It was in those extreme, hard times that Billy's interest in music and writing began to surface, and he began to dream dreams that were far greater than the poverty that shackled his family to the Appalachian hills. Billy was influenced by hillbilly artists such as Bill Monroe, the blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Merle Travis, and Moon Mullican, with songs and sounds that came into the house from an old battery operated radio. On Saturday nights, the broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry sparked images of strange and fanciful places in young Billy's mind. He recalls, "I vividly remember many times looking up over the tall slender pine whose tiny green needles seemed to pierce the blue-green sky, and dreaming of the day when I would play my very own guitar - like the singers that I heard on the radio - and it would take me to places far over the hills." Sadly, the reality was that Billy's family could not afford to buy real musical instruments, so he and his older brother Charles found other ways to express their music. They could often be heard singing at the top of their voices, and accompanying themselves by pounding hard, driving rhythms on lard bucket lids.
This rhythm would require both skin and blood, and would later prove to be a very prominent force in Billy's music. The family moved many times in search of work after Billy's father developed lung trouble from working in the mines. After one move to Greenup County, Kentucky, his father was able to borrow a Harmony Monterey guitar from a kind neighbor, and he taught his sons to play the simple chords that he knew. Billy's dream was starting to take shape. Billy's lonesome, rebellious voice was first heard on radio in 1952, at WCMI in Ashland, Kentucky. During that performance, it just came natural for the 12 year-old to pound out the same rhythm on the guitar that he had created on the lard bucket lid.
The crowd loved it. In early 1954, Billy heard Elvis Presley for the first time on the radio, and he heard in Elvis' music the same driving rhythm style. That was his cue. Billy organized his first band, and called them The Rock & Roll Boys. With Billy on the pounding acoustic rhythm guitar, his brother Charles, on the electric lead guitar, and Curtis May on the upright bass, it was a three-piece band, just like Elvis had.
The die was cast. Around this time, Billy had written a song that he believed in strongly. So did others, including a local entertainer named Luke Gordon. Gordon encouraged Billy to record the song, and so Billy and the band traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio and recorded "Rock, Pretty Mama" in the fall of 1955. Gordon later released the single on his own Quincy Records, in 1957.
The band soon found themselves in demand, and began touring throughout the Midwest. At one point, hoping to take the next step up the ladder of success, Billy stopped at a pay phone in Springfield, Missouri, and made a call to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. After introducing himself as "Billy Adams from Kentucky, a sixteen year-old boy with a record," he received an invitation to come to Memphis. But, fate intervened, and right after the call, his '49 Ford broke down.
With no money to repair it, he sold it for fifty dollars, and he the band beat a hasty retreat back home on a bus. Little did he know that the trip to Memphis would not happen for many years to come. Back in home territory, Billy and the band settled into regular gigs at the 440 Club in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, they met Glenn McKinney, the owner and engineer of the Mack Recording Company and Nau-Voo Records (Nau-Voo took its name from an Indian tribe who once settled in the area). After hearing Billy sing several times at the club, McKinney offered him a record deal. On March 1, 1957, in a garage studio where the echo chamber was an outside fuel tank, and the studio itself was barely big enough to breathe in, Billy and the band recorded two of his original compositions, "You Heard Me Knocking" and "True Love Will Come Your Way." McKinney then called on his long time friend, Frank Porter, and he arranged a deal with Randy Wood to release the songs on Dot Records, in January 1958. By the end of the decade, Billy and his band, now named The Rock-A-Teens, recorded six more songs for the Nau-Voo label, "You Gotta Have A Duck Tail," "Walking Star," "Return of the All American Boy," "That's My Baby," "Blue Eyed Ella," and "The Fun House." The singles received good reviews in Billboard, Cashbox and other publications, and the band toured relentlessly, but stardom would prove to be elusive for Billy Adams. Frustrated by the lack of widespread success, and tired by the rigors of the road, the Rock-A-Teens performed their last show together in 1959.
Billy now recalls this as the lowest point in his musical career: "When the last song was finished, the show was over, the curtain fell; the band was gone. My heart ached for the part of me that was left behind; my brother, my buddies and my sound." Although he eventually went on to record dozens of secular and gospel songs in later years, the Nau-Voo sessions brought to a close Billy's early rockabilly career. Today, his records are rare, and sought after by collectors around the world. ("Rock, Pretty Mama" is valued between $1,500-$2,000 in The Official Price Guide to Records: 2002.) In 1965, Billy Adams received his calling into the ministry, and he began evangelizing to audiences across the U.S.
and abroad. He also expanded his musical skills, becoming a consummate piano player, combining preaching with music, to help him spread the message. It also was a watershed time of creativity for him as a writer of gospel and country music (his complete discography is 6 pages long). By the late 1980's, Billy Adams' classic songs began to be resurface on MCA, Ace, Bear Family, and other record labels worldwide, spurring a renewed interest in his music. Unfortunately, another recording artist named Billy Adams (who ironically had recorded for Sun Records), had died in 1984, and many people confused him with that man. Surprised by the revival of his music, and undaunted by the news of his "early demise," Billy was motivated to realize his long-held dream.
In 1998, he entered the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, and announced, "I am Billy Adams from Kentucky, and although it took me 41 years to get here, here I am!" The resulting session was released on CD as Legacy, in 2000. The album won rave reviews from many critics. It proved to be a powerful comeback vehicle for him. Shortly thereafter, he was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame as a "Legends" member. With his career revitalized, Billy is enjoying performing again, touring with a group of musicians that make up the new Rock-A-Teers band.
In October of 2002, he played for the first time in Europe, at "The 29th Hemsby Rock 'N' Roll Show," in England, one of the continent's pre-eminent roots-rock festivals. That appearance coincided with the issue of a 27 track career retrospective, entitled Billy Adams-Rockin' Thru The Years 1955-2002, released on Sanctuary (Castle) Records. The project spans Billy's rockin' career from the '50s thru today. Noted music impresario Billy Block has made Billy a regular on his famous "Western Beat Roots Revival" radio show in Nashville. That has helped to gain him support from some elite fellow musicians, including Robert Reynolds, Nick Cain (the Mavericks), and Bill Lloyd, among others.
Billy's concert schedule continues to grow, with recent shows in Las Vegas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, and SXSW 2003, in Austin, among others. In July of 2004, Billy and his band were featured headliners at the Americana International Festival, in Newark, Nottinghamshire, England, along with stellar performers including Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings (former Rolling Stones bass player), Albert Lee, Dave Edmunds and others. As a testament to the staying power of a great song, Sanctuary/BMG Records included "Rock, Pretty Mama" on a compilation entitled Rockabilly Riot (released in September of 2003), along with tracks by Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others. As a fitting jewel in his comeback crown, the song that first launched his career once again brings Billy Adams' unique brand of American roots music to a whole new generation of fans, and adds to his ever-expanding fanbase and touring schedule. Musicologist Colin Escott sums it up best in the liner notes of Rockabilly Riot: "He is now one of the great exponents of rockabilly from the golden era, in demand at clubs and festivals worldwide." 2007 marked Billy's 50th anniversary as a recording artist, beginning with the 1957 release of "Rock, Pretty Mama." It continues to be an exciting and busy time for him.
He plans to unveil new recordings, and scores of interviews and features are planned, including a feature interview in the Public Radio International Rockabilly documentary series, 'Whole Lotta Shakin'. He also performed at two well-received shows at the 2007 Americana International Festival, in England. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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