On April 12, 1969, “Hot Smoke & Sassafras” by Bubble Puppy peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, after spending nine weeks on the singles chart.
Bubble Puppy is often categorized as a one-hit wonder, but this little ol’ band from Texas should’ve been much bigger in the pop consciousness of music history. Their psychedelic sonics, twin-lead-guitar arrangements, and vocal harmonies are still pleasing to my ears.
Lore has it the name Bubble Puppy came from the children’s game referenced in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (centrifugal bumble-puppy).
In 1964, Rod Prince had been playing rhythm guitar for a garage rock band called The Bad Seeds in Corpus Christie. After the band broke up, Prince attempted to form other groups, but nothing clicked. He got a call from Roy Cox, who had played keyboards occasionally with The Bad Seeds. Cox suggested Prince come to San Antonio and make music. Nothing specific, just the like-minded desire to form a great rock band.
When Prince arrived, he was introduced to a drummer from Austin named Clayton Pulley. Pulley introduced Cox and Prince to his friend Todd Potter, who played saxophone and guitar.
On the Bubble Puppy website, Prince says he and Potter “sat down together for a pick — Bingo! We meshed instantly — one more magical player!”
The dual-lead guitar was a standard configuration for Texas Western Swing bands. It can also be heard in The Yardbirds’ music, and would become one of the signature sounds for The Allman Brothers Band (although Duane Allman said he got the dual-lead idea from Curtis Mayfield). Bubble Puppy had the sound from the start.
Bubble Puppy’s big break came when they opened for The Who. It led to a recording contract with International Artists (IA), a label owned by Kenny Rogers’ brother Leland. IA was home for another Texas psychedelia band — the equally underrated The 13th Floor Elevators. Shortly after signing, Pulley would leave Bubble Puppy and be replaced by drummer David “Fuzzy” Fore (who saw the group perform at The Who concert).
According to the band, the title for “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” came from an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” when Granny yelled at Jethro, “Hot smokin’ sassafras!” They had been working on a music track that day, but had no lyrics. Hearing Granny’s exclamation inspired the song’s completion. Granny Clampett as muse? (The 60s were a wild time.)
“Hot Smoke and Sassafras” was released in late 1968, and arrived on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in mid-February of 1969. The song became an international hit. Peter Asher expressed an interest in Bubble Puppy, but the band could not get out of its agreement with IA, nor could they convince the label to lease their song to Apple Records.
IA was limited in what it could do for Bubble Puppy, and the band dissolved in 1970. They tried performing under a different name in Los Angeles as a way to get around their contract, but could not find success. In 1973, Prince and Cox teamed up with Steppenwolf’s Goldy McJohn and Jerry Edmonton to form the short-lived band called Manbeast.
Reunion shows with the original members in 1987 and 2011 (at the Austin Music Awards) received stellar reviews. Although Roy Cox died on April 2, 2013, Bubble Puppy is still performing.
I caught the band’s set at the 2018 SXSW festival, and they still rock with psychedelic goodness:
BTW: My local AM Top 40 station (The Mighty 12-90, K-O-I-L) played the song frequently, and it peaked at #6 on KOIL.
In the mist of sassafras
Many things will come to pass
And the smoke shall rise again
To the place above where it began
Time will bring the fire and flame
As surely as it brought the rain
But in the gardens of the moon
Time is held within the silver spoon
If you’re happy where you are
Then you need not look too far
If you’ve found your place at last
Then you need not use the looking glass