Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are proud to present this exclusive interview with BILLY VERA.
Billy Vera is a multi-hyphenate. Most know him as a singer, songwriter. He and his group, Billy Vera & The Beaters, charted many hits including the mega-hit “At This Moment.” As a songwriter, Billy has written for and worked with countless artists over the years including the likes of Fats Domino, Dolly Parton, and Ricky Nelson. Billy also is an accomplished actor, Grammy Award-winner, author, and music historian. A more detailed bio is included after our interview.
Billy, thank you for granting us this interview. We know you have been interviewed countless times, but we hope we can cover some new and old territory.
PT: So here is the first curve. What is your favorite film of all time?
There are so many in so many genres: Diary of a Lost Girl — Louise Brooks, 1929; Shanghai Express — Marlene Dietrich, 1933; Any Fred & Ginger movie, Gilda — Rita Hayworth, 1946; Maria’s Lovers — Robert Mitchum, Nastassja Kinski, 1984; Broadway Danny Rose — 1984.
PT: They say you can learn a lot about a person from the type of music they like. What are some of the songs on your iPod? Have your tastes in music changed over the years? If yes, how so?
BV: I don’t have an iPod, just a world-class record & CD collection. Early on, I liked 50s doo-wop, like Frankie Lymon, also Fats Domino, Chuck Berry; the usual for my age group. My mother was a singer and brought home records that influenced me: Sinatra, Duke Ellington. Ray Charles and Duke are still my favorites, also Willie Nelson and so many more.
PT: You were born William Patrick McCord. Why did you change your name and how did you choose “Vera”?
BV: My dad was Bill McCord, a radio and TV announcer on NBC in NY. When I was 16 my manager thought I might get confused with him if I kept the same name. I knew a girl whose last name was Vera and I thought because it was short it would fit on the marquee better.
BV: They knew how tough show business is, so they encouraged me to go to college, but I hated it and left after one year. They gave me good advice. My mom said, “If you’re gonna be in show biz always live below your means.” — words I’ve lived by. When I went into voice over later in life, my dad said, “Show up early, work quickly, have no opinions, and don’t give anybody any crap.”
PT: You are a multi-hyphenate: singer, songwriter, actor, music historian. You even won a Grammy in 2013 for best album notes for Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles box set. Which career hat do you enjoy most?
BV: I still love to perform, but I also enjoy sifting through the vaults of record companies and compiling CDs that are historical and enjoyable to listen to.
PT: Early in your career you had the opportunity to be paired with soul and gospel singer, Judy Clay, and performed with her at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. We read that Judy was best known for her work with the group The Sweet Inspirations and recording and performing duets with you. Back then, at the height of racial tension in this country, publicly crossing the divide in an entertainment context must have been both courageous and impactful to say the least. Can you tell us about that experience?
BV: Having worked with a lot of black acts, I didn’t see it as courageous. We were just looking for a voice that blended well with mine and had soul, and Judy fit the bill. I wasn’t even thinking that we were the first interracial duo to sing love songs together.
The first time we played the Apollo, Honi Coles, the stage manager, put us on second — the worst spot on the bill — because he wasn’t sure if we’d go over. There was a race riot going on across the river in Newark at the time. In those days, the Apollo was a five-show-a-day, seven-day week. We went over like gangbusters the first show and Honi came up to our dressing room and said, “I’m changing up the show and putting you on before the star, because ain’t nobody gonna follow you two.”
And from then on, that was our spot. I’m proud to say, our picture is still in the lobby all these years later.
PT: You’ve acted in films and television. What drew you to acting?
Jon Voight, brother of my songwriting mentor, Chip Taylor, saw me at Troubadour one night and said, “You’re doing something I’ve never seen a singer do. Most singers manipulate the audience and you just lay it out there, letting them feel what they will. You’re doing what all the great actors do. Come to this class I go to.” It took a while but I eventually got the hang of it and became good enough to get roles.
PT: Tell us about the actors and/or entertainers with whom you most enjoyed working.
Ray Sharkey was a very generous actor, willing to let me shine. I loved working with the Coasters; I got my comic timing from them. I worked with so many greats, from Jackie Wilson, who was one of the greatest entertainers ever, to Patti LaBelle to the Ronettes.
PT: Time for another curve: What books are presently on your nightstand?
BV: A biography of Thelonious Monk which is very well written and researched.
PT: We read somewhere that Paul Anka would get an idea and start writing on whatever was handy, even matchbook covers. In terms of songwriting, can you explain how the muse visits you?
BV: I’ve written my best stuff on assignment, but also by just sitting at the piano, banging away until a chord sequence hits me I’ve never heard before.
PT: Do you write songs for specific people in mind?
BV: I used to, when I was a staff songwriter at publishing houses. The boss would knock on the door and say the Shirelles or Tony Bennett were coming up for a date. You’d listen to their stuff and figure out their vocal range and the subject matter they liked to sing about and craft a song specifically for them.
PT: We loved your Facebook post when you displayed Clive Davis’ rejection letter of “At This Moment.” Did he ever contact you afterward and congratulate you?
PT: “At this Moment” is one of those timeless songs that really strikes a chord with the masses. It is found on countless top wedding lists of popular songs. (We even selected it for our recent wedding.) Yet, if one listens to the words, it’s really a break-up song and is probably one of the most popular break-up songs that also is considered one of the most romantic songs ever written. Can you explain this dichotomous appeal?
BV: I can’t. I honestly had no idea it would be a hit. It was flawed. For example, there’s no obvious title for people to remember. The granddaughter of the guy who wrote “Moonlight In Vermont” pointed out that neither song has any rhymes, which shocked me. I had no idea I’d written a song with no rhymes! After thinking about that, I’ve come to the conclusion that this makes it more conversational, so maybe that helped after all.
One of Sinatra’s mistresses told me she’d shot video of me performing it at a songwriters’ event and showed it to him. He made her play it over and over, saying “This is one of the greatest songs and performances I’ve ever seen. Why isn’t this kid the biggest thing in the business?” And he made her play it every time he came to visit. Again, I was surprised because I’d thought he’d have hated the grammatical error, “Cause you just don’t love me NO more.”
PT: For Wayne, “At This Moment” holds a special place. In the late eighties he was working on a documentary with Scott Valentine who was, at the time, a regular on Family Ties. He met Michael J. Fox on Bright Lights Big City about the same time. He remembers hearing your song everywhere – Family Ties, Days of Our Lives, etc. Can you tell us about this period of your life?
BV: I’d been without a record deal for five years when Michael Weithorn, Family Ties producer/writer called to say he’d seen me sing the song in a club and thought it would work for an upcoming episode. I’d had a number of songs on TV shows and told him to call my publisher. When people responded so powerfully I was surprised, but it got me to see about finding a label to reissue the song, an uncharacteristically assertive act for me. Thank God I did, because I have no idea where my life might’ve gone otherwise.
PT: We love the idea of the phoenix – the mystical bird and symbol of resurrection. It seems that you certainly have reinvented yourself time and again. Would you agree?
BV: Yes, at one point I came to the realization that the age of specialization was over and I’d better take advantage of all the things I was good at, because, I figured, nothing is successful 100% of the time. One year, I’ll do well singing, the next, I’ll work more acting, etc. So this has worked well for me.
I got to produce four albums on the great Lou Rawls. His recording career was in the doldrums and we took him back to the kind of music people originally loved him for: jazz and blues and hit #1 on the jazz charts with the first one. The others were as successful, reinvigorating his career.
PT: Do you have any regrets that you can tell us about?
BV: Not generally, although I wish I could’ve been more confident and assertive in business and in my romantic life. Good things seemed to happen when I stepped out of my comfort zone, like when Nancy Sinatra turned down a song I’d written for her, I recorded it with a girl, getting turned down everywhere (“Love the song, hate the girl”) until Dolly cut it for my first #1 hit, “I Really Got The Feeling.”
The other side of that coin was, I almost didn’t pitch “Papa Come Quick” to Bonnie Raitt because I felt she couldn’t relate to the subject matter. The song was written from the point of view of a redneck family whose daughter runs off to LA with a Mexican biker. My friend’s wife encouraged me to send it to her when she asked me for songs and, as it turned out, there was a slot open for an uptempo song and it wound up on the biggest selling album of her career, Luck of the Draw.
PT: What was the best advice you ever received?
BV: The advice my mom gave me about always living below my means. I’ve been very poor at times. I once lived in one room with no heat or plumbing. I had to Scotch tape my dry cleaning plastic over the window to keep the cold out and keep a bed pan for a toilet. I showered in the landlady’s apartment where her criminal son kept a monkey in the shower who pooped in the tub. But, thanks to my mom’s advice, I never ever borrowed a dime and my needs were always met.
BV: I’m working with a big 18-piece band and loving it. I’ve just finished my memoir and am shopping it to publishers. There’s also a documentary being done about me with some pretty impressive people willing to talk about me: Dolly Parton, Nona Hendryx, Mike Stoller, Richard Roundtree, Benny Golson and more. The name of the book and documentary is Harlem to Hollywood.
PT: Any items still on your bucket list?
BV: I’d love to have another Grammy, for my own music this time.
PT: Now a really tough one for the last question: If you could use only one word to sum up your life and career, what would it be?
Billy’s musical career spans the past four decades and many different musical genres, from R&B to soul, from country to rock-n-roll. Often compared to the vocal stylings of the great blues singers, he remains one of the most respected and greatest vocalists of our time.
Billy Vera’s latest release is “Billy Vera Big Band Jazz,” a tribute to the black songwriters of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.
Not only is Billy Vera (born William McCord May 28, 1944 in Riverside, CA) a rock historian, he has made some rock history himself over the last quarter century. Vera wrote for the likes of Barbara Lewis and Rick Nelson during the mid-’60s before recording his “Storybook Children” as an R&B duet with Judy Clay in 1967 for Atlantic. It proved a solid hit, as did their 1968 follow-up “Country Girl – City Man.” Vera re-surfaced as a solo artist in 1987 when “At This Moment,” a song he’d cut in 1981 with his band, Billy Vera & the Beaters, was featured on the popular TV sitcom Family Ties and topped the pop charts on Rhino. Vera also has compiled and annotated many CD reissue projects, notably the Legends of Specialty series.
For more information check out Billy’s official website at http://www.billyvera.com