Vernon "Spot" Barnett
San Antonio’s music scene is mourning the loss of legendary horn player Vernon “Spot” Barnett, who died in his East Side home on earlier this month.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the saxophonist led the 20th Century Orchestra, the house band at the East Side’s storied Ebony Lounge. He also performed with noted artists including Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ike and Tina Turner.
Beyond that, Barnett is noted for helping pioneer the musical form known as Chicano Soul, an amalgamation of blues, conjunto, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. That movement was defined by acts such as Sunny and the Sunliners, the Royal Jesters and the Dell-Kings.
“Barnett was sort of the kingpin of the East Side sound,” said Hector Saldana, music curator for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University and a longtime Express-News music writer. “He influenced Doug Sahm, he influenced Chicano musicians. He also represented a time when R&B was really hot and the sound was changing, where the big bands were becoming smaller jazz outfits.”
After graduating from Wheatley High School in 1954, Barnett attended St. Philip’s College for a stint before paying his dues on the music circuit.
The Sunliners’ Sunny Ozuna said he wasn’t in Barnett’s inner circle during his own band’s early ’60s rise. Even so, he looked up to the journeyman horn player as a mentor. Ozuna recalled his band watching Barnett perform in bid to study up and improve their own game.
“We were given a shot to work the Tourist Ballroom, and [Barnett] was on fire at that time,” Ozuna said. “I was anxious to see how he played, and my goodness, this guy was very, very talented.”
Kory Cook, music director and chief announcer for jazz station KRTU-FM, says Barnett’s pure, true-to-Texas saxophone sound helped him stand out from the “honkers, screamers and bar-walkers” that populated other bands of the time.
Cook fondly recalls meeting Barnett at KRTU the same day he interviewed for his job at the station. Despite Barnett’s formidable history, Cook discovered that the horn player wasn’t one to put on airs.
“I had a saxophone belt buckle that I bought at this vintage clothes store that I thought looked corny,” Cook said with a laugh. “Barnett was sitting in the office waiting for JJ Lopez to interview him, and he saw the belt buckle and said, ‘Hey, let me look at your belt buckle. That’s a mighty fine belt buckle!’ He started talking to me about the saxophone, and I was like, ‘Oh, do you play the saxophone yourself?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, as a matter of fact I do — “Spot” Barnett,’ and he shook my hand.”
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