Roky Erickson, Frontman of Psych-Rock Pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators, Dies at 71

Roky Erickson
Maria Jefferis/Redferns

Roky Erickson performs at Pontins on April 15, 2016, in Prestatyn, Wales.

The singer, guitarist & songwriter was a massive influence on subsequent generations of musicians.

Roky Erickson, lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the psychedelic rock band The 13th Floor Elevators, died on Friday (May 31) in Austin, Texas, at age 71, his manager Darren Hill confirmed to Billboard. (The news was originally reported by Variety.)

“[Roky] had a visionary zeal rarely seen in 1965 when he co-founded the 13th Floor Elevators,” Hill wrote in a statement to Billboard. “The band's original songs, many written with lyricist Tommy Hall, coupled with Erickson's super-charged vocals and guitar sparked the psychedelic music revolution in the mid-1960s, and led to a new role of what rock could be. Erickson never wavered from that path, and while he faced incredible challenges at different points in his life, his courage always led him on to new musical adventures, one he continued without compromise his entire life. The family asks for privacy while they deal with the loss of a son, brother, husband and father.”

"His musical legacy speaks for itself,” added Erickson’s agent Dave Kaplan. “He’s an incredibly influential artists and 'You're Gonna Miss Me' is one of the 10 or 20 greatest rock and roll songs of all time."

Prior to his time with The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson rose to regional prominence as a member of Austin-based band The Spades, with whom he recorded an early version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” -- the song that eventually became the Elevators’ debut single. Released in 1966, the latter version reached No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was seen as seminal in the development of psychedelic and garage rock. That same year, the group performed the single on an episode of Dick Clark’s squeaky-clean American Bandstand in front of a cluster of cardboard palm trees.

Despite that early (albeit minor) chart success, The 13th Floor Elevators’ forward-looking brand of rock (they are widely considered the first truly psychedelic band) never gained a foothold in the mainstream. Nonetheless, the group -- whose core lineup consisted of electric jug player Tommy Hall and lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland -- went on to develop a rabid cult following with their unique, reverb-drenched sound, which centered around Erickson’s impassioned vocals and surreal lyrics.

The 13th Floor Elevators would release a total of four albums on the independent label International Artists between 1966 and 1969, with the first two -- The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Easter Everywhere -- now considered classics. During this time, the band also openly promoted their use of marijuana and psychedelic drugs including LSD, which Erickson would go on to indulge in dozens of times and which would ultimately serve as one of the ingredients of his career and personal downfall.

The band dissolved following the release of their last studio album Bull of the Woods thanks in part to Erickson’s increasing volatility brought on by drugs and bouts of schizophrenia, and the singer would cycle in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of his life. Erickson’s struggles with mental illness would eventually be chronicled in the Independent Spirit Award-nominated documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me in 2007.

Though his mental health struggles would remain with him over the ensuing decades, Erickson managed a return to performing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during which time he toured with backing bands The Aliens and The Explosives and released a series of solo recordings, including several songs produced by former Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook.

Later in his life, Erickson toured regularly with acts including the neo-psychedelic rockers The Black Angels. In 2010, he released the album True Love Cast Out All Evil with the Austin-based band Okkervil River, which would prove to be his final release.

Born Roger Kynard Erickson in Austin, Texas, on July 15, 1947, Erickson was the oldest of five brothers born to Roger, an architect, and Evelyn, an amateur singer who enrolled Erickson in piano lessons as a child. He grew up indulging his love of music, comic books and horror films, the latter of which he would eventually incorporate into the lyrics of songs including "I Walked With a Zombie” and "Don't Shake Me Lucifer.”

Though Erickson’s career never fully recovered following his institutionalizations in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his legacy was already assured thanks to his early work, and he was held up as an icon by countless influential artists who followed in his wake. Many of them appeared on the 1990 Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which featured contributions from acts including R.E.M., T-Bone Burnett, ZZ Top and The Jesus and Mary Chain and launched a renewed burst of interest in his work. That eventually led the reclusive singer to perform at the 1993 Austin Music Awards and to release the 1995 album All That May Do My Rhyme on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s independent label Trance Syndicate Records.

Following the news of Erickson’s death, those he inspired have been coming out to pay tribute.

“It’s almost unfathomable to contemplate a world without Roky Erickson,” wrote ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons in a statement to Billboard. “He created his own musical galaxy and early on was an true inspiration. Even now, Roky is a source of creative energy of the first order. It’s really a circumstance where he continues to provide the requisite ‘Reverberation.’ Something he predicted when he sang ‘You're Gonna Miss Me’…We certainly do know now that he’s at one with the universe.”

“In 1966, Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators gave me the ultimate gift showing how eternity lives inside us,” wrote Bill Bentley, who produced Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, in a Facebook post. “When I saw Roky in San Francisco last month, performing those early songs, I realized it was one of the most momentous gifts I've ever received. Thank you Roky. I will never forget it, nor you as you continue your journey into the next life. May the circle remain unbroken.”

Erickson is survived by his brothers Mikel and Sumner and his son Jegar.