for anything about Too Smooth and there was a post about a reunion show! And another about the Texas Music Café and a man named Jerry Worrell who had an email address and I wrote to him and told him my Too Smooth story. He in turn sent me Youtube links to live footage recorded by Dean Schanbaum in 1979 who I then contacted and the rest as they say is history.
I still remember the first time I actually spoke with Jeff Clark and broached the subject of old recordings and mixing board cassette tapes that could possibly be used to make a releasable CD and I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy. It just so happened at that time I was becoming an audio mastering engineer in Central Virginia and had the equipment and computer programs to help resurrect the flood of old cassette tapes and reel to reel tapes that started to appear with the postman. Some of it was not savable but much of it was and in the end, I became the keeper of Too Smooth’s “vault” with over 100 gigs of old recordings that continues to grow as tapes surface from people’s boxes in closets and under beds or in filing cabinets.
My good friend Jerry Worrell and I work as a team now as he has the great cassette machines and I now live in Paris. Along with Dean Schanbaum in San Antonio, I feel the three of us have formed a team that Too Smooth can trust with their music and help to bring it out of the shadows and into the light of the 21st Century. I of course never thought it would be me that would help do this but the universe works in amazing ways and I am so honored to be a part of this project. It truly has been a labor of love for all concerned since the beginning and to me and all of them; finally making this happen is the realization of a lot of people’s dreams and wishes.
This music was always meant to be heard by millions. We can now say for a certainty that the fans will now have access to it and people all over the world will eventually get to hear it. Word is that there may be new recordings in the works which in and of itself is a gift to us all.
There are no more record labels standing in the way. It’s time for anyone who wants to be able to listen to this music. Make sure to turn it up! We so love you all for hanging in there for so many many years.
For you folks who are just coming to this music for the first time.......make sure to turn it up and share it with someone you love!
Be looking for more Too Smooth music to surface in the future!