Jerry Wexler and Frank Sinatra were ardent admirers of Billy Vera the singer-even though he's best known as a writer of pop, R&B and country hits for others. This collection of Billy's best includes his hits Storybook Children; Country Girl-City Man; with Pen in Hand; I Can Take Care of Myself ; his smash at This Moment 16 in all!
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It has been said that Billy Vera would never fit the typical Behind-The-Music storyline. You know the one: Young musician hits too young, falls into the wild rock’n’roll life, gets strung out on drugs, enters rehab, comes out, gets a new haircut and makes a brief come-back, then disappears again.
Most of my music business contemporaries had their big success early, around age 22 or so. Not me, whatever success I had at that age was middling. A few chart records as a writer and a few as a singer, and by 1970, it looked as though I was finished.
Aside from coming up with commercial songs that people would buy, my goal from the beginning was longevity, avoiding the faddish and trendy in favor of making music that could last.
Born in 1944, I am not a boomer, but a war baby, so I was not influenced by the usual boomer icons or their culture. I listened to, not only my generation’s heroes, Chuck, Fats, Lymon and Jesse Belvin, but also the Sinatra/Nelson Riddle and Duke Ellington masterpieces in my mother’s collection (she sang in the Ray Charles Singers on the Perry Como Show). My tastes ran from the sophisticated to the low down.
Most of all, I loved Ray Charles; the Beaters were patterned after his ’50s small band. He labored, and excelled, in many idioms and, following his example, I refused to limit myself to any one style, taking snippets from anywhere and anything I liked, whether it be a Monk-like riff or a Bacharach-inspired set of chord changes or a simple, country melody.
Backstage at the Como show, or at the Apollo, I got to observe the world’s greatest entertainers and see what made them tick. From 1963-67, as house band at the Deercrest Inn, I saw and backed the latest hit record acts, and saw what worked and what didn’t, as I learned the stagecraft that would serve me well.
The first song I ever took to a publisher, “Mean Old World,” became a hit for Ricky Nelson, opening doors on Broadway. Another publisher placed me under the wing of the more experienced Chip Taylor. Chip taught me to write songs I could “picture people singing twenty years from now.”
Together, we wrote “Make Me Belong To You,” a hit for Barbara Lewis that gave us entre to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. Wexler liked another of our songs, “Storybook Children,” which became a hit duet for me and the late Judy Clay. We appeared at the Apollo Theater, becoming great favorites as the first interracial duo singing love songs. After another hit, “Country Girl-City Man,” the split of Atlantic and Judy’s label, Stax, meant we could no longer
record together, so Wexler found a Bobby Goldsboro tune, “With Pen In Hand,” for my first solo hit.
But popular music had changed and I had no idea how to fit in with the hard rock, disco and singer/songwriters that were happening. So, the ’70s, for me, were about survival. I made one album, in Nashville, out of which came one of my favorite records, written with L. Russell Brown, “She Ain’t Johnnie.” And that was it, until 1978, when Dolly Parton recorded my “I Really Got The Feeling,” for a #1 hit that brought me back into the business and to Los Angeles, where my friend Chuck Fiore and I formed the Beaters, to meet girls.
To our surprise, we got a record deal and a hit, “I Can Take Care Of Myself,” in 1981. The follow-up, “At This Moment,” stalled at the lower rungs of the charts. My old mentor Jerry Wexler produced an album that contained “Hopeless Romantic.” Until his dying day, Jerry insisted that that song was one of the five best records he ever made. This, from the man who’d produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan.
For the next five years, I was un-recorded, until “At This Moment” appeared on an episode of the sitcom Family Ties, propelling the song to #1. As a free agent, I was signed by Capitol Records and produced by the legendary Tom Dowd, an old friend from Atlantic. From that album, “Between Like And Love” made #9 on the adult music chart. Lou Rawls, produced by Michael Cuscuna and myself, did well with “If I Were A Magician,” several years later, as did Bonnie Raitt with “Papa Come Quick (Jody & Chico),” on her biggest album.
The final batch of songs here comes from a 1995 live album. Lou Rawls also recorded “You Can’t Go Home” and “Room With A View” and we performed “Let You Get Away” in the Bruce Willis/Kim Basinger film Blind Date. During this period, we began to notice fewer people dancing and more listening, as “the music became more nuanced,” in the words of one fan.
I’ve been fortunate to have some great singers record my songs. Fats Domino, Robert Plant, Etta James, Tom Jones, Arthur Prysock and Michael Buble, among others. One song that looked for many years like it was jinxed has recently gone from cult record to money maker. “Don’t Look Back,” originally recorded in 1966 by the Remains, has given me rock bona fides, even from those who don’t care for my love songs.
I am grateful that, after almost 50 years in show business, people still come out to see Billy Vera & the Beaters and buy my old records and record my songs. Thanks to all who have taught me and helped keep my career going all these years.