Rockin’ Thru the Years 1955-2002 (Castle)
Playing Feb. 8 at Tower Records, West End, and Feb. 11 as part of the Western Beat Roots Revival at Exit/In
Billy Adams is as energetic and committed to playing rockabilly today as he was back in the mid-1950s, when he started Billy Adams and The Rock & Roll Boys with his brother Charles and bass player Curtis May. Now living in Franklin, Adams has never enjoyed widespread fame like others from that period, but he’s widely admired and respected by fans of vintage American musicespecially in Europe.
A recent inductee to the Internet Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Adams and his band recorded numerous singles for the Quincy, Dot, Nau-Voo and Fern labels before he gave up rock ’n’ roll to enter the ministry in 1965. All of those tracks, as well as unreleased material from the ’50s and selections from Adams’ 2000 album, Legacy, appear on Rocking Thru the Years 1955-2002, a career retrospective that testifies to his enduring body of work. Currently enjoying something of a renaissance, Adams will showcase tracks from his forthcoming album of new material with two performances this week.
“I’ve loved singing ever since I heard Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family on the radio,” says Adams, who was born in rural Redbush, Ky., in 1940. “We had an old radio powered by batteries in our house. The reception wasn’t always that great, but I was immediately drawn to the way Jimmie Rodgers phrased his lyrics. He was a big influence; and the Western swing pianist Moon Mullican, he used to pound those keys, he was another major influence. And, of course, when I heard Elvis in 1954, that was kind of like validating what I was doing, because his songs were using that great beat.
“It was an incredible time, a period when you could take all kinds of musical chances, and when no one really knew for sure what might or might not be a hit,” Adams continues. “I think if we could have made it at Sun back then, we’d have had a shot at really being big.”
Shortly after releasing his first single, “Rock, Pretty Mama,” for the Quincy label in 1957, Adams called Sun Records from a pay phone following a show in Springfield, Mo.; he introduced himself as “Billy Adams from Kentucky, a 16-year-old boy with a record.” Invited by “Cowboy” Jack Clement to come to Memphis and audition for Sun, Adams and his band nearly got there, but “our old Ford just couldn’t make it.” Adams sold the car for $50, canceled the rest of the tour and headed home. He finally reached Memphis in 1998, recording Legacy for Screen Door Records in 2000.
What’s always been most impressive about Adams’ music is his pliable voice and fiery guitar playing. Pivotal singles like “You Heard Me Knocking” for Dot and the maniacal “You Gotta Have a Duck Tail” for Nau-Voo, both from 1958, feature his joyous, infectious vocals. “I’ve always thought it was important that the singer believe in what he’s singing, and communicate that to the audience,” says Adams. “We really loved making those records. The only problem I ever had was having to be on the road so much, and not having songs that I thought were good become as successful as possible because of politics or distribution. Back then, though, I didn’t know that much about the business end [of music].”
Although never one of the vaunted rockabilly acts of the 1950s, Adams still managed to attract national attention for early singles like “You Heard Me Knocking” and “True Love Will Come Your Way.” Those records were issued on the Dot label, thanks to the efforts of Glen McKinney, owner and engineer of the Mack Recording Company, who offered Adams and his fledgling band a record deal. McKinney subsequently licensed those songs, which were recorded in his tiny Nau-Voo studios in West Portsmouth, Ohio, to Dot, the small but influential label that had been located in Gallatin until owner Randy Wood moved it to Hollywood in 1957. By the time Adams and his bandmates were putting out records on Dot, they were calling themselves The Rock-A-Teers. The combo toured extensively in 1958 and 1959, before Adams tired of the road and disbanded the group; he kept writing and recording, though, until 1965, when he totally shifted gears and took up a very different vocation.
“I was called by the Lord, and it was time for me to do something completely different with my life,” Adams says of his decision to enter the ministry. “I didn’t even think about what it would mean to me commercially. I was concerned about what I could do to help others find the joy that I had discovered.” However, he didn’t completely turn his back on the past. “I found that a lot of times, people who’d heard those songs, or knew me from rockabilly or rock ’n’ roll, would be fascinated hearing me talk about the Lord. Also, I felt my inspiration to perform and my talent came from God, so it just made sense for me to use everything on his behalf.”
Meanwhile, Adams’ recordings remained in circulation; thanks to reissues of his early work by Ace, Bear Family and MCA, Adams and his music continued to enjoy a certain vogue, particularly overseas, where collectors are enamored of Americana of all stripes, notably rockabilly. The trouble was, several other rock ’n’ roll singers named Billy Adams had surfaced in the interim, making it difficult at first for Adams to reestablish his identity as a performer.
“One of them died in 1984, and some people thought that was me, especially since I’d been in the ministry and wasn’t doing rockabilly or rock ’n’ roll tours,” Adams recalls. “I even had a guy come up to me at a show and ask me to sign a record that had my obituary printed on the back.”
Alive and quite well, Adams has since drawn rave reviews, especially for his concert appearances last summer and fall in England and for Rockin’ Thru the Years, which has received high praise in a number of collectors’ magazines. Not only that, his performance in Jackson, Tenn., at Rockabilly Fest 2001 was filmed and later aired on public television, attracting the attention of contemporary musicians like former Mavericks Robert Reynolds and Nick Kane.
“There’s a whole new generation out there who don’t know about the old days, but are hungry to hear some real music,” says Adams. “I’m real happy to get back out there and show them what the real thing sounds like.”
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