RR LogoDon't Look Back

Billy Vera Photo Part IIAs 1966 dawned Billy Vera wrote another song that seemed at first glance to have a pretty good future, he just never figured it would be in the distant future.

“Back in the old April Blackwood days, about 1966, my boss came in and he said Chuck Jackson is recording next week. Chuck Jackson was a soul singer, who had a lot of hits and he was a great singer. I wrote this song for him and he didn’t record it, but this new group recorded it on Epic and they were called The Remains, a song called “Don’t Look Back.” It became their best known song, but of course that doesn’t mean anything, because The Remains never went anywhere. They were this legendary cult band. The record came into the office one day and I thought, oh my God this is a great record and I am going to have a hit record, but it wasn’t. Many years later, about ’71, I went down to The Village and into an oldies record store, because I collect old records and the guy behind the counter introduced himself to me. He said his name was Lenny Kaye and Lenny became Patti Smith’s guitar player. He said, ‘I did an album and I used one of your songs.’ I thought that he meant one of my songs as an artist and he said it was “Don’t Look Back,” by The Remains. He said that he had put out this album called Nuggets and it had become a cult album of old garage bands. He went on and on and on about the song. That made me feel good, but that was about the end of it. Now cut to about 1988 or so, I get a call from Cyndi Lauper’s husband and he said, ‘Cyndi just recorded this old song of yours that we have always loved, called “Don’t Look Back.” We love the song. We just cut it and we are thinking of putting Joan Jett’s voice on there and doing a duet, but nothing ever became of it. This song was jinxed. Then two weeks later somebody tells me that my song “Don’t Look Back,” was on a recording by Robert Plant. Somebody sent me the promo CD from Robert Plant’s album, but the song didn’t make it to the album (he laughs). Now I am thinking that this song is jinxed. Cut to two years ago or a year and one half ago, whenever it was and Rhino puts out an expanded version of Nuggets and they used “Don’t Look Back,” and the thing sold a lot of records. They put out a Robert Plant box set and “Don’t Look Back,” is on that, so finally forty years after writing the song, I finally started making some real money off of it. This last year there was a documentary on The Remains and they used “Don’t Look Back,” twice,” he laughs.

In some ways the journey of “Don’t Look Back,” foreshadowed the next decade of Billy Vera’s career until he wrote  “I Really Got The Feeling,” which became a # 1 hit for Dolly Parton.

“I was signed to Chip Taylor and Ted Daryll who were a couple of producers. (Jerry) Wexler wanted to take me away from them, because he didn’t think that they were good enough, but he couldn’t, because I was contractually bound to them. After a couple of more records that couldn’t do anything I asked for my release. I made a deal with a manager for my sister (singer-songwriter Kat McCord), for the two of us to go over to this jazz label, and to record separately. There were some business disagreements and after her album came out I decided not to record for him. Then the seventies were upon us and music changed pretty radically in the seventies and I couldn’t figure out where to fit. I couldn’t be heavy metal, I couldn’t be disco and I couldn’t be wimpy, singer songwriter Jackson Browne. I couldn’t find a place to fit, so I did all survival mode gigs during the seventies and played any club that would have me.  I did a lot of backup acts for oldies revivals,” says Vera as he digresses.

Returning the song “I Really Got The Feeling,” he recalls, “In early ’78 I was playing a Delta Inn or something out in New Jersey and it was like in the middle of the week and we were playing for three people and this guy came in with his wife and he said ‘My name is L. Russell Brown and I wrote “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” (he mimics Brown’s deep raspy voice).’  He says, “Vera you are a great songwriter and a great singer and everybody knows it, but you never make any money. Me I make a lot of money and nobody respects me. I’ve got this idea, let’s write some songs together. I can show you how to make money and you can show me how to get respect,’ (he laughs).  So we started writing songs together and then one day he gets a gig producing Nancy Sinatra. I was over at his house and he asked me, ‘Have you got anything for her?’  I said no, so he said, ‘I have to go to the store, why don’t you see if you can write something, while I am gone.’  I knocked out this little song in about twenty minutes, with lines in it like, “I really love my daddy, but it really don’t matter what my daddy might say,” thinking of Frank (Sinatra) and he (L. Russell Brown) loved the song, so he played it for Nancy and she hated it, so then he got really pissed off and he said, you have to prove me right and prove that bitch is wrong. You have to do something with this song. This is a hit, this is a number one song if I have ever heard one. We made a little record with it, with some little girl singer. She was kind of lazy and she didn’t learn the song properly. By now it had been eight or nine years since I had a hit record. My options weren’t exactly many. I went to everybody on my list. Finally the last guy said the same thing that everybody else did, ‘love the song, and hate the girl.’ He said, we are recording Dolly Parton next week and if you give me the song for her, I will guarantee you it will be a single. I said put it into writing Charlie and give me some money, so he writes me a check. I didn’t even look at the amount until I was in the elevator and it was for $2,500, which was a lot of money in 1978. In the meantime I get an offer to come to California and write songs for Warner Bros. Music Publishers. As I was driving out here with everything that I owned in my car, I was hearing my song, by Dolly Parton, like every twenty minutes and the day that I hit LA the song was # 1 on the country charts. I said wow I’m back in show biz. I figured it was an omen. I started writing up at Warner Bros and I really didn’t plan to perform out here, but I ran into one of my old bass players from New York. He said, ‘Why don’t we start a band, like the one that you want. We don’t have to worry about making money, just for fun. We will get a bunch of horns and we will do that. We did and he knew a lot of musicians.  That was the beginning of the Beaters.” Billy Vera Part II photo a

Billy Vera’s love for the horns was cultivated early in life and he makes the point that early Rock ‘n’ Roll, which he grew up listening to had dominant artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard and they were horn bands. He also listened to Ray Charles’ music which had a strong horn section and his mother brought home records by Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. He remembers being influenced by the Duke Ellington Uptown LP, which featured a lot of horns.

“I have always loved horns, especially saxophones. I was always more of a horn guy than a guitar guy.  The saxophone is the instrument that sounds the most like the human voice in terms of revealing emotion. If you talk to the real old timers they will tell you that the whole idea was to develop a sound that was uniquely your own. Lester Young sounds nothing like Ben Webster who sounds nothing like Charlie Parker. These guys really worked hard at developing their own tone and their own sound. I developed a good ear for hearing that. I could listen and say that’s King Curtis and say that is Fathead Newman or whoever,” says Vera.

Following the formation of Billy Vera and the Beaters, the band secured a regular gig on Monday nights at The Troubadour.  The venue regularly sold out when the band was playing and he remembers that “record company guys” started coming around, however nobody was taking out the check book, because Billy Vera and the Beaters was the antithesis of the popular music culture of the day.

“That was the era of “My Sharona,” so everybody was trying to sign four piece bands that wore skinny ties and wore narrow lapel suits, like The Knack did. We were the opposite of The Knack, we were a ten piece band with saxophones, with steel guitar and playing music that was nothing like what was on the radio,” he says.

About a year or so into their gig at The Troubadour, Billy Vera and the Beaters received three offers within twelve months and their fortunes started to change for the better. They decided to sign with the Japanese label Alfa Records, figuring that since they were first act to sign with the label that they would also get promoted the most, whereas if they went to a more established label, they might not receive as much attention or worse yet, might have become an afterthought. While signed to Alfa Records, Billy Vera and the Beaters recorded an album live at The Roxy Theatre and out of that concert came the hit song “I Can Take Care Of Myself.” The album also hit the charts. 

Vera refers to “I Can Take Care Of Myself,” as an important point in his career. “I would say that it was a turning point, because as an artist I had not had a hit record in over ten years. I was thirty-four years old by that time, which is old by Rock ‘n’ Roll standards. (I had been) in the music business for all of my adult life. I was having a hard time as a songwriter at Warner Bros. The problem was for me was that most of the acts were writing their own material. The guy who ran Warner Bros., Eddie Silvers, a real bright guy and an innovative guy said that the publishing business had changed since we had started. ‘It is no longer about I take your song and I take it to the artist or the producer and get your song recorded. It is about bankrolling an act, until they get a record deal.’ He was the first one to see that change in the publishing business. He wasn’t concerned that I wasn’t getting my songs recorded, because most of them were pretty unique to me and to my style of singing. It wasn’t like in the sixties when I was writing songs when they were good for a lot of people.”  Read Part III

Photo: Billy Vera and Rickie Lee Jones in 1981, photo courtesy of Billy Vera, protected by copyright © Photo:  Billy Vera in the mid 1980s, photo courtesy of Billy Vera, protected by copyright ©, all rights reserved

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