INTERVIEW: Billy Vera – At this Moment

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on November 25, 2012

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — Billy “Vera” McCord was named after his father, Bill McCord, who worked as a staff announcer for NBC in New York where Billy grew up. His mother, Ann Ryan, was one of the Ray Charles Singers on records and TV with Perry Como. While in his teens, Billy made his first record. One side, “My Heart Cries,” was popular in the Northeast while the other side, the self-penned “All My Love,” saw regional action in Texas and Louisiana. The first song he ever presented to a publisher, “Mean Old World,” became a chart hit for Ricky Nelson and, one year later, his “Make Me Belong To You,” was a summer hit for Atlantic Records star Barbara Lewis. This entree to Atlantic caused label chief Jerry Wexler to sign Billy. The resulting single, a duet with Dionne Warwick’s cousin, Judy Clay, was the hit, “Storybook Children.” The two followed up with “Country Girl – City Man” and appeared at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to standing ovations. Billy’s first solo hit was a cover of Bobby Goldsboro’s “With Pen In Hand,” arranged by the late Arif Mardin and supervised by Wexler.

The 70’s were rough until Dolly Parton cut Billy’s song, “I Really Got The Feeling,” taking it to #1 on the country charts. This propelled a move to Los Angeles where, in 1979, he formed Billy & the Beaters which soon became the most talked-about band in town.

In 1981 the band recorded (for Alfa Records) the chart hit, “I Can Take Care Of Myself,” written by Billy. The follow-up, “At This Moment,” scraped the lower end of the charts, as Alfa’s Japanese owners pulled the plug on the label. Five years later a phone call from the producer of the sitcom Family Ties changed everything. They wanted to use “At This Moment” in an episode. The public responded and the song, now reissued on Rhino, vaulted to #1 nationally. In the interim, Billy had built a side career in acting: Buckaroo Banzai, Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Blake Edwards’ Blind Date, as well as TV shows like Alice, Wise Guy, Baywatch and a recurring role as ‘Duke’ on Beverly Hills, 90210. Artists who have recorded Billy Vera songs include Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Fats Domino, the Shirelles, Tom Jones, Freda Payne and Little Milton. Etta James recorded and Jerry Wexler produced, “You’ve Got Me,” a tune Billy did in the movie Baja Oklahoma starring Willie Nelson.

Billy Vera and the Beaters began in early 1979. Not long after moving to Los Angeles Vera moved in with his former bass player from New York, Chuck Fiore. Fiore suggested that Billy drop by one of the clubs one night to sit in. Billy Vera and the Beaters band was formed and the group decided that they would model the group on the old Little Richard and Ray Charles 50’s bands which included four horns. For a little spice Billy thought to make the band an ’80’s version of Bob Wills, thusly not limiting the band to any one genre of music.

For the next four years Billy Vera and the Beaters played Southern California to loyal crowds. Then one day came the golden phone call. “This guy calls me and says he’d been to see the band over the weekend,” recalls Vera. “He’d heard us do a tune which he wanted to use on this show he was producing called Family Ties. The song, of course, was “At This Moment.” Many television and movie appearances followed. Vera performed two other songs, “Poor Boys” and “Ronnie’s Song” in his featured role on the CBS series Wise Guy, which concluded with his character being reluctantly shot in the back by one of the show’s leads. From mid-1990 to early 1991 Billy and the band were tapped to be the house band on ABC’s venture into the late night talk show field with Into the Night starring Rick Dees. Billy continues to write, produce, perform, do voice-over work, and is very active as a music Historian.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was introduced to Billy Vera by Herald De Paris’ good friend Maria Richwine Luna. Many thanks from Paris.

Your dad was a media pioneer with his announcer voice-over work; did this early exposure to radio/TV give you an edge when you did radio/TV work later in life?

BV: I was around show business with both parents. Besides my dad being a staff announcer, my mom was a singer. She did background singing on the Perry Como, Pat Boone and Frankie Laine shows and sang on Como’s hit records. This taught me the professionalism that gave me a certain edge. Much later, when I got into voice-over work, my dad gave me advice:

1. Show up early
2. Work quickly
3. Have no opinions
4. Don’t give anybody any crap

As a child, I often went to the TV shows with my mom. Being in the dressing rooms with all the beautiful, half-dressed singers and dancers and having them pay me so much attention spoiled me. I also got to see some of the greatest entertainers of the time and saw, not only how they performed, but how they conducted themselves off-stage.

Why did you change your name from McCord to Vera?

BV: My first manager, when I was sixteen, told me people might confuse me if I had the same name as my dad, which was Bill McCord. People knew him from announcing the quiz shows, Tic Tac Dough and Concentration.

In what ways did your mom (Ann Ryan who worked with Ray Charles and Perry Como) influence you taste in music and soulful style?

BV: She sang with the Ray Charles Singers, led by the original Ray Charles, who was a white guy. She had some great records in her collection by Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Nancy Wilson, Nat Cole and even Arthur Prysock that influenced me. This was in addition to the rock ’n roll of my own generation: Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and Jesse Belvin.

As a youngster, did you have the opportunity to observe some of the recording sessions? Did your parents want you to be an artist and did you take music lessons? Is your first instrument the piano?

BV: I didn’t attend recording sessions but I went to the Perry Como show occasionally. My parents weren’t thrilled with me going into music as they knew from experience how hard it is to succeed. But they gave me lessons, first on drums, then piano and guitar. I had a few singing lessons to learn how to breathe properly, etc.

When was the first time you realized that you would make music your life’s work and that you could make it as a performer?

BV: I saw the rock ’n roll stars on American Bandstand and assumed I could do it too. Youth and lack of experience gives you courage.

When did you begin writing songs?

BV: I wrote my first songs at fourteen. They weren’t terrible, but not great either. They were basically copies of the doo-wop songs I loved.

While in your teens you made you first record ‘All My Love.’ What did you know about love at the time?

BV: I knew what most teenagers know about love: the passion and excitement that all those teen hormones rushing through your body give you. You see a pretty girl and you begin to have all these fantasies about holding her in your arms.

At that time what were your relationships with girls? Was it your intent to become a teenage idol?

BV: I was shy with girls and still am to some extent. I went to a boys’ Catholic high school. Girls liked me because I sang but I didn’t realize it fully. I dreamed that becoming a famous singer would make the girls come to me so I wouldn’t have to work up the courage to approach them.

How did the fame affect you?

BV: Having a hit record didn’t affect me as much as you might think. I still had my same friends whom I felt comfortable with. There were more girls, of course; women are attracted to fame, which they see as power. In the early “fame” I liked being able to walk down the street and people would say hello to me. I never drank or used drugs, so I didn’t do all the stupid things young people do when they become well-known. My stupid things came from not being able to say no to pretty girls. I made some pretty bad choices; beauty over quality in many cases.

How did it feel when you heard Ricky Nelson doing your song on TV?

BV: It was a big thrill to hear my song on TV. Ricky Nelson was a huge star and here he was, singing my song five weeks in a row! “Mean Old World” was the first song that I ever took to a music publisher and it was extreme good luck that it got recorded by such a big star.

Your first solo hit was ‘With Pen in Hand.’ Thematically your biggest hits involve love lost; was this the case in real life? I’ve been given the impression that you were quite the ladies man back in the day. True?

BV: People seem to like to hear me sing sad songs of lost love. I guess my ability to express that comes from real life. I’ve never been one of those smooth, slick type guys. I knew the pimps in the rough clubs we played in back in the day and learned their tricks, but never had the heart to treat women that way. If I was a ladies’ man, it was only because they approached me when I came off stage. Often, I would see some beautiful girl in the audience and be dying to meet her but couldn’t work up the nerve to approach her. Later, someone would say she was dying to meet me, but neither of us was willing to make the first move. As a result, I often wound up with pushy, aggressive types.

Tell us about your working relationship with Jerry Wexler. He really believed in you. Where would you be without him? What is his musical legacy?

BV: Jerry was a big fan of black music. His partner in Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, signed most of the white acts, while Jerry worked with the Aretha’s, Wilson Picketts, etc. He said he liked me because he heard the history of black American music in my sound, without trying to “sing black.” I saw how he worked with the musicians and he taught me the importance of choosing great material. He was one of the great song men. Early in his career, he worked as a record reviewer at Billboard Magazine. One day a record by Erskine Hawkins, one of the great Harlem bands, came across his desk. It was a cover of a country tune by Pee Wee King and he thought it would be good for Patti Page so he took it to her manager. It was “Tennessee Waltz” and it made her career. He was also my literary mentor, turning me on to authors and books, as well as introducing me to older music artists. I had dropped out of college after one year, so I had to self-educate.

Tell us about your first band – you would come in from the suburbs and play church dances then clubs in Times Square. What are some of the best and worst memories of those times?

BV: I was asked to join an existing high school band, the Pharaohs, when their singer joined the Navy. The first church dance we played together was with several other acts. We were doing “Shout” and I did a split and a little girl in the front row suddenly smiled and said, “Oooh Billy! You have such nice underwear.” I’d ripped my pants. It got big applause…and laughs. Times Square was pretty rough. Lots of gangsters since they owned all the clubs. One night one of them was sitting with his friends at a table in front and liked my singing so much that he told this beautiful prostitute to take me home with her. I felt bad for her and said I’d tell him she was great and she didn’t have to do it with me but she said she liked me and wanted to be with me, so what was I to do? One New Year’s Eve in 1965 we were playing at The Starlighter, a club on 46 th Street Joey Dee fronted for the Gambino’s. Joey’s band was ¾ of the Rascals, who were on the verge of their enormous success. I looked out in the audience and saw mob guys from Brooklyn, Little Italy and East Harlem. I prayed nobody would flirt with anybody’s wife or girlfriend. Fat chance. Next thing I knew chairs and tables were flying…and then the guns came out and bullets were flying everywhere. We snuck out the back and when we came back the next day the boss was mad because we didn’t keep playing!

Tell us about your first songwriting job at April Blackwood. How old were you? What were those days like and how did you get inspiration for the songs they asked you to write at the time?

BV: The music business was a cottage industry at that time and if you had a little hit, like “Mean Old World,” everybody on Broadway knew about it. So it was easy for me to see publishers after that. I brought some songs to April-Blackwood Music, the publishing arm of CBS and Columbia Records. I knew the boss, Gerry Teifer, another great song man. He thought I needed a little seasoning, so he put me under the arm of Chip Taylor, a more experienced writer, who coincidently had gone to my high school four years earlier. His brother was an up and coming actor named Jon Voight. Chip gave me some good advice. He said a song is like a short story and should have a beginning, middle and an end. He also said don’t write trendy songs for today; try to imagine someone singing the song twenty years from now. The first song we wrote together was “Make Me Belong to You” which became a hit for Barbara Lewis and had about twenty-five cover versions in many languages as well as one by Fats Domino, a childhood hero of mine. Barbara was on Atlantic Records giving us entre to Jerry Wexler, who’d produced her record. A typical day would be Teifer might come in and say the Shirelles or Tony Bennett or someone else was going to be recording and I should write something for them. So I’d listen to their music to get an idea of their vocal range and the types of stories they liked to sing about, then try to come up with something that fit them.

Atlantic Records put out two hits for you with Judy Clay. You then had a chance to work the Apollo in New York. Most people at the time thought you were black. Tell us about the bi-racial performance experience and how did the audience accept you? I’d heard there were standing ovations. Any negative?

BV: After “Make Me Belong To You,” Chip and I wrote a song we thought might be a good duet for other Atlantic stars, “Storybook Children.” We made a demo with a neighborhood girl and me singing. We played it for Wexler who loved it but said, “Get rid of the girl and I’ll record you on Atlantic.”

I was friendly with Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, who my band had backed often at a club where we were the house band. I thought Nona Hendrix, a girl in the group, had a voice that would blend well with mine so I called and asked if she’d like to make a record with me since they were already on Atlantic at the time. She said yes and we made the record.

The Bluebelles’ manager feared she’d quit the group if we had a hit so we had to look for someone else. We must’ve auditioned twenty girls who all sounded like they should be singing Broadway show tunes, not what we wanted. We were about to give up when Wexler said to listen to this girl Judy Clay, an adopted cousin of Dionne Warwick.

She sang great but had a bad attitude. She’d sung with the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group with Dionne’s mother and her sister, Cissy Houston. Judy was bitter because she was the lead singer and all these others, Dionne and her sister Dee Dee, had made hits and she hadn’t. I told everyone I could handle her and we became great friends. “Storybook Children” was a hit for Judy and me and the Apollo came calling. Honi Coles, of the famous tap dancing team, Coles & Atkins, was the stage manager. He put it second on the bill, the worst spot on the show, since he didn’t know if we’d go over. He told Judy to enter from stage right and me from stage left, waiting for her to take three steps from the wings before making my entrance. People gasped when they saw me. I could hear them saying, “That’s HIM?” After the first show, we got big applause so Honi came up to our dressing room and said, “I’m changing up the show. You’re going on before the star, because ain’t nobody gonna follow you two!” We became big favorites.

Once, to a packed house, we got such a big ovation that we had to go back and repeat the second half of “Storybook Children.” Wilson Pickett, a great star who was very insecure, was backstage. I heard him yell at his bandleader, “Go out and play an instrumental. How the f*** am I supposed to follow those two?”

We did five shows a day, seven days a week, and I loved every minute of it. Most new performers are scared to death to work the Apollo because the audiences there have seen the greatest acts in black show business and demanded the best. Maybe because I was so young, but I just assumed they’d like me and they did.

When I was producing Lou Rawls, twenty years after we’d last played there, Lou had a benefit to appear at so I went with him. We walked in the stage door where it was crowded. Ralph Cooper, the legendary black matinee idol who’d been at the Apollo in 1934 when they first opened their doors to black customers, spotted me and said, “Billy Vera, come over here boy.” He hugged me and said “Welcome home.” A young pianist friend was up there recently and he called me on his cell phone and said, “Dude! Your picture is still in the lobby. I’m looking at it now!”

Did you write ‘Country Girl – City Man’ with bi-racial intentions? Do you consider yourself a pioneer in that regard?

BV: This song was written by Chip with Ted Daryll, so I can’t say what their intention was. People often think Judy and I were the first racially integrated duo, but that had happened back in the Swing Era. Jo Stafford and Sy Oliver with Tommy Dorsey’s band sang “Yes Indeed” and Anita O’Day and trumpeter Roy Eldridge even made a video of “Let Me Off Uptown” with Gene Krupa’s band. But we were the first, as far as I know, to sing love songs to each other.

How did the mid-sixties affect your writing career and what did you think of the music of the British Invasion? Did you try to write for those acts?

BV: The British Invasion affected me, like it did many songwriters, in a bad way since many of those acts wrote their own material. I wasn’t very lucky with the Brits.

After you wrote a hit for Dolly Parton you moved to LA. What was the plan for you at that time? How do you feel about country music? It is bigger than ever now.

BV: The 70’s were a hard time for me. I couldn’t find a way to fit in with the changes in music. Dolly cut my song “I Really Got the Feeling” in 1978 and it reached #1 on the country charts in January, 1979 – the day I reached LA with a co-publishing deal with Warner Bros Music. At 34, I figured I was too old to be a rock’n’roll star so I planned to just write. During the 70’s soul music changed to disco, which no musician liked, so I started listening to the country outlaws like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and that crowd. There was an honesty about it that I liked.

You have written for a diverse group of artists from Etta James and Fats Domino to Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt. Why do you think you can write for such a diverse number of musical genres?

BV: My background as a professional songwriter was to be able to write in various styles and tailor songs for different types of singers.

Tell us about moving to LA and then about forming The Beaters. You were going after a Ray Charles type band? Why four sax players?

BV: I moved to LA with everything I owned in my car except for my record collection, which I left in my mother’s basement. Eddie Silvers, one of the great publishers, heard “At This Moment” and brought me out here. I ran into Chuck Fiore who’d played bass for me in New York and we decided to start a band so we could meet girls and have something to do on the weekends. Ray Charles was my #1 musical hero. I love his 50’s small band so, since we weren’t doing it for the money, we decided to have a larger band with horns. Nobody had a band like that then. I’ve always loved the sound of saxophones.

What were the years at the Troubadour like? Who were some of the cats who wanted to sit in that you wouldn’t let on stage?

BV: I played little gigs out by the beaches and someone asked me if we’d like to play the Troubadour on their famous Monday nights. I said I didn’t want to bring in ten guys just to play for twenty minutes. He said we could start at midnight and play as long as we wanted. We decided not to advertise and let the ‘in crowd’ discover us for themselves since that’s how they like it. We figured it might take six weeks or so but after two weeks there were lines around the block every week for the next year. I’d look out in the audience and see the record company guys smiling and clapping but nobody tried to sign us. A band called the Knack was popular at the time and they were all trying to find bands like that. So after all those bands flopped they finally began looking for something different and we were different for sure. We had three offers in a week. I chose Alfa Records, a Japanese label that had just opened US offices, figuring we’d get more attention. We ended up having a hit “I Can Take Care of Myself” in 1981. The follow-up was “At This Moment” which only rose to #79. The company soon closed its doors and for the next five years we couldn’t get a recording contract.

How different is the East Coast music scene from LA? Why did you settle in LA rather than New York?

BV: The main difference was I could make a small living playing in clubs in NY. In LA there was no money to be made playing original songs. I moved to LA because Warner Bros wanted me to live here and I felt that I’d worn out my welcome in NY and that my career was going nowhere there.

We all want to know about the tune ‘At This Moment.’ Who was it about? Was it based on real life?

BV: I wrote “At This Moment” while still living in NY in 1977. I’d just started dating a young girl who’d just broken up with her boyfriend. She was a bit of a narcissist and almost delighted in telling me how sad the guy was about getting dumped by her. I began writing the song from what I perceived as his point of view but couldn’t finish it so I put it away. A year later, when she dumped me, I knew how it ended and was able to finish it.

What did you think when ‘Family Ties’ blew the song up and it went to the top of the charts? Did you make serious money?

BV: It was quite a thrill. I hadn’t had a record out in five years and was making a bare living acting when Family Ties used the song. We’d just done three songs in a Blake Edwards movie Blind Date starring Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger and thought that would be our come-back. Life changed rapidly with the hit. Lots of TV, nine appearances on Johnny Carson alone, American Bandstand, all the shows that had music acts. We’d recorded three albums for Alfa, one unissued, so I owed the company a lot of money which meant no royalties as an artist. I did do well as a songwriter, since I wrote most of the album.

How did you fall into acting and what are some of your most memorable roles on film? Did your work in film get you interested in doing TV?

BV: Acting came about by accident. One night at the Troubadour Jon Voight came in with his acting teacher, David Proval. They came back after the show and Jon said, “Man, what you’re doing up there is amazing. I’ve never seen a singer approach performing the way you do. You sing like an actor. Why don’t you come to David’s class?” I had no interest in acting but Jon’s excitement drew me in.

After I began to get the process I was asked to do a few plays. I was seen by an important agent named Ames Cushing who signed me. She and Donna Perricone started getting me work. I did a movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai which became a well-regarded cult film. I got roles on sitcoms or playing thug-of-the-week on cop shows and some movies. Just as I was getting somewhere as an actor the record took off and I felt I had to choose where to focus my energies. I picked the music. Right around that time I got the most well-rounded character I did on a show called Wise Guy.

Which is better for performance: TV or Film?

BV:You have more time to work when doing a film. On TV everything is rushed.

Good and bad of working late night TV with Rick Dees?

BV: Sadly, the show wasn’t very good but it was a steady paycheck for my band guys and we got to work with some real legends like Henry Mancini, Merle Haggard and Dion.

Tell us about your radio show ‘Billy Vera’s Rock and Roll Party.’ What kinds of music did you showcase?

BV: That was a lot of fun playing the old R&B records from my collection. I did it for six years. I would pick a year and month and play records from, for example, November, 1954. I’d talk about the artists and the times and try to be interesting in an entertaining way. One day someone called the station and said, “That guy has an interesting voice; you believe him when he talks. Would he be interested in doing voiceovers?” I was married by that time and had a kid and I needed money so I said yes. The first one I did was one of those that’s well-written and made me sound like I knew what I was doing. My phone started ringing so I thought I’d better get a v/o agent. That second career took off and soon I was making more money than I’d ever made in rock’n’roll.

Tell us about some of your commercial and voice-over experiences. King of Queens? Commercials?

BV: I’ve done tons of commercials for different cars, products and eating establishments. I’ve had AM-PM convenience stores for twelve years now. I did a lot of network promos for their coming shows. I did all the comedy promos for CBS for five years plus promos for all the other networks too.

The first TV theme song I sang was for a show called Empty Nest which lasted several years. The biggest was King of Queens which lasted nine years and is still on in syndication. It was like having a hit record. They have to pay you each time the show airs.

Tell us about your interest as a music historian and your collection of music. Have you written a book about music history or plan to do so?

BV: Ever since I was a kid, whenever I heard an artist I liked, I’d want to know what they did earlier in their career. I always wanted to know what came before, always looked at the records to see who wrote the song, who played what instrument, all the info. That grew into a passion for the history of the music. I’ve written over 200 liner notes for reissue CDs and box sets, many of which I also produced, including sets on Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Louis Prima and many more. I’ve been nominated for a Grammy for my historical work three times.

How was it producing Lou Rawls and doing jazz? Which is your favorite genre to produce?

BV: Lou was great to work with. He trusted my partner Michael Cuscuna and myself so we had no trouble getting him to do what we wanted. I picked most of the songs and he recorded seven of mine too. We got some great artists to work with him: George Benson, Ray Charles, Joe Williams, Lionel Hampton, Dianne Reeves, Phoebe Snow and many more. I like producing jazz because everyone records at the same time, no overdubbing. It’s all immediate and spontaneous.

Who are some of the acts that you listen to? Any good up and comers? Who would you like to produce?

BV: I’m afraid I’ve reached the time of life where I listen mostly to the old stuff: Duke Ellington never gets tired for me. I met Tamela D’Amico, a terrific young jazz singer. She encouraged me to make an album of my own. Dhana Taprogge is another wonderful singer who writes great songs.

What are some of the things you are working on now?

BV: I’ve just released my dream album, called BILLY VERA: BIG BAND JAZZ with a big eighteen piece band. We recorded it at Capitol’s famed Studio A where Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and all those legends made their classic albums.

The theme of the album is songs written by the great black songwriters of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Duke, Count Basie, Buddy Johnson, etc.

Still touring? What kinds of venues would you like to do?

BV: With a big band touring is difficult and costly so we’ve traditionally remained in Southern California mostly.

How do you feel about New Media, the internet and Social Media?

BV: I love the internet. So much information is available on Google although you have to be careful since there are a lot of mistakes on there. Facebook is great for self-promotion. You’re in constant contact with your fans. I’ve also met some great people that way.

You have done everything! What are some of the things you still hope to do?

BV: I’d love to have this album sell enough so that I can play Carnegie Hall.

When it’s all said and done, what would like your artistic legacy to be?

BV: I guess I’d like to be remembered for the songs I wrote and/or sang and hope people will be able to attach them to times in their lives and bring back happy memories or that my sad songs helped them get through their difficult times.

Edited by Susan Acieves

maria November 26, 2012

Great Interview Herald De Paris….
Billy – looking forward to your Memoirs – so glad to have known you for all of these years… I am proud to call you my friend!… Best of luck to you!!!

Joyce Gallagher November 26, 2012

What a great article Billy you had and still have an interesting life and such a love for music and people
I,m so happy I met you back in the 60,s in Westchester NY

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