Bill Bentley was the first Music Columnist for the Austin Sun. And, while he may not have planned it, he is responsible for giving Austin the incredible talent of Margaret Moser, the second Music Columnist for the Sun.
Bentley was born in Houston in 1950, the son of Houston Post newspaper cartoonist Bud Bentley. Later, he would follow his father in the newspaper business, first as a typesetting and later as a journalist. But, we digress as Bentley’s first love was music.
Bentley grew up off Westheimer near what is now the Galleria. As with millions of his fellow boomers, he was transfixed by Elvis’s historic 1956 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Bentley remembers that his mother would always buy him an Elvis single every time he would go with her to Henke’s on Westheimer.
Growing up in Houston was a perfect place to see some of the biggest acts of the time. Like many young men his age, he first fell in love with the music of Elvis Presley,
The Houston Post, where his father worked was on Dowling Street in the Wards, and when he would go with his mom to pick up his dad, he could hear the music billowing out of the clubs from Albert Collins, Pete Mayes, and Johnny Copeland. On the way home, they would take West Gray where they would often see Lightnin’ Hopkins picking in front of one of the ice houses.
During family trips to nearby Galveston, Bentley remembers seeing the fez-sporting eccentric street poet, Bongo Joe, who set his free-form lyrics to beats on a homemade drum kit made of discarded oil drums. “He used to play on the Seawall right in front of the gift shops near the Galvez Hotel,” Bentley says. “That’s what got me hooked on drums — I became a drummer from seeing Bongo Joe. Everything lit up, I could just see that this was the music, right there in front of me, that really got inside of me.”
His family encouraged his interest by buying him a set of drums, which he lost no time in learning to play well enough to join several bands, playing high school dances and private parties around Houston.
When Bentley was all of 12 years old, his brother took him to see James Brown at the Paladium Ballroom which was then on Southmore. Brown had one of he biggest bands at the time, with a dozen individuals on stage and three drummers. “I got to go to a nightclub, and it was just, you know, James Brown full-tilt. That was right after “Live at the Apollo” had come out. So that was the eye-opener in terms of live music.”
But, never to be tied down to just one type of music, Bentley found himself enjoying a wide variety of Houston music. The 1960s saw several changes in the music scene and Bentley flowed with the times. Bentley describes the Houston from 1962 to 1968 as about as good a music town as you could find anywhere. Oh, the shows he saw: the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Coliseum with (ha ha) Ray Stevens opening; Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Cinder Club; Juke Boy Bonner in Fifth Ward jukes; Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson in a long engagement in a dive off Almeda called the Mark IV; B.J. Thomas and Roy Head battling it out in Van’s Ballroom.
He soon found himself enjoying the emerging counterculture and especially a local Austin band, who were playing in the Houston clubs – The 13th Floor Elevators.
By 1968, Bentley was enrolled in Southwestern University in Georgetown. Of course, the sidewalks rolled up in Georgetown at 6:00 p.m. and Bentley found himself making the drive into Austin to catch the music scene. It was at the Vulcan Gas Company that he reconnected with the 13th Floor Elevators, which were pretty much the house band at the Vulcan. His time at Georgetown was short-lived, when one night after a show at the Vulcan, the police followed him back to his dorm room, where they kicked in the door and busted the freshman for pot.
Bentley left Georgetown, returning to Houston to attend the University of Houston and went to work at the Houston Post as a typesetter, while awaiting trial. After receiving 5-years probation, a severe penalty at the time for first time possession of a very small amount of pot, Bentley returned to Austin to attend the University of Texas. While attending UT, Bentley worked as a typesetter at the Daily Texan and majored in psychology. It was while getting his degree that he found himself working at Austin State Mental Hospital. Eventually Bentley received his Bachelor of Arts degree from UT Austin. He is also a graduate of the Paralegal Program at Southwest Texas State University.
One day, he noticed an ad on one of the UT bulletin boards seeking a drummer and soon found himself in Lea Ann & Bizarros band. It was the beginning of a new life for Bentley, who otherwise would have ended up as a psychologist or god-forbid – a pasty skinned hitting the keys of a linotype in the backroom of some small town newspaper.
But, as much as the Bizarros drummer gig helped to change his life, it was a chance meeting with Austin Sun founders Jeff Nightbyrd and Michael Eakin in 1974 that would propel him to bigger and better things. The duo asked Bentley to become the music reviewer for their new venture – The Austin Sun. Of course, Nightbyrd had an ulterior motive when he found out that Bentley was a typesetter.
Bentley lasted as typesetter for only two issues and became the full time music columnist, giving the typesetting gig over to Sarah Clark. Bentley had found his calling in writing the music column for the Austin Sun and much like the publication his writing took on the gutsy, sometimes irreverent style of the magazine. After attending the “Gimme Back My Bullets” tour of Lynyrd Skynyrd one evening, Bentley didn’t find them to his liking. He couldn’t find anything nice to say about the show and when pressured by Nightbyrd for his column, Bentley reached across the desk, took a small scrap of paper and pen and wrote:
Lynyrd Skynyrd Review – Please, somebody give ‘em back!
Nightbyrd loved it and it went to press!
When the Sun closed it’s doors in 1979, Bentley hung around Austin for a while, working as a freelance writer for the Austin American-Statesman and at KLRN (the predecessor of KLRU). He also started the Twine Time Rhythm and Blues Showcase at KUT, eventually turning the show over to Paul Ray. Bentley started a new band with Speedy Sparks and two up and coming, albeit very young brothers – Charlie and Will Sexton.
Later that year, he got a call from Nightbyrd who had moved to Los Angeles to edit the L.A. Weekly. Nightbyrd offered him the position of Music Editor at the new publication. To make things more interesting, Bentley also began to book bands for a local venue – Club Lingerie, which gave him an opportunity to bring Texas bands out to Los Angeles, furthering endearing him with both the Austin and Los Angeles music scene. This led to a position as publicist at the trendy Slash Records label.
When Warner Brothers bought the label, Bentley was kept on, but with the new title of Creative Editorial Writer. Eventually, Bentley would work his way up to Senior Vice President at Warner Bros.
When asked about his greatest achievement, Bentley is quick to point to his tributes, such as Roky Erickson’s, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, and More Oar: A Tribute to Skip Spence.
Today, Bentley is President and Executive Editor at Sonic Boomers, a music company devoted to the fast-emerging baby boomer market. Sonic Boomers is dedicated to cultural discovery. Concentrating on music and books, it has gathered some of the best writers from the past 40 years for that pursuit.
Monday through Friday at Sonic Boomers Online there are daily links to relevant news for the Boomer audience, as well as a different song spotlighted from the entire history of recorded music. Each Friday, new album, DVD and book reviews are published, along with feature stories, interviews, and a highlighted article from the archives of rock ‘n roll history. Sonic Boomers is a place to find out about where we were and where we are going, for those who continue to enjoy the ride.
A long way from listening to Elvis Presley on the radio to sitting in a high rise office in Los Angeles working with Elvis Costello. Bentley has worked with many giants in the music industry – Barenaked Ladies, Green Day, Los Lobos, Lou Reed, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Blasters, Wilco and dozens of others.
Bill Bentley lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Z. Z. Top’s Billy Gibbon’s was both a childhood friend and schoolmate of Bentley
James “Big Boy” Medlin is a contributing writer at Sonic Boomers Online.
Bentley worked at Austin State Mental Hospital while his friend Roky Erickson was a ward of that institution.
In 1990 Sire Records/Warner Bros. Records released a tribute album, Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye produced by then WB executive Bill Bentley.