By E. Mark Windle
Texan Don Robey was an entrepreneur, community celebrity; and some report an individual who used threats and violence to get his way. But whether a man of stature, malevolence or elements of both, he followed many business avenues and was successful in most of them. Robey’s entertainment enterprises, including ownership of four of the biggest and most prolific R&B orientated labels in Texas – Peacock, Back Beat and Sure-Shot, has secured his place within web pages of the Texas State Historical Association’s hall of fame. A building carrying his family legacy, the L. Robey Building stands where his recording studios were originally situated.
Robey was born at the turn of the century to a white mother and an African-American father, in Houston’s Fifth Ward. After leaving school he honed his skills initially in professional gambling and within a few years owned his first business, a taxi company. Robey’s main interest however lay in the entertainment industry. A spell in as a manager in an LA nightclub inspired him to open his own in Houston called The Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, where Ruth Brown, T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan would feature. The “Peacock” wetted his appetite further, this time for artist management then for setting up his own label. In 1949 the Bronze Peacock was transmogrified into the studio offices of his newly formed label. The success of artists on Peacock enabled him to merge other similar genre labels such as Duke (initially based out in Memphis) and also to create another two of his own, Back Beat and Sure-Shot.
At this stage, these labels took on their own identities. Duke remained associated with the blues and raw R&B sounds lead by the likes of Bobby Bland and Buddy Ace, while Peacock was reserved mainly for gospel acts. Back Beat and Sure-Shot, on the other hand, were where he envisaged particular commercial appeal lay for the young, in danceable R&B and soul. Sure-shot ran between 1963 and 1967. Robey was aware of what was going on up north and in other states. A lot of product was leased in from Detroit (Bobby Williams), New York (Kurtis Scott, a.k.a. Kurt Harris of “Emperor of My Baby’s Heart” on Diamond) and Miami (Bell Brothers and E. Lois Foreman). Robey, ever the moneymaker, saw potential financial rewards in song publishing rights. To this end, his ‘name’ (more a derivative of his wife’s maiden name) appeared on a number of releases credited as composer, where no actual song writing involvement existed. Previous claims abound that he would ‘buy’ the rights from the artist for a quick buck, or from song writers who were moonlighting from other labels who needed to preserve their anonymity.
Whilst Robey sought artists from many states, he did not ignore local talent. Troy Marrs and the Dynamics were Houston boys: Troy Marrs (lead singer), David Smith (lead guitar), Eddie Horowitz (piano, organ, trumpet), Jim Keen (drums), Charlie Richmond (bass guitar) and Ken Kirksey (saxophone).
Troy George Marrs (b.1938, d.1991) was the third child in a family of six children. Originally from Warren, Troy moved to Port Neches then later Nederland Texas. Troy’s wife Bonnie Marrs Smith tells the story of his early years:
“In the years at Nederland High School, Troy took a keen interest in sport. His coach Andrew “Bum” Phillips once gave him a paddling for misbehavior. Not sure if you know, but Bum became a famous football coach. Anyhow, in 1955 Troy joined the US Navy at age 17, as a clerical worker on the USS Norton Sound. That was the Navy's first guided missile ship. When he came out the Navy six years later he was hired by Sun Oil Co. As far as music was concerned, Troy first sang in church with his sister, Shirley. He’d listen to country every day and the Billboard top 40. He was a big Elvis fan too. Troy met him backstage when Elvis was touring with the Louisiana Hayride show in the 1950s.”
Guitarist David Smith recounts how the band started:
“Troy had a real talent and sounded a lot like Elvis. He started singing professionally when he formed Troy Marrs and the Dynamics in late 1964. I was the first person he called after he got my name from other local musicians. At the time I was in a college dorm ready to enter my first year at Lamar University. We got together for the first time at his home about a week later after he contacted several other musicians. We played a few current songs to see if we could ‘make music’ together and it clicked as if we had been playing for years. When the other group members from college were recruited, we began rehearsals, practicing two and three times a week. No one had played in a band before the Dynamics. Within a month, we were ready to take our talents outside Troy’s home and show the world. Prior to rehearsals, Troy would look into what music was being played on radio and look at the listings in Billboard. The main criteria for our music was the ‘Top 40’ but we were versatile enough to play music based on individual request and age. He would purchase records, learn the lyrics and the band would work out the music parts. This band business was new territory for all of us but was exciting to be able to play music as a group. I worked my way through college with a guitar hanging on my shoulder.”
“We played from New Mexico to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and throughout Texas. Venues included night clubs, dances, frat parties and grand openings. We became very popular in south-east Texas due to Troy’s voice and the quality of the musicians he had hand-picked. We originally booked ourselves but were eventually managed by Al Caldwell. In July, 1966, we opened for the Dave Clark Five at a concert at the Coliseum Club in Nederland, Texas. That same year we also played at the Bamboo Hut on Galveston Island where we opened for The Coasters. Al was and still is a DJ in Beaumont. Later, Bill Stonecipher became our manager and booking agent and I believe he was responsible for the Sure-Shot contact.”
The unique up-tempo “Rhythm Message” (Sure-Shot 5019), released in 1966, was their first recording, cut at a long forgotten studio in Houston. The 45 carried a vocal on the plug side and “part two” instrumental version of the same on the flip:
“At the time of recording “Rhythm Message”, we were all in our twenties. Troy was the oldest at 28. Since we only had two horns, the horn section of the record was dub-over, twice each with different harmonies to get a full effect”, remembers David Smith. “The clinking sound in the record is a bottle opener striking a Coke bottle! If you listen to the song closely, Troy actually sings “Rhythm Method”. This was the way in which the song was originally written. However, we had to change to song title because at the time it probably would not have been played and might be too controversial. It was too late to change the song as we had already cut it in the studio. The inspiration for our song was The Boogie Kings’ take on Harlem Shuffle.”
Troy Marrs Jr. comments: “Rhythm Message was top of the charts for a long time in Texas. I have Billboard Chart records showing Rhythm Message #1 over Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other big names for the regional charts.”
A fan letter to the KRLA 1966 edition of US Beat Magazine published in the same year of the release of “Rhythm Message” by Jo Ann Miller describes the Dynamics as “six charming men whose first record Rhythm Message was a big hit all over southern Texas. They have a very bright future ahead”. A local Texas newspaper also reported that by 1967 the track had been played on stations in Nashville, Atlanta, Washington and New York radio stations.
“Rhythm Message” made the top ten in a number of Texas station playlists. Local success perhaps didn’t extend to national level, but decades later the record was rediscovered on the other side of the Atlantic. Details regarding when the record was first played out on the UK soul scene are unclear. According to DJ Mark ‘Butch’ Dobson it was known among a few collectors in the 1970s, but didn’t have the ‘sound’ that the rare soul crowds were tuned into at the time. There may have been some plays on the London mod scene in the early eighties. However, it has been said that the spiritual home of the record in the UK was on the Scottish rare soul scene, where it amassed a very popular following via DJ Colin Law:
“I originally turned up “Rhythm Message” when I was in Florida in 1984, record hunting with Jock O’Connor. It was found in Edna Minor’s warehouse in Miami along with some other nice finds. I hadn’t heard the record before, but I instantly thought this would be a huge record on the scene. I first played it out around 1986 at the Glenrothes YMCA all-nighters, then went on to be very popular at other Scottish rare soul venues, the Great Yarmouth Weekenders and the Blackburn Empress Ballroom nighters. The track (covered up as Willie G and the Magic Rhythm Band for a number of years) was an instant dancefloor filler. The first night I played it the reaction from the dance floor was amazing. Troy’s silky voice, those horns and sax breaks. Thank you Troy Marrs for enlightening me and the northern soul scene with a great dancer that filled a lot of people with joy on a Saturday night all round the country!”
The Sure-Shot label closed by 1967. Robey eventually sold Peacock, Duke, back Beat and Sure Shot to ABC-Dunhill. As Dave Rimmer reports on his Soulfulkindamusic website, by the time of his death in the mid seventies Robey had 2500 ‘copyrighted’ songs under his own name. At least “Rhythm Message” was one which remained credited to Troy Marrs.
“We performed as Troy Marrs and the Dynamics for a total of about five years”, says David. “The original members played during this time but eventually one-by-one began to leave. A change was needed, along with a few new members, and we renamed the group Crimson Tyde and later changed it again to Troy Marrs and Grand Central.”
In 1970 Troy went to college. When he graduated from Lamar University, he entered the oil and gas industry, working in management positions with Union Texas Petroleum. As lead singer of Grand Central he continued with performing mainly on weekends, including a appearance alongside Bob Hope in a major fund raising event for the Thomas W. Hughen School for Crippled Children in 1975. Within a few years, Troy retired from it all after a move to Midland, Texas.
David comments: “I recently made contact and met Troy Marrs, Jr. and his family and I have exchanged emails with James Keen who lives in Denver. I have tried to find the other members but have not been able to locate them. Ed Horowitz passed a number of years ago. Slowly but surely, the band members left as we had completed college and were accepting employment outside the Beaumont area. Troy was already working full time and well established in the Beaumont area. By this time, I was married but continue to play for almost ten years until finally, full time work, weekly band rehearsals, travel and playing every weekend got the best of me. I played with Troy until the mid 1970s. I worked in the engineering profession for 41 years where I retired in 2010 as president of a 2,100 man engineering company. I believe Troy remained in recording and playing for many years after I left the band. He died prematurely in 1991, age 52. Troy loved music and sung his heart out at every event we played. He had a real talent for picking the right songs to learn and performed each effortlessly. How he remembered all the words is beyond me. He may have wondered how I remembered all the right chords to play. He was a good friend and one I truly miss to this day. After knowing Troy for all these years, one of my sincerest regrets is that I was unable to attend his funeral.”
(The Troy Marrs and the Dynamics story is a chapter excerpt from the book Rhythm Message by E. Mark Windle. Available exclusively from A Nickel And A Nail, the UK independent specialist bookstore for soul, blues and jazz related literature).
References / Resources
Troy Marrs (Jr.). Personal coms. September 2013, March 2014.
Scott D. Marrs. Personal coms. March 2014.
Bonnie Marrs Smith. Personal coms. March 2014.
David Smith. Personal coms. March 2014.
Colin Law. Personal coms. September 2013.
Jock O’Connor. Personal coms. September 2013.
Dave Rimmer. Don Robey and Peacock Records. Available at:
http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/articlepeacock.htm. Accessed 1 September 2013.
Soulsource website discussion forum. Troy Marrs – Rhythm Message. Available at: https://www.soul-source.co.uk/topic/296735-troy-marrs-rhythm-message/?hl=%2Btroy+%2Bmarrs#entry1982410
KRLA Edition Beat Magazine. 5 November 1966. Available at:
http://krlalabeat.sakionline.net/issue/5nov66.pdf. Accessed 1 September 2013.
Ruth K. Sullivan. Handbook of Texas Online: Robey, Don Deadric. Available at: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fropc). Accessed September 06, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Andy Bradley and Roger Wood. House of Hits: The Story of Houston’s Gold Star / Sugar Hill Recording Studios. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
Alan Govenar. The Early Years of Rhythm and Blues: Focus on Houston. Houston: Rice University Press, 1990.
Roger Wood. Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.