Gary James' Interview With
Billy Swan

He's a singer. He's songwriter. He's a musician. He's a producer.

His "big" break happened in 1962 when Clyde McPhatter recorded a song he wrote called "Lover Please" which went on to become a Top Ten hit. Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis also enjoyed "hit" songs written by this gentleman. He published Tony Joe White's Top Ten hit "Polk Salad Annie". He played bass guitar for Kris Kristofferson. He toured as a road manager for Mel Tillis and for the Masters Of Music Festival, which featured Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer. While in Memphis, he lived with Elvis Presley's uncle!

In 1974, his song "I Can Help" sold over five million copies world-wide, establishing him as an artist in his own right. Billy Swan is his name and Rock 'n' Roll is his game.

Q - You just returned from Denmark, is that correct?

A - Yes.

Q - Is that one of your strongholds in terms of popularity?

A - Well, there's just an agent over there that has asked me to do some gigs a couple of different times and I've been happy to do something for him. Then, there's a gentleman in Switzerland and I do some things there. I really don't have a booking agent per se. It's usually through somebody.

Q - I just saw you on P.B.S. How did you get that gig?

A - I got that through a gentleman named Ed Solomon who works with the radio broadcasters or something and lives in town. A friend of his does those P.B.S. specials. So, that's how that happened.

Q - Where do you perform in Denmark?

A - Just around different halls. I use different bands that are from over there. I don't take a band with me. I just send them a CD of the songs I'm gonna do. They learn 'em and we get together, rehearse a day or two and that's it.

Q - How long of a show do you perform?

A - This last time I went over I did fifteen minutes. They had different groups. They had a group called The Rubettes. A group named Sailor. That's the group that played behind me. They had some records over there in the 70s. They were really good. But then I went to Norway recently and did a cruise ship and used a band over there that I used on another tour before. They're really good. Really good musicians, good groups over there.

Q - Did you know that your song "I Can Help" was one of John Lennon's favorite songs?

A - I sure did. Actually, I saw that in an interview that he did with Rolling Stone. In fact it was with Chet Flippo. I was working with Kristofferson and we were on the plane going somewhere. I read that and I just flipped out! How cool! Then I met May Pang (John Lennon's lover) and she told me she went out and got the record for John's jukebox.

Q - According to an interview I read with May Pang, John Lennon once served as a d.j. at a party and played "I Can Help" over and over again.

A - Oh, really? I met May Pang in a country club in New York, for a long time. In fact, I opened it. I can't think of the name. It had the big lizard on top of it.

Q - You were 21 when you moved to Nashville. You didn't go there to record or pursue a singing career, but to be a road manager. How did you know you had what it takes to be a good road manager?

A - Well actually it wasn't to be a road manager. It was to write songs. I'd been in Memphis and had this one song that Clyde McPhatter had recorded, "Lover Please". Bill Black in Memphis published that. I'd been down there to work with him. That was when I was 20. When I was 21, I decided to come to Nashville, in August of '63. But, it wasn't to be a road manager. I just fell into that later.

Q - Who were you road managing for?

A - Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph. The Festival Of Music. That was it.

Q - Would that have been a very hard gig as a road manager? Those guys don't seem like they would've given you any trouble.

A - Actually, it was very together. Their manager was with us a lot of times. Say if we were gonna do a couple of gigs in Texas. Before we'd get there, I'd Fed-Ex a bunch of books down there that I would sell during intermission. I worked my butt off doing that. Floyd Cramer gave me that job. I did it for about a year. They were great people.

Q - You worked as a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville.

A - Actually, Kris (Kristofferson) called it a janitor, but it was basically an engineers assistant. You would clean up between sessions. You get food for the engineers. You erase tape. What ever needed to be done, you were there to do it. I did that for about a year. I used to hang out and play ping pong at the Columbia Studios. They ended up giving me a job. When I gave my two week notice that I was leaving, the general manager said "if you know anybody that's looking for a job, send 'em in." As I was going out the front door, Kris Kristofferson was coming in. The first thing he says is "Do you know where I can get a job?" I said "Yeah. C'mon. I just quit mine." I took him there and he got the job. I was there two weeks after I quit. My last week (Bob) Dylan was recording "Blonde On Blonde". Kris' first week was the second week of the "Blonde On Blonde" sessions.

Q - Wasn't Kris Kristofferson actually able to place one of his songs with Johnny Cash while he was there?

A - Well actually, Kris when he was working there, he didn't really play songs. He laid back and did his job. But, he got to meet a lot of people of course. The story is, and I believe it's true, Kris who flew helicopters in the Army, got a National Guard helicopter here in Nashville and flew out to John's house and landed it in his front yard, on Hickory Lake. June said "John, you won't believe this, but somebody just landed a helicopter in the front yard." And it was Kris with a tape of his songs. "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" was one of those songs.

Q - Now, that would make an impression.

A - That would definitely would make an impression.

Q - I don't know how legal that was to do that.

A - (laughs) I don't know either.

Q - But it did the job.

A - It did.

Q - Could you have approached someone in the studio who was recording at the time and said "I'm a songwriter too"?

A - You could have, but it wouldn't have been the proper thing to do. People come in with their material and it's kind of a distraction. You never really bother the artists. Never speak unless spoken to. All the musicians used to clown around and joke with them at the sessions. That's no problem. Then, there's serious moments when you work and you know when to step back.

Q - You produced Tony Joe White in the studio.

A - That's correct.

Q - You were an engineer's assistant. How did you know you could make the jump to record production?

A - Well, I didn't. There's so many different ways people produce records. For Tony Joe, I more or less helped get the musicians. He was such a talented guy, he could just go in, put him in front of the microphone with his guitar and get musicians who were really good behind him, to play with him - and that was it. And then making it comfortable for him, being relaxed. You want your artist to be relaxed. Just getting good people. It pretty much all comes together on its own. Then you have a Phil Spector type who has complete control from the beginning; the songs, how this is played, how that is played and in the studio afterwards mixing. But, when you go in with an engineer when you're mixing a session, just get a good engineer. He puts up a mix and you may say, just have a little less of this and a little more of that.

Q - Besides Tony Joe White, who else did you produce?

A - That was it. Well, I did a gentleman by the name of Dennis Lindy. Dennis wrote "Burning Love" that Elvis did and "Good-bye Earl". A bunch of songs.

Q - You actually lived with Elvis' uncle. Would that have been his Uncle Vestor?

A - No. Travis. That was his mother's brother. Travis Smith. And he had two sons, Billy and Bobby. Billy was like a brother to Elvis up 'til the time he died.

Q - Where did you meet Travis?

A - Well, when I first went down there to write for Bill Black, I'd never been to Graceland. And so I just drove by there. It was like 1 in the afternoon. I got out, went up to the gate like people do and started talking to Travis, who was the guard there that day and told him I was a writer. He said "One of my sons", which was Billy, "just got married and left home. If you want to move in at our home, we live a couple of blocks up the can. So, I did that. I was in Memphis for about four months and the cool thing about that is that Billy, Bobby and myself became friends. Elvis just happened to be home at that time, so anytime there was movies or skating rinks or the fairgrounds, they would take me along with them.

Q - So, you got to meet and hang out with Elvis many, many times.

A - Well, in the background. I didn't speak unless spoken to. I remember him being very pleasant, very nice.

Q - What years would that have been?

A - January through May of '63.

Q - That would've been the time Elvis was churning out those movies, three a year if I'm not mistaken.

A - In fact, one of his cousins, Bobby, when I was fixin' to leave Memphis and go home to Cape Girardeau (Missouri), which I did before I came to Memphis, he said "Elvis is doing a movie in Las Vegas. Let's go out there and we can get a job." I said "I don't think I want to do that. I want to go to Nashville." So that's what I did. I didn't go to Las Vegas 'cause I wasn't sure we'd get a job working for Elvis. (laughs)

Q - You liked Elvis didn't you?

A - Oh, yeah. I liked him a lot. I mean, he was one of my favorite artists and one of my biggest influences as he was with a lot of people.

Q - What went through your mind when Elvis Presley was standing right in front of you?

A - Well then, not much went through my mind, surprisingly enough. The first time I saw him it was like seeing a cartoon figure. I happened to be down at the gate at Graceland and he came in, in a Buick Riviera. It was like a cartoon figure to me at first and that was it. That was the first impression and then afterwards, I don't know if we went to the movies or the skating rink, but it was all pretty normal.

Q - You wrote TV and radio commercials. Which ones would they be?

A - Actually I didn't write TV and radio commercials. That one song I wrote, "I Can Help" has been in a few commercials. I never specifically wrote songs for commercials.

Q - How long did it take you to write "I Can Help"?

A - That came fairly fast. Maybe twenty minutes. It was really fast.

Q - When did you write it? Morning, noon or night?

A - I think it was in the afternoon.

Q - What did you follow "I Can Help" with?

A - A song called "I'm Her Fool".

Q - And what happened with that?

A - Nothing much. It went to about 32 or something like that. I had another song that was kind of like it that we released later, off a second album. I think if we would've released it, it would've done very well. It was called "Everything's The Same, Ain't Nothing Changed". We pretty much had it ready, but they wanted us to release something off of the album. So, "I'm Her Fool" was what was released. Everybody seemed to think that would be the one.

Q - Was that song not properly promoted? Was that the problem?

A - When I did "I Can Help", it was like a crossover record. Country and Pop. "I'm Her Fool" I don't think was to win itself to the Country market in anyway. In fact, it proved itself so because it didn't get in the Country charts at all.

Q - Besides personal appearances, what else keeps you busy?

A - Writing some. Basically it's off of royalties that I'm able to survive.

Q - What are you working on now?

A - Right now I'm working on an album with Scotty Moore. It's with Boots Randolph and a few other musicians that we know. We're doing it at Scotty's house and it's an album of like old Blues songs.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.