BILLY "THE KID" EMERSON
Born William Robert Emerson, 21 December 1925, Tarpon Springs, Florida
Among all the original black artists who recorded for Sun in the first half of the 1950s, Billy Emerson is the one who had the most direct impact on the white rockabillies. He started recording for Sun Records in January 1954 and did his last session for the label in November 1955. Two of his sides were covered by white Sun artists, none other than Elvis Presley ("When It Rains It Pours") and later Billy Riley ("Red Hot"). But national recognition in the shape of hits always eluded Emerson.
Billy Emerson was born into a musical family. His father played piano and sang the blues, but Billy learned piano from his uncle, John Hannon, who was a boogie woogie player. Billy took an early interest in music, singing on stage at the local church. With a background steeped in blues and boogie, he started performing in local groups, such as the Billy Battle band (which he joined in 1946, after two years in the Navy). By the early 1950s he was a full-time musician, but then Uncle Sam demanded his services again, from November 1952 until September 1953. Back home in Florida he joined (or maybe rejoined) Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm as a vocalist. It was Turner - who also acted as a talent scout for Sam Phillips - who brought him to Sun. Emerson sang two of his own compositions on his first session (January 11, 1954), "No Teasin' Around" and "If Lovin' Is Believing" and these were released back to back on Sun 195 on February 20. After his second single, "The Woodchuck" (Sun 203, based on an old nursery rhyme) got some healthy airplay, Billy formed his own band and started working out of Cairo, Illinois. His third single, "Move Baby Move"/ "When It Rains It Pours" (Sun 214) was recorded in October 1954. It could have given him the success he deserved, but by this time Sam Phillips's efforts and modest funds were almost exclusively directed at Elvis Presley product. Ironically it was Elvis who would subsequently record "When It Rains It Pours". His Sun version from November 1955 remained in the vaults until 1983, but Presley re-recorded the song for RCA in February 1957. This version was included on the "Elvis For Everyone" LP in 1965 and finally brought Billy some handsome royalties. Emerson was a fine songwriter and recorded very few songs that he didn't write himself.
A fourth Sun single was recorded on May 31, 1955, "Red Hot"/"No Greater Love" (Sun 219). Emerson derived "Red Hot" from a cheerleaders' chant, "Our team is red hot". It sold well in some territories, but the song would become a rockabilly classic after it was recorded by Billy Riley (also for Sun, in January 1957) and Bob Luman (for Imperial, October 1957). These white versions were lyrically stripped down, but retained the classic retort "Your gal ain't doodley squat". Sam the Sham revived it in 1966 and Robert Gordon turned in a sizzling rendition in 1977 (with Link Wray).
One last single, "Little Fine Healthy Thing"/"Something For Nothing" (Sun 233) was released in January 1956 before Billy's Sun contract expired. By that point Emerson had relocated to Chicago and Phillips had other sounds on his mind. Billy wasted no time finding a new label, for in the same month that he cut his last session for Sun, he also recorded his first for VeeJay. Four singles would be released on that label (1956-57) ; in some cases Billy recycled melodies that he had already cut for Sun, with new lyrics. From VeeJay, Emerson moved to Chess (1959-60), where he had another three releases ; he also did session work for the label and then got into producing. In the 1960s he recorded for a number of small labels : M-Pac, Chirrup, USA, Tarpon (his own label), Constellation, The Roots and Big Bear. He kept a fairly low profile for a decade or so, until he found out that there was a demand for his old recordings in Europe. Emerson re-emerged in the late 1970's, making something of a name for himself with a European tour in 1979-80. Some of his unreleased Sun recordings also appeared around that time, on European compilations.
Not much was heard of him since then. In 2002-2010, he was a preacher, based in his native Tarpon Springs, Florida.
More info :
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/billyemerson.htm
Acknowledgements : Adam Komorowski, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, Eric LeBlanc.
Dik, October 2014
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