His songs have been recorded by people like Rick Nelson, Fats Domino, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Rawls, Dolly Parton, Robert Plant, Etta James, Eric Burdon, Tom Jones and Michael Buble. His song, "At This Moment" went all the way to number one on the charts. He appeared nine times with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. And now he's written his autobiography, Harlem To Hollywood (Backbeat Books). We are talking of course about the one, the only, Mr. Billy Vera.
Q - Billy, you really were right there at the beginning of Rock 'n' Roll.
A - Or close to it. (laughs)
Q - I had no idea until I read your autobiography. How'd you remember the names of all the people you met along the way? Did you keep some kind of journal?
A - I've been blessed with an exceptional memory I'm afraid. After 1979, when I moved out here (Los Angeles) I kept all my date books which had all my appointments and gigs. For the early years, your long term memory is always better anyway. So, I have quite a good memory it appears.
Q - The music business you describe in the early 1960s no longer exists. That's probably why we're not going to see any Billy Veras in the future. You almost need that background or apprenticeship that you had to succeed. Would you agree?
A - I think it was very important. People succeed financially today far beyond anything any of us achieved back then just because there's more money to be had out there. More ways of adding on to your performing money. People have perfume lines and clothing lines.
Q - You're probably talking about someone like Taylor Swift.
A - If Taylor Swift never sings another note of music I think she's set for life.
Q - You're right.
A - Some of the guys that came just before me in the '50s, I got to know a lot of them very well during the late '60s, early '70s when we were playing oldies shows, backing 'em up. They all said they hardly made any money because they couldn't work nightclubs. Their audience was teenagers. Rock 'n' Roll was a teenage music, so there was no nightclub work for acts like The Five Satins or The Del-Vikings, people like that. They were limited to maybe five or six theatres that you could play twice a year. Even at that, a lot of times they had to give most of their salary back to the promoter or the disc jockey who was fronting the shows in order to get their records played. So, there was not a lot of ways to make money for those groups of the '50s. The big acts, the Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, made out like bandits.
Q - And I asked, "Aren't you excited about being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame?" He said, "I would've been happier if I'd gotten the 50 million dollars that was stolen from me." I didn't realize there was that kind of money around then.
A - There wasn't that kind of money. Those guys exaggerated. They'd listen to these record collectors and people that said, "Oh, you must've sold five million records on that record." The truth is a number one R&B record maybe did 100,000 to 125,000 copies. At three cents a record, the artist divided by four group members, if there was a group, didn't really amount to a hell of a lot of money. And even if you're the songwriter, the songwriter's share was a penny a record back in those days, and if there was two or three writers the penny was divided two or three ways. So, it was just the way it was. These guys were not educated guys in general, so they didn't really know the business end of music. A lot of them did get screwed, no question, but a lot them had their imagination get carried away as I say when record collectors pushed those ideas into their heads.
Q - You had some pretty good success as a songwriters before you had major success as a singer. Was it easy for you to write songs or did you struggle?
A - Well, I loved doing it, so it didn't seem like a struggle. I'd sit down at the piano at my mother's house and bang away until the song came out. Then when I got a job as a songwriter with a publisher I'd go downtown and sit in an office all day. Maybe my boss would come in and say, "Hey, so and so is recording next week. See if you can write something in their style." In that way you learned how to write in a lot of different styles of music.
Q - On page 34 you write you didn't like Chubby Checker or Lesley Gore, but you didn't go into any details. What didn't you like about them?
A - Well, Chubby was just a nasty guy. They were both nasty people. I mean, all the other acts we played behind were friendly and grateful that we were a good band that played their music well. Chubby seemed to have a notion that he should have been as big as Jimi Hendirx. His contribution to music was nowhere near what Jim Hendrix's was. Chubby was a novelty act basically. He wasn't an act of any substance, but in his mind he was Frank Sinatra. So that ego made him a difficult person to be around. We only worked with Lesley Gore once in New Jersey. I remember it very well. She showed up late for rehearsal. I mean like an hour and a half, two hours late for rehearsal and then expected you to get her music down in five minutes. She came in there like she was the Queen of Sheba. She thought she was whoever, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, you name it. She was a mediocre talent at best who happened to make a couple of good records. but she thought she was hot shit and she was not. (laughs) That's why I didn't like them. The one thing I will say about, not so much Chubby, but The Twist itself as a phenomenon, that The Twist, and you have to include Joey Dee; he was just as important as Chubby Checker, as was Hank Ballard in his way. He wrote the song. But the Twist was to the early 1960s what the Charleston was to the 1920s. It was an iconic day of changing moment in a game changing dance, but Chubby was just the guy who sang the song. (laughs)
Q - And when The British Invasion hit, he was pushed aside. That was it.
A - Her style of music by that time was popular with adults, so there's plenty of work for an adult act in Vegas and nightclub work.
Q - You met Jimi Hendrix early on in his career. What did you guys talk about?
A - We talked about music and songs and things that we liked. He had, unlike a lot of sidemen... I met him with The Isley Brothers. They had two guitar players. He was one of them. And so, we hit if off pretty well. I had played with The Isley Brothers earlier on when they didn't have a band and so we backed them up. The second time we backed them up they had gone with Motown at that time, "This Old Heart Of Mine". So then they could afford a band. They'd bring Jimi out in the middle of the show. Ronnie Isley would sing the old T-Bone Walker song, "Stormy Monday" and he'd bring Jimi out to play the solo. Jimi did all the common place things that a lot of the Black Blues guitar players did. He'd play behind his head. He'd play with his teeth. He'd play under his arm. But it was nothing we hadn't seen before. The thing that I think put him over was the second time I worked with Jimi he started combing his hair in a Beatle haircut. His idea was, and I think it was kind of brilliant in a way, was he wanted to appeal to White teenagers because he felt there was more of them. (laughs) So, there was more money to be made. So, they were going to send him to England and he said, "They're going to make me a star in England and then I'll come back and be big here." To be honest with you, I didn't really see it. I was wrong as it turns out.
Q - No one played guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Not even today.
A - Yeah. There were a lot of great guitar players around. Some of them had styles of their own. Curtis Mayfield had a wonderful, unique style. Steve Cropper had a unique style. There were some monster guys that never got that well known. Robbie Robertson of The Band, although he didn't get to show it as much on The Band's albums. He was an incredible guitar player. I remember seeing him when he was with Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks. There was a guy named Link Chamberlain up in Connecticut who was a master. I'd call him every bit the equal of Jimi Hendrix. There was another guy named Roy Buchanan down in Washington, D.C. who had a record called "The Jam" by Bobby Gregg. This is like in the early '60s he's playing like that. So, there were guys around, but they just didn't make the grade I guess. They didn't catch on.
Q - Or they didn't get the promotional push from their record company.
A - Jimi sure had that. I'll tell you something interesting about him. Around the time he got famous I was working with Storybook Children, those records I had on Atlantic (Records). So, I spent a lot of time playing Black theatres and Harlem. All the Black kids used to laugh at Jimi Hendrix 'cause you couldn't dance to his music. See, Black people like to dance. If they can't dance to your music they don't take you seriously at all. So he had no Black fans. Virtually no Black fans what so ever. They'd rather listen to Wilson Pickett.
Q - That's an interesting concept you've just pointed out. I'd never thought of that. He really packed those concert halls.
A - He really wanted those White audiences. Same as Chuck Berry. He made a calculated play for White kids. He'd write songs about the things that interested kids. He also listened to Nat 'King' Cole. He noticed that Nat 'King' Cole articulated his words very carefully so that people could understand what he was singing, whereas a lot of Blues singers mumbled. So Chuck said, "If I articulated the words, White kids will hear what I'm singing about and they'll like me." He was smart like that.
Q - You had a role in Oliver Stone's film The Doors. What role did you play?
A - I was the concert promoter at the infamous concert where Jimi whips it all out. He threw a microphone out in the audience and it hits me in the head. I wear a big, cowboy hat.
Q - There's some confusion as to whether that incident really did happen.
A - Well, it's like a car accident. When the cops go for witnesses, you ask five different people and you get five different stories.
Q - Did you by chance ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - Never did. He was out here in California.
Q - And you were in New York.
A - Back in those days, yeah.
Q - How did the producer of Family Ties hear about your song, "At This Moment"?
A - We were playing at a club one weekend a month called At My Place in Santa Monica and we played there for ten years. We became quite the thing on that part of town. This was after we had our first little hits and then the record company went out of business. The guy apparently came in. They were looking for a song for this episode where Michael J. Fox meets the girl of his dreams. He said he heard the song and said, "That's the one. I want to use that." And so they tracked me down. I was in the phone book. One day I got a phone call and he said, "Is this the same Billy Vera that had the band?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Oh, thank God. I've had my secretary looking all over town for you. Finally she looked in the phone book." (laughs) They didn't know who my agent was.
Q - How fortunate that you were listed in the phone book.
A - I was always afraid I would miss something. I never worried about people bothering me because the kind of person that would bother you is too stupid to look you up. (laughs) Being in the phone book changed my life.
Q - Was that your big break? Had it not been on that TV show would the world have still heard of Billy Vera?
A - Well, it had been out five years earlier. It got as high as number 79 and that was the end of it. What happened was the promotion guy got in a fight with the head of the record company and quit. So there was nobody to continue promoting the record the rest of the way up the charts. I thought the song was over and five years later I got this phone call.
Q - You put together a Big Band, Jazz band, and debuted it at the Syracuse Jazzfest in the Summer of 2012. How did you like those Syracuse Jazz fans? Did they give you a warm reception?
A - Oh, great. There were about 30,000 of them, man. The guy that promoted the show does it every year, Frank Malfitano. A wonderful guy. He told me, "You were one of the most exciting acts I've ever had on the show." So, I was very proud to hear that. I brought my own rhythm section up from New York and my sax player from here (Los Angeles) to conduct, and the rest of the band was all local Syracuse Jazz guys. They were terrific.
Q - What does it mean to you to have a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame? Do you like awards? I maintain the biggest award a guy like you can get is that you've gotten to do what you love in life.
A - Well, I have to agree with you, although some people would say the best award is the check if it clears. It doesn't hurt. I've spent a life in music doing what I've wanted to do. I've never had to take a day job. So, I'm the most grateful son-of-a-bitch in Hollywood, I always say.
Q - The 1960s was such an exciting time to be part of the music business.
A - And a lot easier to get into. 1962 or so, before the British Invasion, all the guys that ran the record companies and publishing companies were old guys, like 40, 45 years old. They knew they didn't know anything. They knew Eddie Fisher. They knew Perry Como. So they figured anybody that was young must know something. They'd give you an appointment. It was really easy.
Q - You'd get the fame then, but unfortunately you wouldn't always get the money.
A - Well, I was lucky and I only figured it out later. My first publishing company that I worked for was owned by CBS and Columbia Records. So, you don't get screwed by the big companies except by accident. By that I mean maybe you got some lazy girl up on the 12th floor whose job it was to calculate your royalties and write your checks and maybe she's on her cell phone. Maybe she's talking to her girlfriend and she puts the decimal in the wrong place, makes a mistake. That's how you get screwed by a big company, because think about it, they have no reason to screw you. It's not their money, those girls that work in those offices. If you're with a little company the difference between paying the rent and putting food on his family's table could be the decision whether to screw you or not. You see what I'm saying?
Q - But if they got caught, it costs them even more money.
A - If you're living hand to mouth and you're desperate, you make desperate, stupid decisions sometimes and they did. Most of the time they don't get caught because musicians are not the brightest people in the world as a rule. Most of them are young and most of them are ignorant about the way money works. I don't know if you've ever talked to a musician about money, but they don't know anything. When you write a great song they make money forever. The thing that paid for my Big Band album was one of the checks when Michael Buble recorded "At This Moment". It sold ten million records. I made more money off of Michael Buble than I ever made off my own version. (laughs)
Q - When you write a song that becomes a hit, so many times you don't know before hand that it will become a hit. When you try to follow it up you draw a blank.
A - Well, that's what happened with Bonnie Raitt in "Knick Of Time". I was on the Board Of Directors at the Rhythm And Blues Foundation with her. And after "Knick Of Time", which is really the first big hit she ever had after fifteen years of being with Warner Brothers, she left there deeply in the red. Her first album on Capitol was "Knick Of Time". She called me up one day. She was a nervous wreck. She said, "Man, I've got to make another album now and I don't really write a lot of songs. I need songs. You got anything for me? You know anybody that's got anything for me?" So, I sent her a tape with a couple of songs on it and she ended up recording one of 'em. It was on her next album, which sold more than "Knick Of Time". It did about five million copies. But that's what happened to her. She wasn't really a writer by trade. She just happened to write a couple of things.
Q - I saw Bonnie Raitt in concert way back in 1978. A good performer.
A - Yeah. Great singer and great guitar player.
Q - When you take someone like Bonnie Raitt and put them on the road for an extended period of time, when are they supposed to write? They're exhausted. With today's artists it's even worse with videos, Twitter, Tumbler, websites.
A - Yeah, because you've got all those years to write your first album's worth of songs. In the old days singers were singers and writers were writers. So it wasn't as much of a problem. Now they expect the singers to write all their own songs.