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Sarg Records out of Luling, Texas, holds the distinction of releasing Willie Nelson’s first known solo recording, a demo Nelson cut at the station of KBOP in Pleasanton while he was a deejay there. This rare 45 rpm features Nelson’s “When I Sang My Last Hillbillie Song” and is labeled “Audition ’55.” Charlie Fitch, owner of Sarg Records, did not sign the young singer–songwriter. Photograph by Gary S. Hickinbotham.
SARG RECORDS. Sarg (pronounced “sarge”) Records in Luling, Texas, was an independent record label owned by Charles Wesley “Charlie” Fitch. Born in Hallettsville in 1918, Fitch was a World War II Air Force veteran and former POW in Germany. Fitch had owned a jukebox business in Yoakum before he enlisted and started another one after the war while based at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. His string of jukeboxes was between San Antonio and Luling. After his honorable discharge at the rank of technical sergeant in 1950, Fitch moved to Luling and opened the Luling Phonograph & Record Shop. Located at 311 East Davis Street, the record shop was in a former grocery storefront. Fitch and his family lived in quarters at the back of the store. He maintained his string of jukeboxes, and his wife Bennie ran the store. Fitch opened the store because selling records featured in his jukeboxes provided extra income.
For an additional source of income, in 1951 Fitch began booking national acts for local shows. His first booking was Eddy Arnold, for a show at the Gonzales Warm Springs Rehabilitation Hospital. He later brought country stars such as Johnnie & Jack, Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, and others to local clubs and events. Fitch started the Sarg Records label in late 1953 to further augment his jukebox operation. He reasoned that if he could make extra money by selling records played in his jukeboxes, he could earn even more money by making them. Friends called Fitch “Sarg,” so he selected that name for his record label. The label’s logo was a technical sergeant’s insignia—three stripes up and two down.
The first record on the Sarg label was “Korean Love Song” by Neal Merritt. Fitch had sent a demo acetate recording made by Merritt at the KBOP radio station in Pleasanton along with a demo tape of a very young Doug Sahm to Mercury Records, who declined to sign either act. He then tried to get a Capitol Records A&R scout to listen to Merritt’s song. The Capitol representative told Fitch he would come to the store to listen, but he never showed. Fitch then decided to go into the record business and release the record himself. On December 28, 1953, Merritt recorded four songs at the KBOP studio, including “Korean Love Song.” Fitch had “Korean Love Song” (Sarg 101) pressed at TNT Records in San Antonio but was unhappy with the sound quality, so he returned the records to TNT and kept one copy as a souvenir. Fitch decided to release the second pair of songs and had this record pressed at a plant in New York, thinking that the sound quality would be better. However, this release (Sarg 102) sounded just as bad, because the KBOP radio studio was not really a recording studio, and additionally, the plant printed the logo incorrectly. This record was not a huge seller, but it gave Fitch the idea that he should make records for his jukeboxes. Of the more than 150 records released by Sarg, all were singles for his jukeboxes. Sarg Records never recorded or released an album.
Undeterred by the problems with Sarg’s first records, Fitch signed a regionally popular band, Herby Shozel and the Longhorn Playboys, as the next act on his label. To improve the sound quality, Fitch recorded this band at Bill Holford’s ACA Studios in Houston, at the time the most professional studio facility in South Texas, and had the record pressed at the Monarch plant in Los Angeles. Shozel’s band was the house band at a club owned by a disc jockey, so through this combination of factors, Sarg 103 was a much more successful release than the previous two.
For a time Fitch continued recording only regional San Antonio country and western swing bands, adding Dave Isbell and the Mission City Playboys (with Willie Nelson on guitar), Larry Nolen and the Bandits, Little Doug Sahm, and Eddy Dugosh and the Ah-Ha Playboys to his label. Sarg Records was not making a profit however, so Fitch branched out to include ethnic recordings. He created a subsidiary label called Sargento to release Hispanic recordings. These were not profitable for him either, but he finally found some success with the polka music made by descendants of the Czech, German, and Polish immigrants who populated much of South Texas.
From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s Sarg reached its peak, releasing mostly polka, country and western, and rockabilly records by artists such as Adolph Hofner, Al Urban, Cecil Moore, Glenn Bland and the Rhythm Kings, and the Downbeats. Many artists sought to be on the label, including Willie Nelson, who was a deejay at KBOP in Pleasanton. He sent an audition tape to Fitch, who did not sign Nelson to the label. He kept the tape and later released what is Nelson’s first known recording. In 1964 Cecil Moore recorded “Diamondback,” a guitar instrumental which became very popular across Texas. Fitch realized his dream of having one of his records distributed nationally when Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco picked up “Diamondback” based on its success in Texas. However, the record failed to achieve national success. During this period Sarg had released a few rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues recordings but did not further pursue either genre.
By the late 1960s the “Texas” country and western sound was out of favor, swamped by the “Nashville Sound,” so Sarg’s releases from this time on were largely of the ethnic polka and waltz styles. In the 1970s the decline of the 45-rpm record format, the rise of Top 40 formatted radio, and the death of Charlie’s wife Bennie put further stress on the label. Sarg Records produced very few recordings after the 1970s. But the 1970s also saw collector interest in the label grow to the point where Fitch had sold out of all the original copies of Sarg recordings and had to press more.
This historic collector interest has continued to grow. Compilation albums of Sarg recordings appeared internationally, including a four-CD box set and book released by Bear Family Records in 1999. The rise of the CD format brought about the end of Fitch’s 45-rpm jukebox operation in the 1990s, but he continued to operate the record store, opening by appointment until shortly before his death at age eighty-seven on May 7, 2006. Documentary filmmakers Damon Cook and Dan Pringle produced a video documentary—Sgt. Fitch: A Legacy of Sarg Records—which was broadcast on PBS in 2009.
Austin Chronicle, July 21, 2006. Andrew Brown, The Sarg Records Anthology: South Texas 1954–1964, Book accompaniment to CD box set (Bear Family Records, 1999). Andrew Brown and Christopher Gray, “About,” Sarg Records (http://sargrecords.com/about/), accessed March 14, 2011. Sgt. Fitch: The Legacy of Sarg Records (http://www.sgt-fitch.com), accessed March 14, 2011.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Gary S. Hickinbotham, "Sarg Records," accessed February 19, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ebs03.
Uploaded on July 14, 2015. Modified on September 14, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.