“I can tell you the whole story of Onus Records in two buildings,” says Tommy Globbit with a mixture of pride and resignation.
We walk a few blocks from the dive bar where we were just day drinking down West Hatcher Road until we are standing in a little patch of dirt, weeds and broken glass. I’m staring at a boarded up building that reads “Sunnyslope Auto Upholstery” with a couple of plastic letters missing. Ok, just one letter missing.
“This is where the dream died,” says Tommy. “This is where my grandfather Viral Globbit started the original Onus Records back in 1972. When it failed, he sold his eight-track recording machine, told the few R&B bands he’d signed they were free to go and then he lived the last 20 years of his life a bitter, twisted wreck of a man. His dreams of being the white Berry Gordy in tatters, he did what Berry Gordy might have done had Tamla Records crashed and burned in 1960. He went into the auto upholstery business.”
“Yes,” says Tommy, a bit perturbed. “Grandpa Viral was a great appreciator of soul music and the Bakersfield Sound too if you can believe it. After about nine failed 45 releases, he gave up trying to combine those two conflicted loves.”
In the Globbit family, music appreciation indeed would appear to have skipped a generation as Tommy’s father, the only slightly more sensibly named Abbot Globbit, became an investment broker who wanted nothing to do with music. Or auto upholstery for that matter.
“My Dad, he can’t even whistle. I guess because of Grandpa Viral’s overriding passion, music just pissed Dad off. Made him mad. Had the Onus label generated any income, Dad might’ve been happier about it. Against his approval or knowledge, I decided to take some of the insurance money I got when I was t-boned by a car with faulty brakes to realize my grandfather’s dream of starting a record label. Although the goal this time around will be to not make any money by design. Then no one will be disappointed.”
“That’s crazy,” I tell him. “You’re just gonna be a patron of the arts in Sunnyslope, an area more known for crystal meth than soul music and you’re gonna blow your settlement money on a record label that doesn’t generate any income.”
“Well, when you put it that way, I guess it does sound kind of stupid,” agrees Tommy. “But I want this. I want this for my grandfather as well as me.I can make it work. Any record company can work if you eliminate the profit motive and keep the pride motive alive.”
Tommy senses I am looking at him like a man with two heads but doesn’t seem to care.
“Look,” he says. “I can name you any number of great record labels and all of them were ruined by money. Motown killed the golden goose when it closed shop in Detroit and moved operations to Los Angeles to make movies. Stax was ruined by taking out too many loans and having to answer to bankers. Every great record label was ruined by the influx of money people who didn’t care a lick about the music. That’s why when the public got the chance to stick it to the money people who gobbled the record labels up, they drove the whole record industry to the brink of bankruptcy.”
“So who are you gonna sign to this label? Musicians who don’t care about making money?”
“I’m gonna sign musicians who love music. Musicians looking to make money are in the wrong business anyway.”
That point I have to concede. “So you’re not gonna press records?”
“No, that costs money. We’re just gonna make digital releases that we can give away and give back to the community without feeling the pinch. We’re operating with a very low overhead. And that’s where building number 2 comes in.”
Tommy reaches into his pocket and produces a glossy laser printout of his house with a ginormous neon sign that says “Onus Records”.
“The neighborhood watch made me take the neon sign down. Said it attracted too much attention to our block. Mind you, these are people who will call the police if your grass isn’t cut every Saturday. You don’t want to piss them off. But maybe after few years of doing this, if we produce enough quality music, if we put Sunnyslope soul on the map and show this neighborhood in a positive light, maybe I can get a permit to have it up on the roof again, flashing an hour or two a night. On second thought, it might be better just to wait until I can get National Historic Landmark status.”
“That might take some doing,” I say as we head up the driveway of Tommy’s house with the now-unadorned roof.
“Let me show you the recording space out back,” beamed Tommy as we walked through his yard to a little addition that could probably fit four people uncomfortably. A sign on the back wall reads “Jaula de tiburones.” I ask Tommy what it means. He says he doesn’t know, the house band put it there and it makes them laugh.
“Do you know some of our recording sessions, we’ve had up to six people and an engineer cramped in here,” he laughs. “They started calling this “The Shark Cage” because of the bars on the windows. As you can see it’s not soundproofed. or anything. We’ve got to record during the day when everyone in the neighborhood is at work.”
“So you have a house band, then?”
“It wouldn’t be an old-fashioned record label, if we didn’t have a house band,” laughs Tommy. “Know how I found these guys? You know when you need some carpentry or someone to put up a drywall? You drive down to Home Depot and get a bunch of guys who’ll work for cheap? Well one day I drive by Home Depot and what’s the harm in asking? I ask if any of those guys could play. And sure as I’m standing here, my word to God, I got myself a rhythm section. A killer rhythm section!”
“Wait! You have illegals working at your record label?”
“No, they’re legal. And they still needed the work. I had to break them from wanting to play Tejano music though. Sometimes I think if Onus Records just released Tejano music, we might even make a profit. But I have to catch myself.”