Roy Head "Treat Her Right" Story Behind the Song
From the opening muted guitar riff to the closing blast of horns, Roy Head and the Traits 1965 #2 Hit has always been a dance floor insurance policy, guranteed to lift the spirits of the drunk and weary. Over the years the tune has been committed to wax (or digital) by artists as diverse as Johnny Thunders and Mae West, Otis Redding and Jerry Lee Lewis. Bob Dylan himself nearly performed the song on a 1984 David Letterman show appearance, rehearsing it at soundcheck but opting for an unrehearsed romp through Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talking" for the broadcast.
The beginnings of "Treat Her Right" go back to the pre-psychedelic 60's. Mainstream pop music had veered so far from the original burst of rock'n'roll energy many white teenagers in Texas were turning to rhythm and blues for their musical fix. In San Antonio there was Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, in Ft. Worth Delbert McClinton and Bruce Chanel. In the college town of San Marcos it was the Traits, featuring a husky voiced, untamed wolf of a singer by the name of Roy Head.
Roy Kent Head was born Sept. 1, 1943 in Three Rivers, Texas south of San Antonio. When Roy was still a child his family moved to Crystal City, known as the spinach capital of the world. While his parents worked in the spinach plants, Roy grew up in a predominantly black envirnment. His new friends turned him on to their music, Elmore James, BB King, Junior Parker and others. Southern Black culture would continue to have a deep impact on Roy's sense of fashion and musical taste.
Roy's family moved to San Marcos and it was there he began his foray into the music business encouraged by his audience on the school bus, where he was known to belt out the hit songs of Little Richard and Little Willie John. The Traits began as an informal group with its membership swelling to twenty plus musicians and singers before being whittled down to a workable band. The Traits worked the low end bars of Central Texas where Roy claims to have performed behind chicken wire to protect the band from rowdy patrons. The Traits recorded with a bit of regional success for the T'n'T label. T'n'T mostly known for polka music was an odd fit for the Traits' brand of hard R'n'B. In 1963 Roy left for the Army Reserves and the band continued without it's charismatic frontman, working the college party circuit.
By Roy's return, the band had settled into a line up that included drummer Gerry Gibson, guitarist Ken Williams and a new bassist, San Antonio born Gene Kurtz. The new line up caught the attention of a Houston record man by the name of Charlie Booth. Booth was particularly impressed with a dance floor filling R'n'B stomper with semi ridiculous lyrics called "Talkin' Bout a Cow".
"Talkin' Bout a Cow" came about from a requested run through "The Mashed Potato" at a dance. Ken Williams, trying to recreate the "Mashed Potato" riff from memory, slightly altered it coming up with something unique and very danceable. Roy began improvising lyrics based on the old standard "Milk Cow Blues Boogie" and a more obscure r'n'b tune Gene Kurtz remembers as "Calling All Cows on the Farm". "Treat her real gentle, make her feel good, you'll get the best milk and butter, you've ever seen....." The song, though a hit on the dancefloor, really had no structure or rhyme. It could go on anywhere from 2-10 minutes depending on the dancers. The night before recording, while rehearsing out side Houston in a Pasadena garage, Gene Kurtz took it upon himself to work over the little double entendre ditty.
"Gene said 'let's make this thing about a woman and sell us some records!' " Roy remembers. According to Gene, Roy would often open with the line "I'm gonna tell you a story, every man ought to know" which everyone agreed was absolutely killer. The rest however needed some work. Gene pulled together three tight verses all ending with the couplet "you'll be glad every night, that you treated her right". The next addition was a horn lick to set off a rave-up at the end. The horn figure turned around the original riff opening up the rhythm for Roy's macho punctuations. Gene believes the simple melody came to him subliminally from an Ajax commercial of the day featuring the phrase "stronger than dirt". When played on guitar it is remarkably similar to the Kinks hit "You Really Got Me".
With the song intact and three or four other numbers prepared, the Traits headed into Gold Star Studio in Houston with Charlie Booth producing under the watchful eye of the notorious Crazy Cajun, Huey P. Meaux. "Huey threw his little licks in," Roy says, "but Charlie produced the session. I think the whole thing cost under five hundred bucks." The Traits also cut the Willie Dixon tune "My Babe", a Jimmy Reed inspired number called "Apple of My Eye" and "One More Time (65)" a remake of a popular Traits tune that had been recorded for T'n'T before. Kurtz doesn't believe the b-side to "Treat Her Right", "So Long My Love" was cut that same day, and sonic evidence concurs.
After the Houston session the Traits were back to their busy schedule of appearances in the San Marcos area where some of the members including Gene Kurtz were students at Southwest. Charlie Booth and Huey Meaux sold the record to Don Robey's BackBeat label, a subsidiary of Robey's Duke/Peacock empire, resoponsible for the successes of Johnny Ace, Etta James, OV Wright and many others. In no time, with the powerhouse independant label behind it, the single was embraced by Houston radio and began to take off. Roy knocked 'em dead at an all black DJ convention despite the racial tensions of the day. Most people had figured the single was by a black artist. Roy even recalls a girlfriend's racist brothers wanting to beat him when they found out she was dating the guy who sang "Treat Her Right".
Having a hit song divided the Traits. Roy, Gene Kurtz and Gerry Gibson saw the success of the song as a shot at a real career in the music business. The other Traits were happy to work the lucrative club and party circuit close to home. College was another factor. Dropping out in 1965 was a dangerous proposition with the draft board keeping a watchful eye for wayward young men. Kurtz took the chance and though drafted he was deferred due to a foot condition. When Roy, Gene and Gerry pressed on the other Traits sued for what they believed was their share of the hit record, in effect helping as Kurtz remembers "no one but the lawyers."
Despite the self-defeating law suits, "Treat Her Right" worked it's way up the chart's reaching #1 on several r'n'b charts and lodging in at #2 on the coveted Billboard Pop Chart, denied the top spot by the Beatles all time classic "Yesterday", for three weeks in October of 1965. Roy appeared on American Bandstand, Where the Action Is, and Shindig, with no Traits in tow, either lip synching or as the case with Shindig perfroming with the TV house band.
In the wake of the law suit Head, Kurtz, Gibson and guitarist David Koon from Beaumont formed a touring unit. In time it became a trio and then when Gibson left to pursue a career in Los Angeles, eventually playing with Sly and the Family Stone, it was down to just Gene and Roy. Gene would go along to rehearse pick up bands, often roller rink organ trios, playing either guitar or bass as needed.
With a bonafide classic under his belt, a voice to die for and stage moves that would make James Brown jealous, Roy Head should have had the world in the palm of his hand. In 1967 he signed with Mercury Records but no hits followed. Roy was drinking heavily and behaving erratically. The same personality traits that made him an over the top show man had manifested themselves in negativity. Roy told author Colin Escott "I was lost for several years. I beat up club owners, choked disc jockeys, and did a lot of things I wish I hadn't done." Before Roy could hit rock bottom he made better than average album, "Dismal Prisoner" with Memphis legend Steve Cropper on Cropper's TMI label in 1972. Eventually Roy, like kindred spirit Jerry Lee Lewis, was saved by a career in country music that yielded a few chart successes, including a countrified version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night". "Aahh, I did that so I could eat man," Roy disclaims before adding "I ain't got nothing against country music. I grew up on it."
Gene Kurtz moved to Canada after the heyday eventually returning to Houston where he spent several years working with Miss Molly and the Whips. Today Kurtz is in Austin handling bass duties with Dale Watson and working with Michael Ballew among others. His son Christian is a member of Austin's terrific power pop group the Golden Apples.
Roy is living north of Houston and still working as an entertainer. "Yeah man it's all I do, still doing flips and splits and everything, " he assures. In recent years he's played the Continental Club in Houston with roots rock heros the LeRoi Brothers.
"Treat Her Right" has had as great a life a song could ask for. Aside from being covered nightly by bar bands from coast to coast, it has appeared in movies like the Committments and more recently Catch Me if You Can. The late Mark Sandman named his pre-Morphine blues rock band after the song. Paul Schaeffer regularly makes it part of the Late Show Band repetoire. Kurtz has a gold record from the George Thorogood version and the distinction of being covered by one of his idols Otis Redding. "I can't believe anything I was involved with ever passed by Otis!" Kurtz somewhat chalks up the success of the Traits and "Treat Her Right" to two things. "Everywhere we went, and I notice this today, it seemed people cut us a little extra slack for being from Texas", and of the song Gene figures "It's one of those songs almost anybody could sing.....if they had to."