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It has been written that Space Opera plays "serious, complex, satisfying music," blending rock, folk, jazz, and classical influences to achieve their distinctive sound.
Space Opera was forged in the Texas summer heat of 1969 by David Bullock, Scott Fraser, Philip White, and Brett Wilson. Already, their young lives had been a history played out on roadhouse bandstands and in the coffeehouses and ballrooms of Texas. They had worked as studio sidemen in exchange for long hours spent arranging and recording their own songs at producer T-Bone Burnett's studio in Fort Worth.
Space Opera's first major appearance was at the legendary Texas International Pop Festival. They refined their unique style during years of touring Texas and the eastern seaboard, headlining shows and opening for such groups as The Byrds, Jethro Tull, Johnny Winter, and Jefferson Airplane. The band's sound was defined by the dense counterpoint of chiming electric 12-strings, crisp, subtle percussion, and choir-like vocals.
"Space Opera," an album produced by the band at Manta Sound in Toronto, was released in 1973 by Epic Records. Rock critic and author Ritchie York called the album "incredibly outstanding, deliriously brilliant." The group lived and worked in New York, Canada and Texas during the 1970s and '80s, often augmenting their live sound with symphonic instruments.
A music journalist once observed that Space Opera had arrived at "an early, undeserved obscurity." Describing the band's music, he wrote, "They don't just write songs, they compose miniature symphonies, three-to-five-minute pieces that combine musical elements that would seem to have no place in rock."
Over the years the musicians disbanded and regrouped as they saw fit. In 1997 Space Opera played a 'reunion' concert at the magnificent Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth. New and old songs were woven together in a suite-like concert that music writer Dave Ferman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found "...musically stunning. Moving from mood to mood and using subtle shadings of 12-string guitars, oboe and accordion...Space Opera lived up to its legend and pointed the way to a fresh new start."
Today, Space Opera continues to labor in the vineyard of obscurity, creating music that is uniquely its own for the entertainment of a small but devoted audience.
On 26 January 2005, Brett Wilson suffered a fatal heart attack, forever altering his family and friend's lives and the course of Space Opera.
Brett Owen Wilson, respected musician, devoted husband and father, died at his home in Fort Worth on Wednesday, January 26, 2005. He was 55 years old. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Brett was born on March 7, 1949 in Columbus, Ohio to Virginia and Leo Wilson. When Brett was six months old, the family moved to Fort Worth, where his father worked as an aerospace engineer with General Dynamics. They relocated to San Antonio, where Brett spent his early childhood years, and then back to Fort Worth. Brett attended Wedgewood Jr. High School, and was President of the student body. At Paschal High School he excelled in academics and was a cheerleader.
As a teenager, Brett combined his love of jazz with his talent for playing drums. He played in The Ridgeway Scott Orchestra and in The Richard Powell Trio, mastering several jazz idioms. After graduating from Paschal in 1967, Brett attended Oberlin College in Ohio and the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin he met his future wife, Claudia Wormley.
Also in Austin, in the Spring of 1969, a chance meeting with old high school acquaintances resulted in Brett's co-founding of the rock band Space Opera. Originally based in Fort Worth, the band went on to play extensively in Texas, New York, and Canada, and recorded for Columbia Records.
Brett and Claudia married in Fort Worth in 1974, settling in Mistletoe Heights. While continuing to perform and record with Space Opera, Brett began a long professional association with restaurateur Michel Baudouin, proprietor of La Chardonnay and The Grape Escape. In 1982, Claudia gave birth to a son, Colin.
Brett was an avid reader and possessed an imposing intellect. His interests included things esthetic and technical. He loved riding motorcycles,collecting and playing musical instruments with his son, watching sports and taking afternoon naps. A lifelong animal fancier, Brett had innumerable pets: cats, dogs, tropical fish and exotic birds.
Brett will always be remembered for his selfless generosity, his devotion to family and friends, and a soft-spoken, congenial persona that complemented his formidable physical and moral strengths.
Brett is survived by his parents, Virginia and Leo Wilson, his wife, Claudia Wormley Wilson, all of Fort Worth, and son Colin Alexander Trout Wilson, of Norman, Oklahoma. Other family members include his sister, Lesley Wilson, M.D., of Saratoga, California, nephew Evan Rabinowitz of New York City, and niece Laura Rabinowitz, a student at Skidmore College.
Read more: Michael Stanley
Scott Fraser – composer, co-founder of acclaimed music group Space Opera, and popular guitar instructor – died September 19, 2006 after a long illness.
Scott was born December 11, 1949 in Schenectady, NY. His mother Virginia, a professional musician, taught him piano at an early age. He first won recognition in ninth grade as drummer and arranger for The Mods. Their recording “It’s for You” was a top-requested radio favorite in 1964. In 1967 he helped form nationally-known Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit & Greenhill, produced by Grammy winner T-Bone Burnett. (Their album is mentioned in an episode of TV’s “Gilmore Girls”, and is included in the respected Mojo Magazine's Collection book as one of the most important albums in American popular music.)
In 1969 Scott joined David Bullock, Phil White, and Brett Wilson to form Space Opera. The group recorded for CBS and Columbia/Epic Records. They toured nationwide, appearing with other major musicians including The Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Kris Kristofferson, and many others. Another respected Fort Worth musician, Stephen Bruton, called Scott “the first virtuosic rock guitarist I knew.”
Scott composed “The Angelic” for chamber orchestra competition, “Angelic Suite” for New York’s Falco Dance Company, and “The Mystery of St. Anthony” for symphony orchestras.
Since his illness, fans and former students have sent messages to his web site, www.frasermusic.com, including these: “Thank you for your constant inspiration. Heroes leave their mark like that.” “Scott will always live in the hearts of everyone he came in contact with.” “You are certainly the single greatest composer and musician I have had the good fortune to know.” Survivors: Wife Mary; daughter Maggie; sister Patricia Fraser; mother-in-law Marjorie Sewell; brothers-in-law and sister-in-law John and Mary Rhoads and Mike Rhoads; niece Katherine Bryant; nephews Alexander Bryant and John Rhoads; cousins Rix Quinn, Eric Roberson, and Tim Roberson.
Philip Edward White, a legendary Fort Worth musician, died Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008, from complications of heart disease. He was a founding member of Space Opera, a Fort Worth band that achieved national acclaim, and was a skilled songwriter and producer.
Memorial service: 2 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, at The Fairmount, 600 W. Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth.
Phil was born in Fort Worth on May 26, 1950, to Gloria and Earl White. He attended Tanglewood Elementary, McLean Junior High and Paschal High School. As a founding member of Space Opera, he toured North America and recorded for Columbia Records.
He performed with other eminent Texas musicians, including Bill Ham, Stephen Bruton, and T Bone Burnett.
Driven by a larger-than-life personality and a determination to live life on his own terms, Phil became nothing less than a folk legend in his hometown and beyond. Phil was a born showman and entertainer with a splendid sense of humor -- often self-deprecating -- and was a gifted natural musician and composer. He loved nothing more than to regale friends with stories and to play music into the wee hours. In the recording studio he was an obsessive perfectionist. Phil was also a teacher and mentor to young musicians.
He studied karate with martial arts master Pat Burleson and achieved the fifth-degree black belt, but never flaunted his skills. He used his innate self-confidence and intellect to navigate through lifeâ€™s challenges. Phil was known as a protector; on many occasions he acted selflessly and without hesitation to intervene in life-threatening situations on behalf of friends and strangers. Survivors: His brothers, Donnie White of Arlington, Lindsay White of Fort Worth, Kevin White of Burleson and Stephen White of Austin; several nieces and nephews; and a multitude of devoted friends.
When Space Opera's music hits you for the first time, it's immediately apparent that you're being exposed to a sound that is truly unique, and maybe even a little ahead of its time as well.
Formed in Texas in the summer of 1969, by David Bullock, Phillip White, Scott Fraser and Brett Wilson, the band built up a loyal following throughout various parts of the United States and Canada in the early 70's. Imagine a cross between The Byrds and the smooth, west coast, country rock sound, expertly interwoven with elements of progressive rock and classical influences and that's just the tip of the iceberg of what Space Opera were all about. Their debut album, released by Epic Records in 1973, was a promising one, but unfortunately they were dropped before they had a chance to follow it up. The band disbanded for a short period, before eventually reconvening to write, play and record new music, something they would do numerous times over the next three decades. Their second album, Space Opera II, was released independently in 2000.
While Space Opera's music definitely deserved to be heard on a much grander scale, it's people like It's About Music (www.itsaboutmusic.com) that are helping to preserve the bands legacy by keeping their music alive and introducing it to a whole new generation of listeners. They have just issued an excellent new compilation of music entitled Safe At Home, which brings together nine unreleased gems that were recorded prior to their first album. Also included are six tracks from 1975, 1977 and 1978, as well extensive liner notes from sole remaining member David Bullock, who oversaw the entire project. Do yourself and the band a favor and check out this outstanding archive release. I recently had a chance to catch up with David Bullock to discuss the new album in detail as well as to learn a little more about this history of this vastly underrated band.
Ryan: Before I delve into this fantastic new release Safe At Home I’d like you to backtrack a bit and ask you to take our readers back to how Space Opera came to be. You released an album in 1968 called The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey Etc that essentially featured three out of the four members that would go on to make up Space Opera correct?
David: Yes, that's right. Phil White, Scott Fraser and I were the three who stuck together after the Unwritten Works album was done, and formed Space Opera. The other principal artists on the Unwritten project were Edd Lively, John Carrick, and T.Bone Burnett. Phil and I had played together since 8th grade, doing acoustic folk music. We joined up with Scott and Edd to form an electric folk-rock-blues group in 1967, and that was the basis for the Unwritten Works project.
Ryan: T. Bone Burnett was the producer and he also contributed in the songwriting department as well.
David: T.Bone owned a studio, Sound City, in Fort Worth. He was a couple of years older, but we had all gone to the same school, had played around town in various bands and knew each other. He produced and engineered all the sessions and wrote four of the songs that ended up on the record. He was already a really good producer at age nineteen.
Ryan: Your sound was very influenced by The Byrds. I mean you were all big fans of their country, folk rock sound. At the same time you can also other elements at play as well, something that would come to typify Space Opera a little further down the road. So would it be fair to say that this album became the sort of early blueprint for the future direction of Space Opera?
David: We had already outgrown that music by the time the album was released. The Unwritten Works was when the light really turned on. Space Opera was when it achieved full wattage.
Ryan: Drummer Brett Wilson was the final piece of the puzzle. Was it instantly obvious to you the first time the four of you played together that you had something special?
David: I really can't remember the first time we rehearsed together, but it was as if he had always been a part of our thing, the fit was that good. It was his musical style, his intelligence, and his personality. Everything just clicked somehow.
Ryan: You had been only playing together for a couple of months when you suddenly got added to the bill of the Texas International Pop Festival. That must have not been an amazing feeling, but also a great learning experience for the band as well.
David: Remember, three of us had been working together for several years already, and once Brett joined us, as Space Opera, we were playing gigs constantly, five or six nights a week. So we were already up to speed. But standing on an outdoor stage and looking out onto a sea of humanity, that was a very new experience, really exciting, and a great opportunity. And we got to hear some good sets by B.B King, my old friend Johnny Winter, and a new band called Led Zeppelin.
Ryan: Had the band recorded any material at this point and were you actively shopping it around to different labels?
David: As Space Opera we made our first studio recordings a couple of months later. We recorded some at Delta Studio in Fort Worth and then went to Nashville and recorded in the Columbia studio there. Back in Dallas, we recorded a handful of songs at IRI Studios that got a lot of local airplay. It sort of made us hometown heroes.
Ryan: It wasn’t long afterwards that you went into the studio and cut some tracks that were to make up an album known as “Exit 4”. The results of those sessions make up a good part of Safe At Home.
David: Exit 4 was recorded just prior to our leaving Texas and moving to Williamsville, NY. We began recording at Exit 4 Studio in Dallas in the winter of 1970 and finished in early '71. It's a great representation of what the band sounded like at that time and I'm glad that it finally got released, 40 years later!
Ryan: How did you end up cutting your debut album up in Canada and why at the time did you feel the need to re-locate to the east coast?
David: By the time we had been together for six months, the band had already made forays into Nashville and New York. A year later, we were doing club gigs and opening concerts all over Texas and surrounding states. Figured it was time to move on. We were introduced to John Brower, who was a promoter in Toronto. John had mounted the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969, where John Lennon played. Toronto seemed like a nice opportunity, so we relocated to western New York State, which was just across the border from Canada. From that base we could play extensively in Toronto and also have access to gigs in New York, Connecticut, etc… There were a lot of college concerts and clubs.
We ended up recording the album in Toronto because Columbia Records of Canada gave us the deal we wanted. We would produce the album ourselves, with complete artistic control, and keep all our publishing rights. It was an amazing contract, especially for a new and unproven group.
Ryan: Tell me about the significance of the house that graces the cover of Safe At Home and the role it played in the creation of Space Opera’s music.
David: That was our band house in Williamsville, NY, which is a little township outside Buffalo. The house was a rambling old two-story with a basement, situated on a heavily wooded acreage. It housed the four of us and our manager, sound engineer, and road crew. We built a home studio and rehearsal facility in the basement. We wrote and arranged most of the music for the Columbia album in that house, when we were not on the road. And we entertained a steady flow of visitors, friends, artists, record producers and executives. It was a very fruitful period for the band. We left Williamsville and moved to Toronto to record, and then went back home to Texas. In many ways, our time living together in that house was that last time we were really a cohesive band.
Ryan: Beginning and ending with two stellar versions of “Singers and Sailors” this three song suite of music that kicks off Safe At Home is just so cohesive and free flowing. The guitar and organ work are particularly outstanding, not to mention the amazingly rich vocal harmonies.
David: We had been doing some live shows that intertwined several songs, dissolving from one to the other seamlessly. It was sort of a cinematic approach, and we decided to do a version of this idea for an album. We had worked on many versions of these songs and how to sequence them together. So what you hear is the result of a lot of work and thought among four guys who spent most of their waking hours collaborating, composing and performing. Our mutual grounding in folk music and the Mersey sound probably accounts for our love of vocal harmony.
Ryan: So many different influences popped into my head as I listened to this album. I love how I hear something new with each listen, which seems to be something of a rarity in music these days. Something I particularly enjoyed was how you were able to effortlessly fuse the west coast country rock sound, with distinct elements of progressive rock and yet it doesn’t seem like it was a conscious effort on your part if you know what I mean? It feels as if the influences of each individual just seeped into the music naturally.
David: We never planned or even discussed what sound or what "bag" we were going for; we just wrote the best we could and worked on that until we were satisfied with it. That was our only criterion. Maybe it would've been smarter from a marketing standpoint to pick one genre and hammer it to death, but that never crossed our minds. And we were inspired by what The Beatles had done, mixing lots of elements in their albums without worrying how others might define them.
Ryan: The second version of “Singers and Sailors” is radically different and climaxes in splendid fashion with your ethereal flute playing along with Brett on the vibes.
David: I'm glad you like that one. We did it just like that onstage, with flute, vibes, piano and contrabass. Onstage, we used an Echoplex for the flute but on this recording, the engineer used multiple tape decks to get the loop echo effect. This cut was done just live in studio, one take, no overdubs.
Ryan: “Country Max” is another fabulous song bubbling with catchy hooks and melodies.
David: We recorded it three times and this is the best version, I think. Yeah, that one always got a good reaction, and it was the first radio single for us. It's the one we all got tired of playing, but it did get us lots of attention.
Ryan: Tell me about the songs that make up the rest of this disc. The band is augmented on many of the tracks by the sterling woodwinds of Jon Shipley. For example on tracks like “Bells Within Bells”, “Psychic Vampires”, “Caledonia” and “Snow Is Falling” the shift has moved more towards a progressive, almost classical sound. At times it feels like you’re listening to a completely different band.
David: Just to recap the timeline, we recorded Exit 4, then moved up to Canada, then recorded the album for Columbia, then came back home to Texas. This last group of songs was recorded over the span of a few years in the mid- to late-70s. We were no longer a working band, we just got together sporadically to play onstage or to record. Scott and I were no longer listening to popular music, mostly 20th century classical and avant-garde stuff. We spent a lot of time listening and learning to orchestrate. We began to incorporate winds and strings into our live and studio work. These recordings were not intended to be on an album. We didn't have a contract any longer. We were just doing the music we wanted to do at that time - same as always.
Ryan: You only released that one album during the band’s initial run in the 70’s. What happened?
David: The album we recorded for Columbia didn't sell enough copies and they dropped our contract. We never landed another label deal, and unlike today, there were very few avenues for an independent release.
Ryan: You never officially broke up over the ensuing years and in fact after taking a break you reconvened in 1975 and decided to have another go at it. How would you characterize the second run of the band?
David: Actually, we did break up, we dissolved our partnership. Of course, a year later we were back together, but we never really regained the momentum we'd had before. But at least we were playing again.
This was the period when we were adding winds and strings to the mix. We were still doing most of our older songs and some new ones, with the added texture of the ancillary players. We were like a little orchestra, playing in 100 seat clubs in Texas.
Ryan: How did the reunion come together in the mid 90’s and how did that lead to the thought of creating a new album?
David: We had been apart, musically for over fifteen years. I guess we just felt it was time to get back together. We rehearsed on weekends at Eagle Audio, which is a 24-track studio, and then booked a show at Caravan of Dreams, a great concert-club in downtown Fort Worth. The show was sort of a throwback to the suite-like intertwined songs concept we had done back in 1970. We decided to record an album that would be a representation of (what would turn out to be) our last phase. We did that at Eagle Audio and it was released independently in 2000.
Ryan: After that the band began to come together to play more infrequently. Did it feel at that point like it was over for good?
David: No, we all planned to play together until we died, which is what happened.
Ryan: Do you remember the last time all four of you played together?
David: Yes, it was in a sweltering little club in the summer of 2004, in Fort Worth. We played well and had a great audience, but it was a miserable setting.
Ryan: In a span of about three years Brett Wilson, Scott Fraser and Phil White all passed away leaving you as the sole remaining member of the band. I can only imagine it must have been a bitter sweet feeling going back through the archives, listening and preparing the music for this compilation. In the process of doing this did anything in particular stand out for you or were there any serendipitous moments that maybe you’d care to share?
David: My main task was to choose the songs that I thought were best and also to put myself in the minds of my partners to consider what they would have wanted. I felt a responsibility to them and to myself to get it right.
Ryan: Has the book on Space Opera finally closed with this album or is there more material in the vaults?
David: I chose the material for Safe at Home from the best studio recordings that were as yet unreleased. There's probably another album's worth of studio cuts, but it's all songs that I don't think the other guys would want releasing. There's also a ton of live recordings, some very lo-fi, which I would like to get out. I might have to just bootleg that stuff.
Ryan: Looking at the bigger picture Space Opera seemed like it was the perfect vehicle for four friends to just get together to make music for the love of making music. What are your hopes for the legacy of the band and how the music will be remembered?
David: I'm proud of what we did together and wish we could have done more. The legacy of the band rests with our friends, family, and any others who still enjoy listening to the recordings. That's more than good enough for me. When we're all gone, I really don't care if our music is remembered, and I don't expect it will be. It will already have served its purpose.
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