by Patrick Lundborg

see also: 
International Artists Discography

INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS from Houston, Texas is probably the most famous regional record label of the 1960s. Among record collectors and fans of the esoteric, I A has been on the map for many decades, and the legend shows no signs of fading. From the initial burst of cult excitement in the mid-1970s, interest has persisted and expanded, so that the spotlight now falls on a wider circle than the two pyramids of weirdness that first drew people to I A; Red Krayola and the 13th Floor Elevators. Today one may hear once obscure I A bands like the Golden Dawn and Thursday's Children being spoken of in an equally reverential manner as the Elevators and the Krayola. There is something enigmatic in I A that keeps attracting new generations of admirers.

The Coastliners

But let's begin at the beginning. International Artists started out most humbly in 1965, founded in Houston by a young music entrepreneur named Fred Carroll. The first release was the Coastliners "Alright", which appeared in October 1965. Although something of a garage classic today, the single didn't make much impact. It seems Carroll lost interest in his newly started label, and sold it to Bill Dillard, a local lawyer who wanted to get in on the local music scene. For the princely sum of $35 Dillard and his associates aquired International Artists, which at the time consisted essentially of a printing die with the familiar I A logo.

An I A corporation was formed, the owners being Dillard, his law firm partner Noble Ginther, a former recording studio owner named Lester Martin, and one Ken Skinner, who would play a vital part in the early days of the label. Skinner was mainly interested in making money fast from the pop music business, and had already formed the Tapier Music Corporation, a name recognizable to any 13th Floor Elevators fan. Ginther and Martin remained in the background, while Bill Dillard and Ken Skinner got involved with the hands-on business of the I A label. During the first months of 1966 a series of unsuccessful 45 releases in various (usually un-hip) styles followed.

Early 13th Floor Elevators on stage

Then a series of events followed that would change I A forever. Skinner & Dillard got wind of a local 45 from an Austin band, released on an independent Houston label called Contact. The 45 was a big hit in both Austin and Houston, and was making waves in other parts of Texas. The band name was a little weird, the 13th Floor Elevators, but a lot of kids seemed to love them. After some complex machinations, Contact and its owner Gordon Bynum were muscled out, and International Artists signed the Elevators around May 1966. The "You're Gonna Miss Me" 45 was repressed with an I A label, and Ken Skinner celebrated this event by crediting himself as "producer" on early runs (shown above -- Bynum was the actual producer). From June and onwards the song began its second hit run, this time breaking in several cities across the US, and peaking in the Fall with a #55 position on Billboard and two Dick Clark appearances.

The Elevators and "Miss Me" saga could fill a book on its own, and apart from generating a lot of cash for the label, it brought another important change - Lelan Rogers. The Houston-based I A owners realized they were out of their depth with this potential hit single, and thus Lelan Rogers was recruited from Los Angeles to handle promotion and production. Lelan Rogers is probably the most mis-represented character in the I A saga. Thanks mainly to his efforts the Elevators broke nationwide, and he was instrumental in several other now legendary acts getting signed. 
It was also after the Elevators and Lelan came on board that the label began to get a little… weird, shall we say? Signings included an avant-rock group called Red Crayola (later Red Krayola), a bunch of recently busted teenage drug fiends called Lost & Found, and an ambitious but inexperienced band named the Golden Dawn. The first Elevators album was an underground hit with highly respectable sales figures for an independent, regional label, and the coming year turned out to be very interesting for I A. Several 45s were released, including classics by the Thursday's Children, although the 'second hit' after "You're Gonna Miss Me" proved elusive.
I A dreaming of a second hit, November 1966

The label poured a lot of money into the Elevators, who were their flagship act. The band was kept on a weekly salary (later deducted from sales) and substantial investments in equipment and studio time were made for the band's second LP, "Easter Everywhere". Although hailed as a masterpiece today, the lack of hit 45 and a delayed release meant that "Easter" generated only modest sales, and was never reprinted. In 1968, as the weird mix of freak bands, blues, and pop acts persistently failed to produce strong sales, the label began to behave nervously. 

Walt Andrus in his Houston studio 1967, where several of I A:s best
releases were recorded

After some internal disagreements Lelan Rogers left I A in February '68, which didn't improve the talent scouting or level of professionalism. In an ironic twist, I A:s original founder Fred Carroll was hired to handle the production after Lelan left. The label kept hoping for the Elevators to bring back the days of '66, but the Elevators were falling apart too, with extended sessions at I A:s newly purchased Houston recording studio (formerly Gold Star) producing little, and the desperate 45 picks doing poor, except locally. During the second half of 1968, the end seemed to be approaching fast.

Early, pre-hit Bubble Puppy gig at Vulcan Gas in Austin

Then fortune struck again, as I A in the middle of this mess managed to come up with that second hit 45, even more unlikely than the first one. Bubble Puppy was a young band from various parts of Texas with a fresh, energetic sound that went over well with both teenyboppers and freaks. Signed by I A early on, they moved to Houston and promptly delivered a debut 45 "Hot Smoke & Sassafras" which became a national hit on an even bigger scale than "You're Gonna Miss Me". This stroke of luck poured gas into a tank that must have been running on fumes, and several more 45 and album releases followed in 1969-1970 - often weird and uncommercial, and none of them hits, but released they were. The I A corporation also expanded by aquiring a record plant in Nashville, where the later releases were pressed.

Ray Rush, one of I A:s producers during the post-Lelan era

But there was no more "Sassafras" in store for I A, and the activity fizzled out in 1970-71, with some dying gasp 45 and LP releases, before the company filed for bankruptcy in April 1971 (I A owner Bill Dillard blames the IRS for the label's downfall). In ordinary cases, this would have been the last anyone ever heard of International Artists, but I A was no ordinary label.

Only a few years later, a cult interest in the mysterious Houston label began rearing its head. This early buzz emanated mainly from Texas and England and, coupled with the revived 1970s careers of Roky Erickson and the Krayola's Mayo Thompson, soon seeped into rock music publications such as Bomp, Zig-Zag, and Dark Star. A Texas-based music fanzine, Not Fade Away, devoted substantial parts of its contents to I A acts. 

Ad in Not Fade Away magazine, 1975

An "I A Fan Club" was founded, and in short time Lelan Rogers, still in the LA music biz, caught wind of the interest. Lelan had invested a lot of time and energy in his various I A projects in the 60s, not just the Elevators but also things like the Lightnin' Hopkins album, which was a pet project of his. The I A magic had gotten to him too, even as he helped to create it. In a rare move for the music industry, Lelan decided to revive the I A label, only 6 years after its demise. Although the commercial potential wasn't as great as the enthusiasm in Texas and England suggested, this late 1970s resurrection contributed lots to the growing legend of the label, and led to the release of a 12-LP box set, reissues of the Elevators and Red Krayola by Radar in the UK, and the archival "Epitaph For A Legend".

Promo ad  (c1980)  for what would become "Epitaph For A Legend"

In the 1980s, Lelan decided to move on, and began leasing I A:s music catalog to Charly Records in England, which was followed by a formal sales transaction in the 1990s. Lelan Rogers passed away in the early 2000s, reportedly bitter of the inaccurate slander and mud thrown at him by misguided I A fans and writers during the 1980s-90s. Without Lelan, the strange grandeur of International Artists wouldn't exist, and his personal commitment to the label and bands went far beyond normal business considerations.

Lelan Rogers, 1928 - 2002

see also: 
International Artists Discography



The Lama Workshop