Musicians Off the Record: Roky Erickson and Sumner Erickson

Widely hailed as the “father” of the Austin music scene, Roky Ericksonwas a founding member of the world’s first psychedelic rock band, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The combination of Erickson’s soaring tenor, singular songwriting style and unique brand of garage rock, heard on the legendary albums, “The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators” and “Easter Everywhere,” has influenced generations of artists and his shadow looms over admirers including R.E.M., Robert Plant, ZZ Top, Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins and the White Stripes.

The Elevators made the first use of the term “psychedelic” in popular music and gained cult status with their charting single in 1966, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me.’ The Austin band, during an interlude on the west coast, helped instigate the San Francisco sound popularized by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and fellow Austin native Janis Joplin, who once considered joining the group. With Erickson’s success came the weight of public scrutiny, including the attention of law enforcement officials for the group’s experimentation with—and advocacy of—marijuana and LSD, landing Erickson in jail in 1969. After pleading insanity to avoid a prison term, he served a three-and-a-half year sentence in Texas’s Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where he was subjected to violent psychoactive treatments.

After decades of living as an eccentric recluse, Erickson has reemerged as a musical force and performed his first full-length concert in twenty years at the 2005 Austin City Limits music festival with The Explosives. As his reputation continues to soar through vehicles such as Keven McAlester’s 2005 biopic documentary and the 1990 homage, “Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: Tribute to Roky Erickson,” Erickson has proven an ever-resilient icon who has risen from a near tragic burnout..

Erickson’s recovery can best be attributed to his youngest brother, Sumner Erickson, who was appointed Roky’s legal guardian and established a trust to address his brother’s financial needs. Himself an inspired singer-songwriter, Sumner was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1981-2003, where he was renowned in the classical music field as one of the world’s finest tuba players.After taking up the instrument in1974, Sumner showed a superior musical capacity by winning several statewide competitions. A graduate of the Curtis Institute, Sumner left his promising career as a principal tubaist and returned to Austin where he formed the Texcentrics, a group inspired by Texas legends Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and the elder Erickson. A committed social activist, Sumner is a tireless supporter of numerous non-profit organizations and has used his music in peace efforts, performing in 2005 on a bill with Joan Baez to protest the war in Iraq. Together, the Erickson’s remain one of the first families of Texas music.