Up Close with Sonny West
Principal Composer of Buddy Holly’s 'Oh Boy' and 'Rave On'
Sonny West may not be a household name as a result of his novel rock’a’billy efforts as an artist during the late ‘50s, but two of the many songs that he composed are so classic, they stand out among the best rock ‘n’ roll tunes ever written. Covered by a number of artists throughout the decades of rock, "Oh Boy" and "Rave On" were written by West solely for himself, but little did he know that these compositions would wind up being a perfect fit for Buddy Holly’s unprecedented style of musical expression.
Was Sonny upset that Holly made these songs huge hits and not him? "Scores of artists have done my songs," says West, "but I still owe Buddy for getting people's attention and for having so many fans."
West’s ‘50s life as a musician and songwriter was not easy, especially because of his parents’ frequent relocations in the Southwest. But that didn’t dissuade him from his artistic expression. It only made him more determined, and even though West experienced frequent, rock-ribbed painful moments of discouragement, he had the strength and exceptional talent to meet that powerful negative head on and come away a winner. Without a doubt, Sonny West has earned his due as a major historical contributor in the maturation of rock ‘n’ roll while it was in its infancy.
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[Lance Monthly] Sonny, I grew up in a part of the Rio Grande Valley just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the '40s and the '50s. My parents weren't rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we always ate well and had a roof over our heads. Our greatest pleasure when we were kids was catching crawdads and seining for minnows out of the irrigation and drainage ditches that were everywhere. Although I'm Anglo, half my buddies were Mexican-Americans and we ran together. We identified ourselves by wearing black leather jackets that said, "Los Perdidos" (The Lost Ones), boldly printed on their backsides. We didn't take too kindly to those who wore stovepipe boots and form-fitted western shirts with giant-sized belt buckles. We called them "drug store cowboys" or just simply, "stompers." And when they played their western music (we called it "hillbilly"), it drove us crazy. But times have changed for me here on the east slopes of the Sandia Mountains, and today I've developed an appreciation for western music (mostly traditional). Now my Hispanic neighbors and I mostly wear western hats and boots. How would you parallel your earlier years in Lubbock County, Texas, with that of mine?
Sonny West Dick, I can't make this simple but will try. At about three weeks of age we moved to Western New Mexico, near El Morro, where my dad was homesteading some land and trying to get started farming. I was the youngest of four kids. My dad built a log house there with nothing but an axe and a mule. I started to school there in 1943, but only after a couple of moves back to Texas and then back to New Mexico. During that time, we were totally isolated and there were many times we had nothing to eat except pinto beans and corn bread, and not much of that. We had no radio, but my brother and I were able to fix up an old record player that someone had moved off and left, and a few old Jimmy Rodgers records, thereby giving me my first taste of recorded music.
Not long after that we moved to California, then back and forth to Texas, New Mexico, and California. I went to about 24 schools during those years, so you can tell I had no lasting friendships until my last years in high school. In the 9th and 10th grades in California, all the guys, including me, had to wear Levi's brand jeans, never washed, (sometimes we wore them for months!) and tucked under at the cuff. After washing, if you wore them to school, you were laughed out of there. James Dean, the actor, would have had to fight to wear his faded jeans with the BIG cuffs (hahaha).
So-called pop music was the in thing with the kids in California. I listened to some country, Pierce and Frizell and the like. Started trying to play guitar at about fourteen. Always liked the two Hanks, Williams and Snow. Last two years in school, [I] got to playing guitar with others and about that time, early rockabilly and R&B got my attention. Left home at seventeen to try to make my mark. Landed back in Lubbock in 1956, green as a gourd!
[Lance Monthly] That’s right, Sonny. I’d forgotten about the Levi’s brand of jeans. If the back pockets had a design other than the Levi logo, or if there was no design at all, then that person was considered a real nerd. (Of course, the word used back then was "square" or "yo-yo.") And yes, cuffing the pants (like Dean), wearing the jeans high above the navel, and the casual use of tennis shoes with jeans was really asking for it. Where in California and New Mexico did you go to school and would you say the dress code of coolness was about the same in all of them?
Sonny West In California, I was in Tulare. That’s in the San Juaquin Valley, which runs up the middle of the state. Of course, I was never "in," but to be even accepted a little, one had to wear the pants I mentioned, slung low on the hips, and heavy dress shoes with steel taps. Those really sounded menacing on the marble floors!
In New Mexico, I had made a full circle and finished at Fence Lake, a community about 25 miles north of Quemado. There you could wear anything, [but] most [were] cowboy types. There were four in my class, so you can tell how small [the school] was. [There were] no utilities, and the nearest phone was about 60 miles away. There were advantages, though. The school buses were like suburbans, and the driver would come right up to our house. A few times I was still in bed, but he'd toot the horn and wait for me. And then we'd listen to Dick Bills on KOB [out of Albuquerque] all the way to school.
[Lance Monthly] When rock (now referred to as "doo-wop") made its presence in 1954 with such legends as Fats Domino, The Platters, Little Richard, and The Del Vikings, did you welcome it with open arms? Incidentally, a good friend of yours, who wants to remain anonymous, would like you to tell our readers about the Fats Domino Story. He said it’s classic.
Sonny West In 1955, I moved to Gallup and then Farmington, where I was exposed more to rock. I always favored the more primal sounds, such [as] Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" and, of course, Richard and Berry.
About that Domino thing: In early ‘57, when I made the demo of "All My Love, Oh Boy" in Clovis, I couldn't afford but about five of the acetates, so I sent about three off, one being to Imperial Records. In late ’57, after the Crickets had released their record of it, I happened to be in Cortez, Colorado at a bar. I gave the barmaid some coins and asked her if she had the song "Oh Boy" on the jukebox. She said she did. When it played, I heard Fats using the hook, "Oh Boy, yeah, yeah, yeah, Oh Boy." I told Mr. Anderson (my sister's husband), who was with me there, that the next time I ran into that fat guy, I was going to wipe that cutesy smile off his face. Mr. Anderson said I should just relax and call Petty. I did, but he said it really wouldn't matter. So I guess it didn't, but it really got under my skin.
[Lance Monthly] You said there were four kids in your family. Aside from you, who are the others and did any of them sing and play an instrument? Did they have any desire to go into the music business as a profession? And you didn’t mention your mom. Where was she during your frequent moves?
Sonny West My brother was closest to me in age, [although] six years older, with my sisters a little older than him. So we didn't see eye to eye. None [was] interested in music. My mom had to be an absolute saint to put up with the way we lived, but she hung in there. My parents met and were married in Vernon, Texas, in the mid-1920s. My mom's mother was Nellie Holley (maiden name), and I also had an Uncle John Holley in that area. I have heard that Buddy's dad was also there in the ‘20s. I asked Larry Holley [Buddy Holly’s dad] one time about that and he told me that Adam and Eve's last name was Holley. So I figured our conversation wasn't going anywhere. But he also [said] that I had written two of Buddy's best songs . . . so I let him skate, haha. It doesn't really matter anyway. I was just curious.
[Lance Monthly] Tell me about your dad. Would you say he was following a dream, kind of like most aspiring musicians do? And how did you and your father get along? Was he a strict disciplinarian?
Sonny West My dad was honest and decent, [and] from a hard working Christian family, as was my mom. And I don't want to offend anyone, but when I was just a baby, they joined up with a religious group whose primary teaching was that the end of this world as we know it was going to be destroyed, even setting dates, which have now all passed. The premise [was] that all the wicked (everyone except those of that group) would soon be gone. No one was encouraged to try to get anywhere in this world. There is no way anyone can understand how it is to live in a family like this. Every facet of our life hinged on this. So I suppose you could say he was following someone else's dream. We would spend our last dime and sell our belongings to attend a convention and not even have a home to come back to. So one can see why I kept quiet about my goals.
Did we get along? Fairly well, until I made it clear what I meant to do. Not only did they not encourage me, they tried every way possible to discourage me. Was Dad strict? Yes, but I was focused, and [when I was] in my mid-teens, [I] told him I had to go my way. A person has to play the cards they are dealt. My parents are gone now. They loved me, and I loved and respected them. It was quite an experience!
[Lance Monthly] Oh yes, the taps. I wore them too. Three to be exact: two small ones on the soles and a big horseshoe-shaped one that followed the outline of the heel. All us "cats" wore them and during class changes, the noise was quite intense (but cool to us, of course). Incidentally, Albuquerque’s biggest local star during the early to mid -‘50s was Dick Bills, and his biggest employer was KOB Radio and T.V., which is still broadcasting. He performed regularly with his band at a country bar called the Hitching Post on Route 66, just west of Albuquerque. Do you remember his theme song? "Ridin’ down the trail to Albuquerque, saddlebags all filled with beans and jerky. Headin’ for K Circle B, the T.V. ranch for you and me, K Circle B in Albuquerque." God, I hated that song then, and so did the guys I ran with. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Glenn Campbell (his nephew by marriage) when he was playing lead guitar for Bills before he became superstar?
Sonny West Yeah, I remember the theme song, but I was sorta surprised that you still do. When I was speaking of the school bus ride, as I mentioned earlier, we had no electricity at home so no radio. It was almost worth it to go to school just to get to listen to Dick Bills. It was a pretty long ride and I would have to open gates and close them as we drove to four or five ranches to pick up other kids. That's the first time I had heard "Release Me" by the original artist. So I started trying to analyze it, wondering why a flat sounding song could stick in the mind. Those first six or seven words were so ordinary but plaintive.
The other part of the question needs a little explaining: I left Texas around December of ‘58 (actually starved out), telling myself I would never go back. I went first to Grants, New Mexico, and worked in a uranium mill for a little [while], then [I] went to Albuquerque. So I was there in late '59 and was a frequent customer at the Hitchin' Post. I met Glen, but never mentioned the music. I was just there to listen to those guys with the big hats and white shirts, have a drink, and mix with the gals. The only time I recall talking to him one-on-one was in 1961 when I was playing in Grants, New Mexico, at the 66 Bar. He was touring with the Champs who played there one night at St Teresa's Catholic Hall. Their show was over before mine was and Glen came to the 66.
I recognized him as soon as he came in. He always had sort of an imposing look, and I asked him to come up and do a few numbers, which he gladly did. After the bar closed, he and I went to the Royal Cafe and talked some time about his touring, recording, and I got an address from him as to where to send some of my material . . . but I never sent anything. He did record "Oh Boy," although a lot later. Glen was very successful; maybe, that's because he was talented, you think?
[Lance Monthly] Sonny, I remembered Dick Bills’ theme song because KOB played it morning, noon, and night. I also remember when he interviewed a famous old cowboy on KOB-TV by the name of Colonel Idaho Ellison during Albuquerque’s 250th Anniversary Celebration. Ellison was considered the last of his breed, and was quite the rope artist. But getting back to Campbell: In your conversations with him about his then nascent music career, what do you remember about his thoughts in reference to The Champs? Why did the group hire him on, and did he give you the impression that he wanted to be a permanent member? In addition, I believe Glen was also a highly sought-after studio guitarist at that time, giving support to such acts as The Ventures and The Beachboys. Did he rap to you about that part of his career as well? Finally, did he give you his ultimate game plan as to where he wanted to go musically?
Sonny West As I recall, he was hired on with the Champs as a bass player, [but] I could be wrong and someone may correct me. At any rate, I think he tuned my Tele down an octave. He apparently accepted a tour with them because it was a steady paycheck. I think the studio work was not steady enough. I can't remember what he said his aspirations were. One of my weaknesses . . . not asking enough questions, and not getting pictures and autographs. After his tour with the Champs he went on, as you know, to play on many sessions, and not just ordinary tunes but huge hits, [with] big stars, like the ones you mentioned, and also Sinatra. And who can forget his signature guitar solo on Haggard's "Fugitive," [and] then his mega-hits, movies, and TV shows.
[Lance Monthly] Sonny, the Holley name connection with your family really seems to be more than a coincidence, don’t you think? If I was a bettin’ man, I would put my money on you being a distant cousin to Buddy Holly. Surely you’ve been curious enough to have made a more in-depth exploration of this possible affiliation, have you not?
Sonny West It is probably just a coincidence, and anyway I would not like to give the appearance that I was trying make something out of it. I did ask my mom and she didn't shed much light on it. Her mother (the former Nellie Holley) passed away when mom was about [7 years old]. Her dad then married one of Nellie's cousins. So mom's stepmother was also her second or third cousin. Does that make sense? (I am referring to the wording, not the marriage.) My immediate family, as I mentioned earlier, was sort of out of touch with the extended family. Not that he was there in Vernon, Texas, all along; I actually didn't meet mom's father, my maternal grandfather, until I was eighteen! It’s just that I can't recall us visiting them. I know when I saw him, he looked at me and said, "Who are you?"
[Lance Monthly] When you were living in western New Mexico (Gallup and surrounding areas), how well did you get along with the Native-Americans (principally, the Navajos), whose numbers dominated the overall population? I’m sure you remember how badly they were treated back then, most notably, a New Mexico law that made it illegal for Native-Americans to enter any establishment that sold alcohol. It had been widely believed that liquor had an unusual adverse affect on them, and this thought was drummed into every Anglo kid’s mind. What kind of an affect did this have on you during that time?
Sonny West Yes, I remember that well. Navajos hanging around outside liquor establishments, waiting for someone who would go in and purchase them a drink. I think that was true up until 1954. Still, to this day, outsiders go to Gallup or Farmington and may see these people around town drinking, and they get the wrong impression of the Native-Americans. I have known many Navajos, Zunis, and Santo Domingos. I have worked with them and done business with them and most are fine people. I had a ranch between Gallup and Zuni in the late '60s, and my daughter [attended] her first year of school at a BIA school. All the other kids were Navajos. She had very few problems there. They all stared at her at first, but they got used to each other. Back to that impression thing, one can go to any big city and see a lot of lost people, but that doesn't mean that you judge the whole population by that.
[Lance Monthly] Sonny, when you first began to learn the fundamentals of the guitar, what artist(s) did you want to emulate the most? In addition, do you remember the make of the first guitar you owned?
Sonny West I think it was a Kay. At that time, it was mostly country music [but], not I'm-sad-and-blue-'cause-she-left-me-and-I'm-gonna-drink-myself-to-death songs. Guess you could say Hank Williams was one . . . his up-tempo songs, like "Move it on Over." (Actually "Rock Around the Clock" lifted the melody of the verses from that song.) The first record I bought was "I'm Movin' On." (I bought that record with stolen money, but I have repented.) The first thing I wanted to do was be able to accompany my singing with the guitar, that was the driving force, and I'm still working on that!
[Lance Monthly] In Bill Griggs’ excellent interview with you in the Aug/Sept ’02 issue of his Rockin’ 50s magazine, you said that you had taken some informal lessons with a fellow named Mike Bell. Do you recall when and where that was in New Mexico, and was he a country picker or did he turn you onto rock?
Sonny West Mike was a classmate in 1953 and 1954. His dad was a fiddle player in local bands. Mike taught me a lot of basic chords as he played rhythm at those local dances, which was all country swing. That was at that small community of Fence Lake. He went on to become a truck driver. As far as I know, he didn't stay with music. I went to his funeral in 1983. I had a lot of fun with that guy. He could sometimes manage to come up with some beer and we would hide it in the sagebrush out back of the school. At recess or after lunch, we would sneak out and have a beer. We thought we were really "bad!" I don't think they had styro coolers back then . . . we didn't care.
[Lance Monthly] In one of our earlier conversations, you mentioned that you played bass in a Mexican-American band in New Mexico. (I can relate to that, as I also played bass for some of my Casanova recording artists when needed.) Can you elaborate on that as to where that was, when that occurred, why you were hired on, the group’s name (might have been one of my groups), and for how long it lasted?
Sonny West This was during 1962. It was not a regular gig, but we did quite a few dances and weddings and the like. We had no name. The leader was a friend of mine who owned a bar in San Rafael, New Mexico, Wilfred Murietta. He was a lifelong guitarist. I operated some jukeboxes and had one in his bar. He was doing a little playing but needed a bass. Other members were drums and sax. I believe we did all instrumentals.
[Lance Monthly] Referring back to your interview with Bill Griggs, you stated that you paid a visit to Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis in the spring of 1956, but it didn’t work out. In fact, you said, "It was the most devastating thing to happen to me in my life." What was your take on Phillips (demeanor etc.), and why did you choose to see him when you could have gone on to L.A. or some other major market in the country? In addition, can you give our readers a reasonable description of the studio?
Sonny West "Devastating" may be too harsh a word. Actually, I didn't have a "Plan B" and being eighteen, alone in a strange place and broke, is pretty awesome! I went there because I thought Sam would understand my kind of music. Sam was nice enough when I finally got to see him, and in retrospect, he did me a favor. At the time, I thought he was lying to me, but I can see he was telling me the truth. He had lots of artists. I probably would never have made the cut. I mean, he had lots of seasoned "good" artists. The studio had a secretary and a waiting area in the front. Over to the left, I believe, was the control room and straight back was the studio area. Some guys were recording there at that time.
[Lance Monthly] Sonny, once you felt comfortable with your voice and guitar playing, what was the name of your first group, and where and when did it take place? Also, what covers did you like performing the most, and did you have a reasonable amount of original compositions already completed?
Sonny West After leaving Memphis I went to Levelland, Texas, where I had a sister and brother-in-law. He was quite interested in helping me. We didn't have a band name and didn't play all that much. We played around Levelland and Lubbock and Littlefield, or wherever we could find a gig. We played what we thought was rock and roll, like Berry, Richard, Jerry Lee, Vincent, Ballard, etc. I had a few originals, but didn't like to play them, as no one knew them . . . which is exactly why they didn't know them!
[Lance Monthly] How and when did you meet Norman Petty, and what was your first impression of him?
Sonny West I first met Norman in about June of 1956, when I went to Clovis to see about recording my first single. [I wanted] to check on prices, see how receptive he would be to the idea, and [learn] what experience he had. He was soft-spoken and seemed kind and professional, and always had an answer for my questions. As for my impression of him as a person, I could tell he was not the kind of guy I would like to spend a lot of time with, but what did I care? I only wanted to get a record out!
[Lance Monthly] So how receptive was Petty, what prices did he quote you, and when and what songs did you record?
Sonny West He was fine with it. In those days he was looking for any recording jobs. Seems like his hourly rate was something like $25, but usually quoted a rate for [a] number of songs to be put down. That was in July 1956, and we recorded "Rock-Ola Ruby" [and] "Sweet Rockin' Baby." My brother-in law, Mr. Anderson, paid for most of the first session and [it] seems like it was around $600 to $700. We had made a deal with Norman to use his label and pay a small up-front fee per record, which negated us having to do artwork. We also paid him for the records up front (around 500 copies?), so after making the master, he sent it to RCA in Chicago along with label information, [and] they then billed him for the records and sent them to Clovis. This also made it faster, and we were all in a hurry as you might expect. That record is a major collector's item today, because of its place in time, and because very few survived.
[Lance Monthly] Did you provide your own musicians when you put your first tracks down at Petty’s studio, or did Norman do the honors?
Sonny West I used my band: two guitars, bass and drums. We recorded these [songs] in the Lyceum Theater in Clovis to try to capture the live feeling, and also we wanted some live echo. Norman took his equipment there and we set up on stage (after the movie was over, of course). After that first one there, I had to use musicians that Norman arranged for the [rest of] my sessions. Nothing wrong with that, but I lost any little bit of control that I had then.
[Lance Monthly] Was your goal specifically to write music for yourself as an artist? In other words, was being a breakout artist more important than having your songs covered by others?
Sonny West Yes and no. I always wrote for myself, but was certainly not against someone else doing the songs. I would probably have done better if I had concentrated on the latter.
[Lance Monthly] Sonny, most songwriters fail to produce the commercial hook that’s so important in mainstream music. You were good at it. Was this luck or were you that savvy about what appealed to the teenagers musically during the late ‘50s? How did you do it, and what gave you the inspirations to compose the lyrics and musical structures of your songs? Was it a situation like, "Today I’m going to sit down and write a song," or did melodies and lyrics just casually pop up in your mind from time to time from something you had done, heard, or seen for later fine tuning?
Sonny West Let me say that a lot of it was luck; however, I first worked on a certain sound or feeling, and in my head [I] would go over these and try to apply any hooks I could think of to the sound or partial tune. Always having an ample supply of partial arrangements going back and forth in my mind, I would try to think of phrases that would match with some sort of kick. When I wrote "Oh Boy," the only music magazines I had at my disposal were old show tunes and some idea from one of those seemed to click.
After I met Bill Tilghman, a local guy from Levelland, Texas, he came up with the idea for a title like "Rave On." He only wrote words. I took his words and tried to make something of it, but the story line had a negative tone. I went to Mr. Petty with it to get a demo made and he told me he might be able to get me a record contract, but he thought the song needed more work and a different, more positive tone. So I went back home and re-worked it with the positive message it has today.
I did get a contract with Atlantic, but it was Holly's version that turned into a real classic. I have to give a lot of credit to Holly, the Crickets, and the back-up vocalists, and, of course, Norman for making these memorable tunes. (Holly recorded "Rave On" in New York with studio musicians and Al Caiola on guitar.) I've heard and I'm sure you have too, Dick, that some writers say they can write 50 to 100 songs a day. I can't do that kind of writing.
[Lance Monthly] I can relate to your frustration as a writer when others want a piece of the composition credits of a song you passionately wrote, especially when they made no real contributions. This was also a constant irritation to me back in the early ‘60s. Of course, when you have a genius producer like Norman Petty that has the connections, it’s easy to succumb to his or her requests for a slice of the pie, so to speak. And when the artist/composer is very young and anxious to get a hit, it’s even easier to submit. But really, the producer’s biggest payoff is the publishing rights, period. Don’t you think Petty took advantage of his young artists by grabbing a chunk of the writer’s credits? Certainly this must have bothered you a great deal, and probably still does today.
Sonny West I can see Dick that you understand and have "been there." Clearly, this has been an irritation. But let me say up-front that I blame myself as much as I do Norman. I had no diplomatic skills whatsoever; otherwise, I could have at least given him some huge compliment and then politely asked that he reconsider some of the details.
As far as his genius, he had never had to do anything else but tinker with recording and playing in the trio. He had his parents there to back him up at his start, and the Petty Trio had a marginal hit from which he received royalties. He could get the finest equipment; at least by the time I met him in '56, and [he] built a top rate studio. One other thing he did have was near perfect tone recognition.
Certainly, I was all right with giving him publishing rights, but he had no reason to take writer's credits. All of his apologists will say that he gave his time and allowed artists to use the studio to practice, etc. This was not so in my case. I paid him for every session, demo or otherwise. He sold my "Rave On" master to Atlantic for $2,500.00, to be deducted from my royalties. So there again he was the only one to really benefit from the session, except the musicians who received about $41 each, union scale.
He had an agreement with Southern-Peer to administer the publishing for Nor-Va-Jak Music. This was a good arrangement for him. This also made it impossible for a writer to get any answers. If a person talked to someone, they referred you to the other; then the other one would refer you back to the first one. Anyway, those New York people talked so fast, all they really wanted was to get me off the phone.
[Lance Monthly] So when Petty received a $2,500.00 advance from Atlantic Records for "Rave On," did you not get a hefty percentage of that amount for yourself even though you paid for the session?
Sonny West Let me see how I can explain this: Petty received the advance. He paid the musicians (The Big Beats) out of this advance, which would have been about $250.00 at union scale. He kept the rest as payment for the master, which was then the property of Atlantic. So when I say I paid for the session, I mean this total advance was a debit on my account with the record company, to be paid off the top of future royalties. This is somewhat standard practice. As you can see, Petty was the only one that actually benefited monetarily. I was presumed to benefit because of my contract with the major label.
Petty also inserted a clause in the contract that stated that all correspondence from the label would be sent to him, not to me, including royalties, presuming that there were ever to be any. This, he said, was because of his management agreement with me. He assured me that he did the same with Holly and The Crickets. I asked him for a statement about two years later and he sent a copy that showed my account still "in the red," which was probably correct, as I presumed my sales were not that good. That is the only statement I ever saw from Atlantic.
[Lance Monthly] You and the late Bill Tilghman collaborated on the writings of some songs in which he received partial credits. Aside from "Rave On," what else did he actually contribute?
Sonny West There were quite a few [to which] he contributed; some to none of which actually made anything.
[Lance Monthly] How well did you know Waylon Jennings, and did he help you in your career?
Sonny West When I met Waylon, he was a DJ at Littlefield. We were not close friends. I would always stop and visit with him at the station. He then moved to KLLL in Lubbock. I also visited with him there. He was a modest person. He used a kind of bravado to make up for it. In the mid-60s, he was playing a regular gig in Pho
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