Dave Harrison: Born into the segregated south, he was exposed to the driving beat of the Blues when he was still an infant. In the crib, he could hear it as it permeated the walls against which he slept. This sound which spoke to him gave him an early direction in life which he has pursued to this day.
His early memories are of a juke joint from where he would draw inspiration; the images, and the folks he knew then are the stuff of his song. They gave him a mind-set that would drive him to perfect his craft as a guitar slinging blues man.
Billy Jones is betting that the Blues can experience a revival of interest. What is needed is a fresh infusion of imagination. And to capture a bigger share of the Black music market, what is needed is for the Blues to once again become relevant to the African American experience.
We spoke with him upon the release of his latest CD :
Billy: "I was raised from the age of six months in my grandfather's cafe and boarding house, The Cedar Street Cafe - 903 Cedar Street - North Little Rock, Arkansas. The room that we lived in was directly behind the wall of the main ballroom where the juke box was. My crib was on the other side of that wall, so as a baby I would be laying there listening to Elmore James, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and all the blues and soul greats while the cafe customers played records and partied well into the night. My bed would vibrate on the bass notes. That was my first exposure to the music. I absorbed the music as I could literally hear it in my sleep. One of the first thoughts that I remember having was that I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James."
"There was this dangerous juke-joint/nightclub place down the road from my grandfather's cafe called Jim Lindsey's Place. Many of the big "chittlin' circuit" stars of the day used to perform there like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby Blue Bland. Sometimes at night when everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of the room and climb up high in an old chinaberry tree and watch what was going on over at Jim Lindsey's Place. I could hear the band from there and pretend that it was me onstage."
"All the pimps, players, dealers, hoe's and gangsters used to hang out there and someone was always getting shot or stabbed on a regular basis. Remember that this was the segregated south, so whenever someone would call for an ambulance for a shooting, or fight, at the club, they would send a hearse from the black owned funeral home instead of an ambulance. If the victim was still alive they would take them to a black doctor. ...If not, they would take them to the funeral home."
"Of course I thought that these were the "beautiful people" and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Especially the musicians, with their tight-legged, sharkskin suits and Stacy Adams shoes, their jewelry and the way they wore their hair in a process. And the women! ...the way they used to dress back then was so glamorous! And of course Bobby Blue Bland's Cadillac. ...No medical school for me dad... I'm gonna be a blues star."
"The house band for Jim Lindsey's Place lived in an upstairs room over the club, and during the day I would go over there and try to hang out around them. They could tell that I really wanted to be a guitar player."
"There was this one musician who played at the club named Red Harpo... he told me that he was Slim Harpo's brother. I believed him. Whether he was or not, one thing is true, Red could play the hell out of a guitar! ... There was an air of excitement about him. Women would fight over him. He would let me come up to his room sometimes and talk to him while he would sip "Golden Rod" wine on ice and play and sing for me and show me how to play the new hit songs of the day, while I soaked-in all the information that he was giving me about being a real musician."
"By the time I was fourteen years old, I was hanging out at 'Williams Pool Hall.' One day this older guy pulled up in a 1957 Chevy station wagon packed full of amplifiers, microphones and drums He came in. He had that same air of excitement about him that Red had. He said that he was in a band and he had a gig booked in Lonoke, Arkansas that night and that he heard me play guitar and they were looking for a guitar player. He said that his name was Hosea Leavy and that he and his younger brother Calvin Leavy would pay me $6.00 if I played with them and Willie Cobb, Little Johnny Taylor and Larry "Totsie" Davis that night. I didn't tell him that I had never played in a band before. I was fourteen years old and I was going on the road! I was trying to be cool and I agreed to go with him. But I was so excited to be going to play with a real band!"
"That was the first day that I went on the road with the Leavy Brothers Band, and the beginning of a lifetime journey into the world of the blues . I've been on the road ever since. So it was 'on the job training' for me."
Dave Harrison: Now, how old were you when you first picked up the guitar? How did you become this accomplished musician that you are today?
Billy: "It's hard for me to remember when I didn't have a guitar... it's just something that I've always wanted to do."
"Because I loved guitars so much, around age four, or five years old, my uncle Vernon had given me a little plastic toy guitar with a music-box handle that played 'Pop Goes the Weasel' when you turned it. It was instant love. I used to stand in front of the juke box with that little guitar and pretend that I was every artist whose record was playing. I was always running around holding that guitar. I don't think I ever put it down."
"I think I really started getting serious about it during the summer between the 5th and 6th grade.
I didn't play with the other children in my neighborhood that much. I hung around adult musicians and spent most of my time learning songs from records and trying to sound like the guys on the recordings. Sometimes I would hang out with the winos and perform for them. Some of my family thought I was weird. But music is both my occupation and my recreation. And I spent almost every waking moment playing it and studying and imitating the artists that I idolized. ...I guess that I was kinda weird."
Dave Harrison: How did you start to playing gigs traveling from military installation to installation entertaining military members and their dependents? Were you in fact in the military at the time?
Billy: "No. I was not in the military. I've always regretted that I didn't join the Air Force. I think that I would have liked it. This was during my twenties, after I had started my own band and was playing a lot of Rick James, Cameo, Funkadelic, Stanley Clarke, Hendrix, Bar-Kays, Commodores, Gap, Zapp, and that kinda thing. At that time I was being booked by this big-shot "Clive Davis" type guy named Gene Williams, who was really hooked-up with the Grand Ol' Opry and the Nashville scene and was managing Ferlin Husky, Claude King and Donna Douglas, who played the part of Elly Mae on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies."
"Since he couldn't book a black band in the Country Music Capitol of the World, he started booking me into NCO and Officer's clubs on Naval Stations, Air Force Bases, Army Posts and military installations all over the United States. I lived the military lifestyle without actually being in the military. GI women are great!"
"I learned a lot and made a lot of friends... to this day I have the highest respect for military personnel. They are great people. They work hard and they play hard... and they love hard."
Dave Harrison: Where did this traveling take you?
Billy: "To over 42 states... countless times. ...and to Europe sometimes ...and to many clubs and shows that were booked off-base when we were in whatever city. I did that for ten years. I loved it!"
Dave Harrison: How did you come to refer to your music as "Bluez"? Is this to differentiate your music from the music created by the record industry?
Billy: "Yes, it is...I have studied many types of music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, R&B, punk, new wave or whatever, and I wanted to incorporate some of the elements from all of these styles into my original music."
Dave Harrison: How long have you worked to infuse an urban element into your music? How has it been received by your audience?
Billy: "I never intentionally set out to "urbanize" my music. I just wanted to learn everything that I could about my craft and how to please the audience that was in front of me that day. It was just natural evolution. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive from the general public."
Dave Harrison: Presently a number of Black artists are working to merge Blues music with Hip-hop. This would include artists such as Billy Branch, Russ Greene, Chris Thomas-King, among others. In fact, R L Burnside even did his take on this cross-infusion of the Blues, which was met with mixed reviews. Do you see your music going in this direction?
Billy: "What these artists understand... and the reviewers and "experts" probably don't, is this:
Hip-Hop has evolved from blues and is very much a part of it.... Hip-Hop is the blues of today.
If you analyze the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, like "The Message" by Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, or "How Do You Want It?" by Tu Pac Shakur ...(which is based on the hook from "Body Heat" by Quincy Jones), ...it's easy to hear that these songs are pure blues with African/Jamaican bass lines and drum beats. Of course, the stories that these songs tell are undeniable blues themes that reach deep into the heart of the African American experience. I love a little gangsta in my blues every now and then."
Dave Harrison: Do you agree with the assertion that the white artist has been more closely bound by tradition, whereas the Black artist has always been more progressive in their approach to the music, looking for the "next big thing"? This, perhaps, can be seen more in Jazz than in Blues.
Are these attempts at cross-infusion done more for the music, or is it being done for the rewards that the urban artist seems to be enjoying, the "bling"?
Billy: "Definitely for the music. I don't think that it has very much to do with the "bling".... little if anything....Of course any artist wants to be well compensated for their work... I certainly do."
"But the battle between the blues purist and the blues artist has gone on long before now. The artist wants to be artistic and create and innovate.... the purist doesn't want anything to change. No new instruments, no synthesizers, no drum machines, no new nothing. If Muddy didn't do it... it's wrong."
"But when Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters switched from acoustic to electric guitar the purists said that they were ruining the art-form. Look at all the great classics that were created because they ignored the so called experts."
"What the artist is trying to do is stretch the boundaries of the music and infuse elements that will appeal to a contemporary audience and to bring something new and relevant to the table."
"However, if these experts want to tell the artist what the song should sound like before it is written, there probably won't be much "bling" forthcoming. They won't sell many to people who buy cd's today. If an artist can reach the public and they love the music, then the bling will be just a pleasant side-effect."
"In order to compete effectively in the music business you have to stay on top of current events. That means that you have to have an understanding of contemporary musical styles and trends."
"I remember reading in a biography of Elvis that no matter where he was he was always listening to the radio in order to monitor musical trends and to hear what his competitors were doing. And he was Elvis!"
"Music is about constantly learning. ...and I want my music to appeal to a mass audience."
Dave Harrison: Is this image (the rewards) a creation of the "corporate entertainment business"?
Billy: "No, it is not... it's a creation of the hip-hop industry and the age of music video. It is an expression of what the young audiences wants to see. What they want to be."
Dave Harrison: Do you feel that the urbanization of Blues music is an effective way of reaching a younger market? To what market are you ultimately hoping to appeal?
Billy: "Definitely... it's the only way to reach the younger market."
"I want my music to appeal to everyone. That's what seems to be happening. The stories that I tell on this cd are true and universal. People across all genres are embracing the music."
Dave Harrison: In light of prevailing social and economic conditions that exist today, do you still feel that music can be a vehicle of change?
Billy: "I know that music can be a vehicle for change. Music is a gift from the creator who wrote the song of life. If you do it right it gets you on a level that is primal. And the right story can change the world."
...exclusive behind the scenes video of what happened at Alligator Records
when they heard the new cd by The Billy Jones Band:
Billy Jones spent his teen and young adult years touring with, playing back-up guitar and being mentored by Calvin Leavy, Little Johnny Taylor and Larry 'Totsie' Davis. ...these are the original versions by the original masters that were written and recorded long before the cultural raiders and imitators came along. All three of these great artists died penniless and unrecognized. ...and their life's works stolen to make fortunes for others. Now ain't that the Blues?
...it is an honor to have been a musical soldier in their bands.