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Billy Jones: The Urbanization of Delta Blues

By Published: April 30, 2009

Billy JonesAAJ: How old were you when you first picked up the guitar? How did you become this accomplished musician that you are today?

BJ: It's hard for me to remember when I didn't have a guitar ... it's just something that I've always wanted to do.

Because I loved guitars so much, around age four or five years old, my uncle Vernon had given me a little plastic toy guitar with a music-box handle that played "Pop Goes the Weasel" when you turned it. It was instant love. I used to stand in front of the jukebox with that little guitar and pretend that I was every artist whose record was playing. I was always running around holding that guitar. I don't think I ever put it down.

I think I really started getting serious about it during the summer between the fifth and sixth grade. I didn't play with the other children in my neighborhood that much. I hung around adult musicians and spent most of my time learning songs from records and trying to sound like the guys on the recordings. Sometimes I would hang out with the winos and perform for them. Some of my family thought I was weird. But music is both my occupation and my recreation. And I spent almost every waking moment playing it and studying and imitating the artists that I idolized ... I guess that I was kinda weird.

AAJ: How did you start to play gigs traveling from military installation to installation, entertaining military members and their dependents? Were you in the military at the time?

BJ: No, I was not in the military. I always regretted that I didn't join the Air Force. I think that I would have liked it. This was during my 20s, after I had started my own band and was playing a lot of Rick James, Cameo, Funkadelic, Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
, and Carlo Morena
Carlo Morena
, Bar-Kays, Commodores, Gap, Zapp and that kinda thing.

At that time, I was being booked by this big-shot "Clive Davis"-type guy named Gene Williams, who was really hooked-up with the Grand Ol' Opry and the Nashville scene and was managing Ferlin Husky, Claude King and Donna Douglas, who played the part of Elli Mae on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies.

Since he couldn't book a black band in the "Country Music Capitol of the World," he started booking me into NCO and officer's clubs on naval stations, Air Force bases, Army posts and military installations all over the United States. I lived the military lifestyle without actually being in the military. GI women are great!

I learned a lot and made a lot of friends ... to this day I have the highest respect for military personnel. They are great people. They work hard and they play hard ... and they love hard.

AAJ: Where did this traveling take you?

BJ: To over 42 states ... countless times. And to many clubs and shows that were booked off-base when we were in whatever city. I did that for 10 years. I loved it!

AAJ: So you weren't traveling to Europe. Was it while traveling like this that you first met Jan Mittendorp of the Black and Tan Record label? How did he come to sign you for his label?

BJ: I met Jan Mittendorp in 2004 when I sent a promotional CD of my music to him. He liked what I was doing and flew me over to Amsterdam to record some of my songs for Black and Tan Records.

A few months later, after the Tha' Bluez CD was released, I went back to do a month-long tour of Europe to support the release. We liked each other instantly and have been working together ever since.

He's a great guy to work with, and I have complete artistic freedom to style my music any way that I see fit.

AAJ: According to sources, you have a unique take on the "corporate game" as it pertains to the music industry. Can you share your ideas on the recording industry in general? How did you develop this perspective on the record industry?

BJ: Let me be the first to say that I have said a lot of senseless crap in order to get attention in my time. I'm not sure which particular proclamation you are referring to, but it may be the time that I said that some labels have chosen to force feed the public old ideas rather than offer them new ones. And that the response of the youth audience has been to ignore the music in droves.

What I want to do is to re-introduce the young urban audience to the music of their heritage by presenting it in a format that they can appreciate.

I think that one of the reasons that the blues industry is becoming stagnant is because many labels discourage original ideas and many label owners are basically "wannabe" artists and bookkeepers, business guys who want to "handle" and "direct" their artist's careers in order to live out their own musical fantasies by dictating to the artist how the career ... and the music should go ... sometimes before it is even written, instead of allowing the artist to be fully creative. That makes for mediocre songs.

Some want to impose their own musical limitations into the creative process. They want the artist to be the "idiot savant" like Blind Tom, and create these musical masterpieces on demand, but let the label owner make all the business decisions and of course ... handle all the money.

I have musician friends who sign with these carpet-bagger types of record labels who have them out touring all over the world and making records. The artists never see any reasonable amount of income for it and don't have what they need to get by on, while the record company guys screw them out of most of the money with the promise of those mysterious mechanical royalties that never seem to appear. If they do appear, then it's just enough to pay back the advance that you probably didn't get from the record company in the first place. The artists are like slaves to these guys. Now that's (the) blues tradition!

Some want formulas and repetition of familiar patterns and mimicry that they can re-package into neat little categories and sell to the public, much like the rock guys keep re-packaging Jimi Hendrix; and the Rasta guys keep re-packaging Bob Marley; or the blues guys keep re-packaging Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. That has nothing to do with art or creativity or even music. It's just standard snake-oil sales tactics.

When I first started sending my songs out to labels in order to shop for a recording deal, one of the biggest blues label owners in the game wrote me and said that I had no idea about what the public, especially the black audience, wants to hear on a blues record and that I really needed to decide if I was going to be a bluesman, a soul man, or a rock guy and to stick to that one thing, because if I released a recording with all those musical styles on one CD, the audience would be confused and wouldn't buy it. I think that he seriously underestimated both the musical tastes and the intellect of the general public.

The my Hometown CD is exactly that. It's the biggest project that I have ever been involved with. The songs on the CD are being well received by people who listen to all types of music ... not just blues. It was recently chosen by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Continental Airlines, Czech Airlines and 25 other international airlines to be included in their in-flight audio entertainment listings. If you are traveling by airplane over the holiday season please check it out on your in-flight audio player. The songs became available for passengers to listen to in the month of November.

This recording has been gathering very positive critical reviews from music writers and getting high rotation international radio airplay. (The songs on the CD) have been featured in several music publications, they have been no. 1 on XM Satellite Radio, and they are presently no. 6 on the Real Blues Magazine Top 100 CD's charts ... and I'm just getting warmed up!

As much as this applies as much to the existing blues labels, I am certain that this take applies more to the Big Four labels of the recording industry. How does Jan's approach differ?

In any business situation, there is going to be negotiation and compromise. Jan is a pretty straight-forward and honest guy. He's open to new concepts and ideas and I like working with him ... he's cool.

I'm sure that if I were signed to one of the big four that you mentioned, that my Hometown would have never seen the light of day. I would have had to release a CD that sounds just like every other blues CD out there. The only thing that ever changes about some of those products is the name of the guy singing.

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