In the summer of 1957, 10 Austinites took a night school course on song marketing at the YWCA on Guadalupe Street and ended up partnering with their instructor to start a record label and music publishing company. Each pledged $5 a week to meet expenses.
These moonlighting accountants and housewives and state workers and salesmen would put out regional hits from their office above a drugstore at 607 W. 12th St. and watch two of their acts — the Slades and Joyce Harris — lipsync on "American Bandstand."
But by 1960, the original 11 label owners had dwindled to three. At the end of 1961, there were none.
This is the story of Domino Records, Austin's first label of note, which made some noise, but not much money, in the years between the Elvis explosion and Beatlemania.
It was an era when independent record labels flourished because, unlike the stodgy hierarchy-layered major labels, the children of Sun Records were quick to embrace rock 'n' roll as an exciting mix of black and white cultures.
Domino went even further with Joyce Harris and the Daylighters, a white female singer backed by a black rhythm and blues band. Race was not an issue, however, because anyone who heard "No Way Out" (which critic Dave Marsh has listed as one of the 1001 greatest singles ever made in his 1989 book "The Heart of Rock and Soul") would swear the Etta James-like singer was black.
"Lora Jane really just let us do our own thing," Harris says of Lora Jane Richardson, the Domino co-founder who was in charge during the last year of the label. Harris wrote and produced "No Way Out," even running the board at Roy Poole's Austin Recording studio in the Littlefield Building.
Joyce Harris and the Daylighters never played in public, only on records, so she was adamant about regular rehearsals before they stepped into the studio.
"One night, the Daylighters didn't show up, and so I got in my car and went looking for them," recalls Harris, a New Orleans native. There was a place over on "the Cuts," slang for East 11th Street, where the Daylighters liked to hang, and sure enough the musicians were coming out of the club when Harris pulled up. "Don't you remember, we've got a rehearsal?" she said. "Get in." But bandleader Clarence Smith and the other three hesitated. In Texas in 1961, black men didn't get in a car with a white woman, but Harris would have none of that. "Get in!" she said again, her tone amplified, and the band eventually complied, though it was an uneasy drive across town.
Though Joyce Harris and the Daylighters were the most flamboyant artists on Domino, the Slades were the label's signature act. A white doowop group of McCallum High students past and present, the Slades were the first artists signed to the label — on the basis of a live performance at a Girl Scout function, according to the liner notes of "The Domino Records Story" compilation, which was reissued by Britain's Ace Records in 1998. They were originally called the Spades, taking their name from a deck of cards, but when the group had a minor hit with first single "Baby"/"You Mean Everything To Me," several DJs in urban areas refused to play the song because "spade" was sometimes used as a racial slur. ("The Spades" was, ironically, also the name of Roky Erickson's first band, five years later.)
Renamed the Slades, Don Burch, Tommy Kaspar and John Goeke, augmented by bassist Bobby Doyle (who would later give Kenny Rogers his first gig), were poised for a national breakout in 1958 with "You Cheated." Initial pressings on Domino had sold more than 10,000 copies just in Texas, so several larger labels were circling for the rights. Hollywood-based Dot Records, which was doing well with Pat Boone, emerged at the top of a bidding war, but the Domino owners instead decided to release "You Cheated" on their own. They struck a deal with a Los Angeles "one-stop" to press and distribute the 45s.
"That decision led to the demise of Domino," says Ray Campi, a rockabilly singer signed to Domino in 1958. It turned out that the one-stop had oversold its distribution capabilities, so while copies of "You Cheated" by the Slades were sitting in a warehouse, L.A. producer George Motola assembled a group of black singers, including Jesse Belvin and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, to copy the tune note for note. To add to the confusion, the group was called the Shields. The cover version, distributed by Dot, beat the original to the charts, landing at No. 12 on Billboard. The Slades version stalled at No. 42.
Since Domino owned the publishing of the song, the company made money off the Shields, but the missed opportunity to break out its top act was demoralizing, says Joyce Webb, who sang backup on "You Cheated" and released several catchy singles under her own name on Domino. Webb, the 1958 Austin High prom queen, was discovered by Domino while lipsyncing the hits of the day on "Now Dig This!" the Saturday morning show hosted by Cactus Pryor on KTBC, the only TV station in town at the time.
"We were all really in it for the fun at first," says Webb, who now owns a glassworks business in Wimberley and still performs at piano bars. "But then it started getting serious."
Campi says there was friction among the original 11 almost from the start. "You just can't have that many people making decisions for a label to be run right," he says.
The first to leave was Jane Bowers, the night school instructor who had achieved some success before Domino when Tex Ritter cut her song "Remember the Alamo." She took Doyle with her to Trinity, the label she started with her attorney husband.
The label seemed to have run its course in late 1959, when co-founders Ed Nichols and Bob Williams moved to Hawaii to start a record distribution business. The exodus was soon after followed by Betty Theobalt, Mark Silverstone and Scott Yeamans.
The last three remaining partners — Lora Jane Richardson, Anne Miller and Kathy Parker — relaunched Domino in 1960 with the idea to expand to country (Barny Tall), pop crooning (Rod McCullough) and R&B (Joyce Harris and the Daylighters). Unexpected cash came when the Fleetwoods covered the Slades' "You Mean Everything to Me" and included it on the B-side of million-selling pop hit "Mr. Blue."
Bowers was right about holding on to publishing.
"They were all songwriters or wanted to be songwriters," Domino artist Ray Campi says of the label founders, who regularly pitched their songs to the artists they signed. But the label also encouraged its roster of acts to write their own material, which was almost unheard of until May 1957 when a band of Crickets from Lubbock released "That'll Be the Day."
"Domino Records was like a family atmosphere," says Harris , who was signed to Domino after a friend of Richardson's saw her perform at La Macarena nightclub in Ciudad Acuña. "But looking back, I guess they didn't know as much about how to promote artists as I thought they did at the time."
Cash flow was always a problem at Domino, so when "No Way Out" attracted some interest, the tune was licensed to L.A.'s Infinity Records and Harris moved to the West Coast. Renamed Sinner Strong by Serock Records (a subsidiary of Scepter) and cast as "the female Jackie Wilson," Harris belted a couple more singles in the early '60s that went nowhere. After recording a couple of sides for Eddie Bo's Fun Records in New Orleans in the mid-'60s, Harris got married and retired from the music business. She lives about 40 miles outside New Orleans and plays bluegrass music with her church group.
Bring up her time fronting the Daylighters, however, and Harris talks with an excited cadence. "I remember the first time we played together, thinking, 'Now this is what I'm talking about,'u2009" says Harris, who, as a teenager, cut several singles with her younger sister Judy at Cosimo Matassas' legendary recording studio in the French Quarter. "The Daylighters took me right back to the New Orleans thing."
The band was led by Smithville native Smith, who changed his name to Sonny Rhodes, switched to lap steel guitar and still performs today. Rounding out the group were Willie Cephas on guitar, Ira Littlefield Jr. on drums, George Underwood on bass and Mack Moore on piano.
The relaunch of Domino was not successful, but those night-school students with almost no experience in the music business can be proud of preserving some of the music made in Austin before it became nationally known as a music mecca.
"It bothers me that so many people think Austin music started with the 13th Floor Elevators," says Campi, 76, who moved to L.A. in 1959 and has taught in public schools there for four decades.
Lora Jane Richardson, who stayed at the helm of Domino from beginning to end, while keeping her job with the Internal Revenue Service, passed away in 2004 at age 88.
The Slades regrouped for a few years in the 1980s to play private parties. The group's talented leader Burch still lives in the area, but according to bassist Henry Hill, "he doesn't like to talk about the old days."
Austin was a small city in the 1950s, with Threadgill's on North Lamar Boulevard at the edge of town. It was a simpler, unjaded time, when 11 people could meet at the Y and ask "Why not?" The venture born in that night school seminar was not financially viable, but it sure seemed like fun for awhile. Domino released a handful of really good records in its four-year run, which seems a good measure of success.
Domino records sampler‘You Cheated' by the Slades‘Right Here' by Joyce Webb and the Slades‘I'll Never Let You Go' by the Daylighters‘My Screamin' Screamin' Mimi' by Ray Campi‘No Way Out' by Joyce Harris‘Little Love Letter' by Barny Tall‘Freedom March' by Dub Walker and the Victorians‘You Gambled' by the Slades