Friday, May 27, 2016

A Conversation With...Billy Vera

Early 80s American expatriate drummer/singer Billy Reed and the Street People bounced between the El Mocambo and a few other dance oriented clubs around Toronto playing a mix of Tower of Power, Al Green and Billy’s big hero, Billy Vera. I can’t begin to express the number of conversations where Vera’s name would pop up. It was if Billy inhabited Billy. Both were from the same region of upstate New York and both had a grand passion for roots rhythm & blues. 
 I’m a real sucker for musicians whose passion’s run deep – so deep they become archivists. In fact, I’ll go a foot or two farther – guys like Warner Music’s Steve Kane, York University’s Rob Bowman, Slaight Music’s Derrick Ross – folks with a profound love for specific genres that extends beyond hits to the very core of music - folks we all enjoy that big conversation with.

I knew going in Vera was my kind of guy. Enjoy!

Bill King: What are you going to do for an encore?
Billy Vera: I’m still moving along. I just put out my first photo book – pictures I took some years ago when I first moved out here. It’s called VINTAGE NEON: Los Angeles 1979. It’s basically a photo book of old neon signs with commentary and then later in the year my memoir is coming out called Harlem to Hollywood and currently I have an album called Billy Vera Big Band Jazz which is something I’ve wanted to do for many years.

B.K: Where would we find these?
B.V: On Amazon. I have a publishing deal for the photo book and then Hal Leonard will be publishing the memoir. There’s also a documentary in the works also called Harlem to Hollywood. They’ve just about finished the filming – the talking heads, then it goes into the hard part – the editing process. We’ve got some great interviews in there with Dolly Parton, Dionne Warwick, Mike Stoller, Nona Hendryx of LaBelle, Joey Dee from Joey Dee and the Starliters; a bunch of great people.

B.K: You were born in Riverside, California..
B.V: Yes, my dad was stationed in Riverside at March Field and was in the army air corp during World War 11. He was a bomber pilot who taught the boys how to fly B 24s. He got hurt as they were about to go overseas. They were driving down to San Diego to ship him out when some stupid kid threw a rock through a window and blinded him in his right eye. So we were sent to Springfield, Missouri where there was an army hospital and my mom began singing on the local radio station – KWTO. Her guitar player was a young fellow named Chet Atkins.

After he got better we went to Cincinnati for five years where my dad had worked before the war as an announcer and my mom became a singer on WLW which was a huge station that could be heard from Toronto down to Brazil and in forty states. When I started second grade we then moved to New York.  Then dad got a job as staff announcer on NBC where he remained for thirty years – mom tried to do a solo career and that didn’t work out. She learned to sight read music and became one of the Ray Charles Singers on the Perry Como Show and on Como’s records.

B.K: Is this how you would eventually get close to the New York rhythm & blues scene?
B.V: I remember vividly I was in six grade and one morning one of the kids said, “did you hear rock n’ roll last night?” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Alan Freed man, 1010 Wins Radio” so, I listened to radio that night and fell in love with rock n’ roll. As time went by I found I liked the rhythm & blues records and started playing around with the radio and up at the right hand end of the dial were all of the black stations. There was more music I liked there. I became infatuated by that kind of music.

B.K: You could go from Maine to New Jersey those days and the club scene was all about rhythm & blues six nights a week and a player could work seemingly forever.
B.V: Yes, but we pretty much stayed close to home. We lived in the suburbs just north of the city in Westchester County, White Plains area. We lucked into a job at this club called the Country House later known as the Deer Crest Inn and it was the top club in the whole area. We’d have hit record acts on the weekends. Our job was too play two dance sets and back up whatever acts didn’t bring their own bands, which was most of them. It was a great education in (a) learning how to read music and (b) what works and what did not work in terms of performance.

I remember the first weekend we had to back acts and it was sort of trial by fire. The Friday night was Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Saturday with Little Anthony & the Imperials which were the two acts that had the most difficult music to read, but we came through it and before long we were known as the best back-up band in the whole tri-state area.

B.K: When did the songwriting begin?
B.V: I started fooling around with it about age fourteen and by the time I was eighteen I started taking songs around and the first song I ever took to a publisher got recorded by Ricky Nelson, “Mean Old World” and it became a hit record for him. It was sort of beginner’s luck. It was a song I’d written for this new girl singer, Dionne Warwick. I didn‘t realize Bacharach and David had her all tied up. That led to a staff writing job at a publisher April Blackwood Music and I remained there for five years. The boss said you need a little seasoning and put me under the wing of this fellow named Chip Taylor who was about four years older than me and I learned a lot about the craft of writing songs from him.

B.K: Your first hit for yourself was 1987 – At This Moment?
B.V: I had national hits in the 60s’ - not huge but still national. Chip and I wrote a song called “Make Me Belong to You,” which became a hit for Barbara Lewis on Atlantic Records. That gave us entre to the head guy up top Jerry Wexler.  We wrote a song we pitched as a duet for a couple Atlantic artists and made a demo and took to Jerry – he liked the song and liked my voice. He said get rid of the girl on the demo and I’ll record you on Atlantic.
I was a friend of a girl in Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles – Nona Hendryx who had a voice I felt blended well with mine. She and I recorded “Storybook Children” then the manager got into the act fearing Nona would quit the group if we had a hit. We then auditioned about twenty other girls then Wexler suggested this girl Judy Clay who was an adopted cousin of Dionne Warwick. We liked her voice and recorded with her and it became a hit record. We were the first racially integrated duo singing love songs and that is what led to us appearing at the Apollo Theatre where we became a popular act.

We had a follow-up hit called “Country Girl, City Man,” at which point, Judy who was signed to Stax Records and me to Atlantic witnessed the distribution deal between the two dissolve and we could no longer record together. Wexler found a song for me on a Bobby Goldsboro album called, “With Pen in Hand,” and did a little research and found it was not going to be the follow-up single to Bobby’s big hit “Honey” so he called me in and I recorded for myself on Atlantic and that became a hit. After that, the music, the culture and everything else changed radically in the late sixties. That style of blue-eyed soul singing went out of style. I had no more hits – the 70s’ were about survival.

B.K: You hit with Dolly Parton “I Really Got the Feeling?”
B.V: I didn’t have a hit for about nine years and then in 1978 “I Really Got the Feeling” got to Dolly Parton and became a #1 country hit for us.

B.K: What a great feeling!
B.V: I didn’t know what was going to happen throughout the 70s – what am I going to do with my life. I’m working these crummy clubs and playing survival gigs – trying to make a record and failing. That put me back into the business.

B.K: One of the pivotal moments in my music education was a series of box sets you assembled for Capitol Records early 2,000 – combo, cocktails etc. “Pachuko Hop” – which we recorded with Saturday Night Fish Fry.

B.V: The cocktail combos.. “Pachuko Hop’ was on Jumping Like Mad. A fellow named Pete Welding at Capitol before he died put me in charge of his blues series – Capitol Blues. I did five, six, seven whatever it was, albums for that series.
B.K: You found some great material and I was impressed how deep you dug into the Los Angeles music community archives. Chuck Higgins who recorded the original “Pachuko Hop” lived in our apartment complex in Hollywood. He’d pack his sax every other night and show up at some event and play his hit song, a monster hit among old school Latinos.

B.V: I’ve done a couple hundred reissue CDs over the years and one on Chuck Higgins for Specialty Records and I included of course “Pachuko Hop.” I looked him up in the union and found him and interviewed for the liner notes and found out he went on to teach music at a local college here. He wasn’t much of a sax player in terms of skill, he could never be a bebopper for sure but he played with a lot of feeling.

B.K: Kind of from that “honkers” and “shouters” era. There was also a great version with big band – I don’t know where you found that.
B.V: That was Ike Carpenter. Carpenter is sort of an unsung hero. I really dug deep to find as many records as I could on him. He was a big Duke Ellington fan apparently because he recorded a lot of Duke’s songs in his early years. Duke is my number one or two heroes. Ike is one of the few who recorded Duke Ellington songs and got the real feeling. He got the harmonies right and really captured that Ellington feel.

B.K: You did three albums with Lou Rawls?
B.V: I did four. We had a great time. That came about also through Capitol. Bruce Lundvall was running Blue Note Records by that time a subsidiary of Capitol. He and my friend Michael Cuscuna who is one of the all time great jazz producers thought I may be able to help when Bruce signed Lou to Blue Note. Up until that time Lou was making a lot of what we call “Vegas style disco albums,” trying to recapture the Gamble & Huff era and not doing a very good job of it. His record sales were dismal. Bruce’s idea was let’s take him back to when people fell in love with Lou Rawls in the beginning; back to his jazz and blues roots and have him record some of my songs too. Michael and I made a good team. Each of us has different skills. Michael knows all of the great musicians so we were able to use some wonderful people; Richard T, Cornell Dupree, Fathead Newman, and George Benson. I’m good at song selection – working with singers and musicians to get the most out of them. It was a really good team.

The first album we did with Lou, “At Last” went to #1 on the jazz charts. We then did two more for Blue Note using a lot of the same people and they were all top five albums. Lou and Blue Note went their separate ways and about five years later his manager calls me up and says he can’t get Lou a record deal and I said, “You’re kidding?”  He said, they just want kids - no one his age. I thought that was nuts. He asked if I had any ideas.  I’m not above using a gimmick, sometimes two names is better than one so I said, what about “old brown eyes sings old blue eyes?” Lou Rawls sings Sinatra. He ran with the idea and still couldn’t get a deal.

It was at a time I was doing a lot of reissue work for old Savoy Records a jazz label and sounded them about it and they said yes. Then I came up an idea and presented to Lou – if the record company is going to pay for this album – you are going to make a small percentage if and when they recoup their investment. I said what if you pay for the album, you own the album and license to Savoy. That way if we record “Come Fly with Me” and American Airlines doesn’t want to pay for the Sinatra version they can get the Lou Rawls version for a lot less and then you can make all that extra money. He thought that was a good idea.

Lou financed the album. We went into Capitol’s big studio A where Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nancy Wilson and Nat Cole made all of those classics. Even with Savoy’s not great promotion skills the album remained on the jazz charts six months. Lou died not long after that.

B.K: Billy and the Beaters.
B.V: Still working the Beaters in southern California when we can. I also do gigs with the big band and having a ball with that. It’s a big eighteen piece band. I have some of the finest jazz players in L.A. willing to play for the miniscule money I get.

B.K: You must feel the radical technological shift – the dwindling dollars in CD sales – the streaming?
B.V: I do sell online with iTunes. It depends on the style of music you’re selling. I think for teenage music they don’t care about CDs or albums but a lot are becoming interested in vinyl again. My audience is older and wants something they can hold in their hands – read the liner notes etc.

B.K: Through all of the years working with singers and you being a terrific singer yourself and come across a voice with great potential what advice do you give them?
B.V: The most important thing is to believe them when they sing. You get a guy like old blues singer Jimmy Reed who had a range of about six notes you believed every word he sang. In that sense he was a great singer. He didn’t have the power of a Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin but he had that believability – that soul, that feeling – the ability to express emotion without sounding phony.

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