The band's classic line-up was singer/guitarist Roky Erickson, electric jug player Tommy Hall, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, drummer John Ike Walton and bass player Ronnie Leatherman. The band emerged from the Austin psychedelic scene in 1965, where it was contemporary to bands such as Shiva's Headband and The Conqueroo. The band was formed when Roky Erickson left his group The Spades, and joined up with Stacy Sutherland, Benny Thurman, and John Ike Walton who had been playing Texas coastal towns asThe Lingsmen.
Throughout the spring of 1966, the group toured extensively in Texas, playing clubs in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. They also played on live teen dance shows on television, such as Sumpin Else, in Dallas, and The Larry Kane Show in Houston. In late summer 1966 the Elevators toured the west coast, made two nationally televised appearances, and played several dates at the San Francisco ballrooms The Fillmore and The Avalon.
The International Artists record label in Houston, also home to contemporary Texas underground groups such as Red Krayola and Bubble Puppy, signed the Elevators to a record contract and released the album The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators in the latter part of 1966, which became instantly popular among the burgeoning counterculture. The album's sleevenotes, which advocated LSD as a guaranteed gateway to a higher state of consciousness, attracted some controversy.
Over the next few months the band shared bills with Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Great Society, and The Byrds in San Francisco and in 1967 released a concept album, Easter Everywhere, also released by International Artists. This record featured a version of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", a version Dylan is rumored to have called his favorite. Shortly before the release of Easter Everywhere, Leatherman and Walton left the band because of managerial disagreements with the band's label, as well as non-payment of royalties. As a result of this, Walton was not credited in the Easter Everywhere sleevenotes, despite appearing on "Levitation" and "She Lives".
Singer Janis Joplin was a close associate of the band. She sang with the band at a few shows, and considered joining the group in Austin, before she headed to San Francisco and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her style of singing was much influenced by Roky Erkison's trademark screaming and yelping, as in "You're Gonna Miss Me".
Drug and legal problems resulted in turmoil for the band. In 1969, facing a marijuana possession charge, Erickson chose to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital rather than serve a prison term, signaling the end of the band's career
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