It's a long way from the rich, fertile delta lands of North Little Rock, Ark., to the Netherlands, where Billy Jones records for Dutch blues label Black and Tan Records, but it was a route of which he never lost sight.
Born into the segregated south, he was exposed to the driving beat of the blues when he was still an infant. In the crib, he could hear it as it permeated the walls against which he slept. This sound which spoke to him gave him an early direction in life he has pursued to this day.
His early memories are of a juke joint where he would draw inspiration; the images, and the folks he knew then are the stuff of his songs. They gave him a mind-set that would drive him to perfect his craft as a guitar slinging blues man.
Billy Jones is betting that the blues can experience a revival of interestwhat is needed is a fresh infusion of imagination. And to capture a bigger share of the Black music market, what is needed is for the blues to once again become relevant to the African-American experience.
All About Jazz: Before we talk of how a Delta blues artist gets signed by a Dutch-owned label, i.e., Black and Tan Records, let's talk of how you started in this business. What was your first exposure to the blues, and what are some of your earliest memories of this music?
Billy Jones: I was raised from the age of six months in my grandfather's cafe and boarding house, The Cedar Street Cafe903 Cedar StreetNorth Little Rock, Ark. The room that we lived in was directly behind the wall of the main ballroom where the jukebox was. My crib was on the other side of that wall, so as a baby I would be laying there listening to Elmore James, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and all the blues and soul greats while the cafe customers played records and partied well into the night. My bed would vibrate on the bass notes.
That was my first exposure to the music. I absorbed the music as I could literally hear it in my sleep. One of the first thoughts that I remember having was that I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James.
There was this dangerous juke-joint/nightclub place down the road from my grandfather's cafe called Jim Lindsey's Place. Many of the big "chittlin' circuit" stars of the day used to perform there, like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby Blue Bland. Sometimes at night when everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of the room and climb up high in an old chinaberry tree and watch what was going on over at Jim Lindsey's Place. I could hear the band from there and pretend that it was me onstage.
All the pimps, players, dealers, whores and gangsters used to hang out there and someone was always getting shot or stabbed on a regular basis. Remember that this was the segregated south, so whenever someone would call for an ambulance for a shooting, or fight, at a club, they would send a hearse from the black-owned funeral home instead of an ambulance. If the victim was still alive they would take them to a black doctor ... If not, they would take them to the funeral home.
Of course, I thought that these were the "beautiful people" and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Especially the musicians, with their tight-legged, sharkskin suits and Stacy Adams shoes, their jewelry and the way they wore their hair in a process. And the women! The way they used to dress back then looked so glamorous! Of course, Bobby Blue Bland's Cadillac ... "No medical school for me dad ... I'm gonna be a blues star."
The house band for Jim Lindsey's Place lived in an upstairs room over the club, and during the day I would go over there and try to hang out around them. They could tell that I really wanted to be a guitarist.
There was this one musician who played at the club named Red Harpo ... he told me that he was Slim Harpo's brother. I believed him. Whether he was or not, one thing is true, Red could play the hell out of a guitar! ... There was an air of excitement about him. Women would fight over him. He would let me come up to his room sometimes and talk to him, while he would sip "Golden Rod" wine on ice and play and sing for me, and show me how to play the new hit songs of the day, while I soaked-in all the information that he was giving me about being a real musician.
By the time I was 14-years old, I was hanging out at "Williams Pool Hall." One day, this older guy pulled up in a 1957 Chevy station wagon packed full of amplifiers, microphones and drums. He came in. He had that same air of excitement about him that Red had. He said that he was in a band and he had a gig booked in Lonoke, Ark., that night and that he heard me play guitar and they were looking for a guitarist. He said that his name was Hosea Levy and that he and his younger brother Calvin Levy would pay me $6 if I played with them and Willie Cobb, Little Johnny Taylor and Larry "Totsie" Davis that night. I didn't tell him that I had never played in a band before. I was 14-years old and I was going on the road! I was trying to be cool and I agreed to go with him. But I was so excited to be going to play with a real band!
That was the first day that I went on the road with the Levy Brothers Band, and the beginning of a lifetime journey into the world of the blues. I've been on the road ever since. So it was "on the job training" for me.
AAJ: 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, and 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.