Billy Harper's unique music creativity was first noted in Houston, Texas, where, at age 5, he was singing at sacred and secular functions and participating in choral and solo singing events. By age 14, he formed his first Billy Harper Quintet while a student at Evan E. Worthing High School. Graduating cum laude, he went on to study saxophone and music theory at North Texas State University and received his Bachelor of Music degree. He continued graduate studies at NTSU and became a member of their "big band." That year, 1965, the University's big band won first prize at the Kansas Jazz Festival.
Harper moved to New York in 1966 and began attracting attention from some of jazzdom's giants - Gil Evans, Max Roach, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers