It might be safe to say that a lot of people may know a little bit about Billy Vera but only a few people know a lot about Billy Vera. Billy is a singer, writer, producer, actor, Grammy winner, and music historian. He has performed with big bands, Billy And The Beaters, solo, and everything in between. For those of us who were around in the 1960s and who took the time to read the credits on hit records, Vera might have been first recognized as the writer of hit songs for Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino
. If you lived in the Northeast you might know Vera for his single, "My Heart Cries"; if you lived in Texas or Louisiana, you might know him for the single "All My Love ." He performed at the Apollo Theater in 1968 and, as a producer, has worked with artists including Lou Rawls
covered "At This Moment," in his CD Crazy Love (Reprise, 2009), which has sold over eight million copies.
In November, 2012 Vera released Big Band Jazz (Robo/Manhattan Ave. Jazz), his tribute to iconic black songwriters of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Vera performs regularly at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California.
It is impossible to condense Vera's rich history and love affair with music into a few paragraphs. His professional career in music started in the early 1960s. Through thick and thin he is still here and he is staying true to his heart and his muse. When Vera talks about his life there is also a profound sense of insight into the history of the music business and the history of the United States. Changes in the economy, social changes, and changes in the music industry, are all component parts of his story. For over 50 years, Vera has managed to stay in the game
All About Jazz: Congratulations on your recent Grammy Award. It was a long time coming and well-deserved. How does it feel to wake up every morning and see a Grammy with your name on it? What was the Grammy for and how did that project come about?
Billy Vera: The Grammy was for Best Album Notes for the Ray Charles box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Concord, 2011). I've done over 200 reissue CDs, including maybe eight by Ray Charles, and this is the one they chose. It was my fourth nomination, including one for another Ray Charles box, his 50th Anniversary set [Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino, 1997)].
AAJ: Can you tell us what your day was like when you were getting ready to go to the Grammy Awards? Is it true that you almost missed the announcement of your award?
BV: Some friends, a makeup girl, a wardrobe stylist and a hairdresser offered to fix my date and me up for the event. The hairdresser arrived late, so we were late leaving. The limo driver was a fan of mine and, as a special surprise, pulled up in a Rolls Royce. We sped downtown, arriving just as they were announcing the award before mine. We hadn't even sat down when my name was called. I ran down the aisle, my date running after me, shooting pictures with her cell phone, yelling "You fucking won, you fucking won!" I got to the podium, out of breath, took a beat and said "Holy shit," and the audience all laughed. I kept my remarks short and sweet, thanking the two guys who hired me, Bill Belmont and David Brokawand, of course, Ray Charles, for being the most important musical figure of the second half of the 20th Century.
AAJ: What happened you arrived at the venue? Do you remember what was going through your head when they announced your name?
BV: All I could think of was "Finally!." Several of my friends have Grammys and now I was a member of that club.
AAJ: Let's go back to the beginning. How did you first get introduced to music?
BV: My mother was a professional singer, a local celebrity in Cincinnati on WLW, a major radio and TV station, so there was always music in the house. I specifically recall "Ghost Riders In The Sky," by Vaughn Monroe
Later, when we moved to New York, she became one of the Ray Charles Singers, backing Perry Como on his weekly TV show and on his hit records, like "Catch A Falling Star" and "Magic Moments." She had good albums in her collection, like Songs For Swingin' Lovers! (Capitol, 1956) and Songs For Young Lovers (Capitol, 1954), by Frank Sinatra
and the doo-wop groups like the Cleftones, Heartbeats and Harptones. Special favorites were Frankie Lymon and Jesse Belvin. From Jesse, I learned how hard it is to make it look easy and set about figuring out how to do that. I realized it's not hard to sweat, red- faced, with the veins in your neck bulging out in some imitation of "soul." Any asshole can do that; the trick is to make it look easy.
In high school, I had to take two buses, changing at the train station in White Plains. There was a magazine shop, a real dump nearby, that had six-for-a-dollar bins of used jukebox 45s and I'd go through them because, by then, I was a vinyl junkie and had little money to feed my habit. If I didn't recognize the artist, I'd often pick records on labels I knew had good music and was often pleasantly surprised. That was my jazz education, used 45s, because I hadn't enough money to buy albums.
White Plains had five record stores. In three of them, guys behind the counter would play records for you and in the other two, you could play them yourself in a booth. One of those guys was Kevin Falcone, the first hip guy I ever met. He'd play things for me that weren't on the radio, like the Joe Cuba
. All this was my musical education. If my music is different than that of most people my age, that's why.
My biggest influence was Ray Charles. Not to copy his singing, but his way of combining different musical styles: R&B, country, jazz and pop into something all his own. What made the Beaters different from all the horn bands that followed us was my attention to nuances and dynamics. I got that from Ray and from Count Basie
. Whereas most bands followed the Stax/Volt way of playing at one set volume, loud, I liked varying it from loud to a whisper. It took several years to train my players to play that way, as it was not in that generation's nature, but when they got it, it was what set the Beaters apart. That and the songs, which are more musically sophisticated that your run-of-the-mill R&B material.