Billy Vera: Still In The Game

Scott Mitchell By

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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, and Barbara Lewis. 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 and Ray Charles.

His acting debut came in the 1984 film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai In The 8th Dimension. He became a regular guest on the Johnny Carson Show and the soap opera, The Days of Our Lives, Knotts Landing, Alice, Baywatch, and more. In 1985, the hit television show Family Ties featured his song, "At This Moment."

Billy has helped produce, archive, and write liner notes for over 200 reissues of albums and box sets. He is one of the top commercial voice over artists in the business. Michael Buble 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 Brokaw—and, 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 and "The Frim Fram Sauce," by the Nat "King" Cole as special favorites when I was in first grade.

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 others by m: Nat King Cole 5805}} and Nancy Wilson. One that made a special impression was Ellington Uptown (Columbia, 1952), which had a spectacular version of his "Take The 'A' Train," with a vocal by Betty Roche. Today, my son can sing along with the horn parts.

My father, a staff announcer on NBC, used to bring home records from the NBC record library, mostly rock 'n' roll. One day he brought an album, Meet The Jazztet (Argo, 1960), with Benny Golson and Art Farmer, which sparked my interest in jazz with its original version of Benny's "Killer Joe" and "I Remember Clifford."

I listened to the usual rock 'n' roll of the period: Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard 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 or certain jazz artists. Kevin was later a bartender at a club where I played; he stocked the jukebox, so on our breaks we'd hear things like Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," or Dinah Washington's "Where Are You" or "Maria," by Maynard Ferguson or "Song For My Father," by Horace Silver. 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.

AAJ: Reading music, writing music, learning how to play, how did all of this develop when you were growing up? What came easy to you? What was the most challenging?

BV: I took some lessons on drums, piano and guitar, as well as a few lessons with my mother's singing coach, to learn how to breathe properly. We worked at the house band at The Country House aka The Deercrest Inn, on the border of New York and Greenwich, CT from 1963-67. We played two dance sets and two shows, backing hit record acts of the day. We'd rehearse, reading their music, before the show, which helped with my reading. The first weekend, we had Patti Labelle and Little Anthony & the Imperials, two great acts with very difficult music: "Danny Boy" in D flat, "You'll Never Walk Alone" in B natural, or the The Mighty Imperials "Goin' Out Of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad." It was trial by fire, but we got through it and it was all downhill after that.

AAJ: Have you stayed in touch with him over the years?

BV: I'm still friends with Kevin. He brought his family to see me perform at the Cutting Room in NYC recently and had his wife cook a killer home-cooked Italian meal for my birthday. He's still the hippest guy on the block.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of catching your show with the big band at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California last month. It seemed like both you and the band were in a musical zone of sorts and really driving on all cylinders. What was that show like for you?

BV: Very powerful. In the excitement, I'd forgotten the charts and had to drive home in rush hour, so there was little rehearsal time. Although they've played my charts before, you like to have a little time, but there wasn't, so they were on their toes and concentration at show time. Despite that, I was feeling relaxed and the band picked up on it and, as you said, we went into that zone.

AAJ: How important is this big band project to you? Where would you like to see it go?

BV: It's something I've long wanted to do and procrastinated, for fiscal reasons. I'd like for it to become popular enough to play big venues. We've done a couple of jazz festivals and gone over well, so I know there's a market for it.

AAJ: Fast forwarding a few years, it is the 1960's and you are a 22 years old, working at Atlantic Records and living in New York. What was significant about this time in your life?

BV: I think the early, pre-British Invasion 60s was a high point in popular music. Rock 'n' roll and R&B had evolved into something very sophisticated, as had the audience, thanks to the productions of Doug Kleiber and Burt Bacharach, mainly. The records they did with Little Cooper and the Drifters, Ben E. King, Dionne Warwick and others took popular music to an incredibly high level, while keeping that common touch that the public could relate to. I was lucky enough to come into the music business at the tail end of that era.
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