More about Billy Roberts


Billy Roberts, 1960

Billy Roberts

In 1962, William Moses Roberts Jr. copyrighted the song entitled “Hey Joe”. Several things about this “Hey Joe” have led people to question whether Roberts really wrote it. Because it draws on so many well-established song conventions, the song seems considerably older than the date of the copyright. And some observers claim that Roberts has not been consistent in explaining how he wrote the song.

From: Sixties Rock
Garage , Psychedelic & Other Satisfactions
By Michael Hicks
(University of Illinois Press)

Billy Roberts sung and played “Hey Joe” at Club 9, San Francisco, August 20, 1986

Billy Roberts sung and played “Hey Joe” with John Cippolina, Nick Gravenites, Greg Elmore and Dave Killmer at Club 9, San Francisco, August 20, 1986. John and Greg were members of the Quicksilver Messenger Service! He was introduced as a great songwriter. ‘I think his biggest hit was a song recorded by a lot of people …: “Hey Joe”‘!

 The Tale of Billy Roberts by Hillel Resner, close friend and ex-manager of Billy Roberts

I first met Billy in Reno, Nevada, where he had gone in the winter of ’61-’62 to get a divorce from his then-wife, Susan. We hung out together for a couple weeks and Billy played me every song in his repertoire on his trusty 12-string. Among them was “Hey, Joe,” with lyrics as you reprinted them on your site. He also showed me his copyright on the song, dated that year. After his divorce was final, Billy returned with me to San Francisco, where he took up residence for awhile, playing in the coffee houses on Grant Avenue and elsewhere.

Billy went off traveling around the country, but he returned to San Francisco and in 1965 I happened to hear The Leaves recording of “Joe” at a friend’s house in North Beach. I immediately called Billy on the phone and asked him if he had heard it. He had not, and there began a long-running saga that (apparently) continues to this day. Billy was furious that no one had contacted him, since–whatever disputes there may be about authorship– Billy owned the first copyright to the song. As it happened, my father was a well-known attorney in San Francisco at the time, and I introduced Billy to him. My dad approached the publisher of “Hey, Joe,” at Third Story Music in L.A.– a man named Martin “Mutt” Cohen. Dino Valenti had claimed to have written the song and Third Story had published it, with Dino named as the writer. However, based on the earlier copyright, Third Story agreed to recognize Billy’s authorship–providing that he give them a share of the songwriter’s royalties in perpetuity! Such is life in the music biz….

In 1967 and’68 (the period of the “Summer of Love”), my brother and I and a group of friends started a dance hall on Haight Street called the Straight Theater, which was action central for the neighborhood bands and featured many of the top groups of the day: the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, the Charlatans, Blue Cheer and many, many others. On a couple of occasions Billy Roberts played as an opening acit, performing (of course) “Hey, Joe.” After the Haight crashed and burned in ’69, we migrated to Pacific Heights, on the other side of town, and leased a storefront with a large space in back that we rented out to various bands as a rehearsal studio. The bands included Nick Gravenites and, later, Santana. This was the period (1970) when they were rehearsing and recording “Abraxus,” and the band had tons of money. Santana ended up building a magnificent recording studio, but because they did an inadequate job of soundproofing it, the landlords told us they had to leave. Billy Roberts was living in the building, and after Santana departed he bought a TEAC 4-track recorder and started making demos of his songs. Why not? We had a brand new professional studio. At some point, I became his business manager, handling his publishing affairs and collecting the royalties on “Hey, Joe.” With the numerous recordings of “Joe” having come out (as you document on your site), not to mention the seemingly un-ending reissues of the Jimi Hendrix version, those royalties were substantial. Billy and I eventually parted company, but not before I had produced his one and only album, “Thoughts of California” –a country-rock recording featuring a number of takented Bay Area musicians. The album was recorded at Different Fur, a longtime San Francisco studio. It did not include “Hey, Joe” (probably because Billy did not want to pay royalties to Mutt Cohen), but we did record a number of versions that I still have, including the so-called “disco” version” featuring drummerJoey Covington of the Jefferson Starship and some other talented Bay Area musicians. I also recorded a live performance of Billy at the Drinking Gourd, a popular folk club on Union Street.

In the early ’90s, Billy Roberts was seriously injured in a car accident when his Toyota Land Crusier went over a cliff on Highway 1, north of San Francisco. I’m afraid the woman who wrote you about being Billy’s girlfriend in the ’60s will probably not be hearing from him, as he suffered a brain injury that has left him confined to a long-term care facility in a Southern state. I have spoken to his mother, who says he looks great but has limited short-term memory, meaning he will probably remain in the hospital. On the other hand, if his long-term memory is intact, and he surfs the Internet, you never know—she may get an email!

One final note: a few months ago an old friend of Billy’s from the folk days passed through S.F. and gave a friend of mine a dub of a tape Billy recorded around 1961. It contains all traditional folk songs, except for one, that Billy sings in a strong, youthful voice:
“Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?…”

Mail from from Pat Craig

I’m an old friend of Billy Roberts. Knew him in the sixties when we both used to gig at The Zodiac – a club on Fillmore in SF owned by Tom Swift, the KSAN DJ. We used to swap songs – I used to do a very Beatlesque version of “Hey Joe” and he did a very Delta version of my song “Beyond This Place”. The confusion about Dino’s ownership of the song came from an act of generosity on Billy’s part when Dino was in jail. Billy signed over the rights to the song to give Dino some collateral to get out of jail. Billy did write the song, but as you say, it is based on many old Delta Blues themes and is probably very much “rearranged” from several different versions of very similar songs. When we were kids in the early 60’s we listened to Leadbelly, Dave Von Ronk, and any old blues stuff we could get our hands on. Hey Joe, if you look at it is almost a generic blues piece. Billy, however did put together the version we all know. By the way, Billy was in a motorcycle wreck back east a few years ago and and now is in a very poor state

Mail from Barbara Poeter Salls (December 31, 2006)

I met Bill Roberts in Paris, France in July or early August of 1960 and can tell you, absolutely, that he sang “Hey Joe” then. When he shared the song with me, he told me he had written it.
My sister and I were traveling through Europe that summer and met Bill at a Paris sidewalk cafe. He was with another fellow — as I recall, his friend’s name was Jesse Farrow (i.e., Dino Valenti). Both carried guitars on their backs, Bill a twelve stringer, Jesse a six string guitar. My sister and I were musical, too, so it was easy to get acquainted. Several days later, the two fellows came to our hotel and asked us to bum around the city with them and, quite literally, sing for our supper. My sister declined, but I joined them. We sang and played for Parisians and tourists along the Champs-Elysees well into the night, collecting tips in a hat. Along the way we were interviewed by a reporter for some French newspaper or magazine. I think we were photographed by the reporter, too. When we’d grown tired and had made enough money to feed ourselves, we went to an underground cafe to eat and drink plenty of wine. Things got a little fuzzy after that, but somewhere along the line we smoked hashish and danced on the table tops through most of the night. I was eighteen at the time, so, you can imagine, it was quite a wicked adventure. The following afternoon my sister and I left Paris for Brussels.
I heard from Bill Roberts several months later when I was back in the States and at college. He came to see me there and stayed the weekend or more with friends of mine who had an apartment in town. Of course, there was lots of music over the weekend. I still have a photo of Billy Roberts and my friend, taken during one of those sessions.
I remember Roberts as a fine musician and a spirited person.

Mail and pictures from Diane Leonard (October 27, 2005)

He (Billy Roberts) wrote a song and recorded it in my husband’s studio in 1998. A few weeks prior to that, we spent the day with Billy, his mother (Christie, who I’ve known since the 70’s), her husband (Alfred, who has since passed away) – and for the first time since his automobile accident he sang “Hey Joe” and my husband accompanied him on guitar.
I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t spoken with Christie in four years, so I have no idea whether or not she’s still alive.


Billy Roberts 1998Christie


(Billy Roberts’ mother) 1998

21 Responses to More about Billy Roberts

  1. Niela Miller says:

    Billy Roberts was my boyfriend in 1956. I wrote the predecessor song, Baby Please Don’t Go to Town (www.numerogroup.com on Songs of Leaving album released in Feb. 2009) in 1955. He learned it with its famous chord progression and the question and answer format, changed the words keeping the chords and Q&A format, and claimed authorship. Pete Seeger offered, at one point, to go to court and be a witness for me in the plagiarizing of my song but I decided not to go through with all the complications of dealing with him, Dino Valenti et al. He never contacted me about it or gave me any credit. This happens all too often in the music business.

  2. janmarius says:

    Thank you for your response Niela. I will play ‘Baby Please Don’t Go to Town’ on February 1 in my radio show Purple Haze. For information how to listen to this show via internet please see: http//janmarius.wordpress.com

  3. Davd Michael Kissinger says:

    hi, very interesting stuff, i am working on my own version of hey joe, just for fun, no sales our anything like that. this song and i go way back, it is one of the first cover songs i learned back in the 70’s. thanx for all the great info on mr. roberts and his song hey joe. i appreciate it.

    david michael kissinger

  4. Niela Miller says:

    David, you might want to hear Hey Joe’s predecessor, (my song) on my album, Songs of Leaving on the Numerophon label at http://www.numerogroup.com

    Niela Miller

  5. Cynthia Levin says:

    Niela Miller, if indeed that’s who you are, had you gone to court with Seeger, or anyone else, you would have lost your case. It probably would not have made it to court. You can’t copyright a chord progression: end of story. The melody used in ‘Hey Joe’ is quite different than than the 1955 song. I could take those chords and write a third song and neither you or Billy Roberts would have a case legally. I have no doubt after hearing the two songs that he indeed lifted the chord progression and basic structure, but again you can’t copyright those!

  6. Niela Miller says:

    I figured…which is why I didn’t go the court route. However, HE knows that he committed
    a morally reprehensible act and, even though he didn’t benefit monetarily as much as others,
    he never was man enough to make amends and apologize to me or to give me credit for
    the inspiration. It is also why I made the decision not to become a professional songwriter; it left a bad taste in my mouth. Niela Miller

    • AiXeLsyD13 says:

      Niela, do you have any thoughts on the Wikipedia article…?

      Roberts possibly drew inspiration for “Hey Joe” from three earlier works: his girlfriend Niela Miller’s 1955 song “Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town”[4] (which uses a similar chord progression based on the circle of fifths);[11] Carl Smith’s 1953 US country hit “Hey Joe!” (written by Boudleaux Bryant), which shared the title and the “question and answer” format; and the early 20th century traditional ballad “Little Sadie”, which tells of a man on the run after he has shot his wife.[14] The lyrics to “Little Sadie” often locate the events in Thomasville, North Carolina and Jericho, (near Hollywood, South Carolina). Roberts was himself born in South Carolina.

      Variations of “Little Sadie” have been recorded under various titles (including “Bad Lee Brown”, “Penitentiary Blues”, “Cocaine Blues”, “Whiskey Blues”) by many artists, including Clarence Ashley (1930),[15] Johnny Cash (1960 & 1968), Slim Dusty (1961),[16] and Bob Dylan (1970).

      Do you think Carl Smith’s song or “Little Sadie” were inspirations to Roberts (or even yourself as far as the question-and-anwer format)?

  7. Steeven Radzikowski says:

    Wow!
    Yes I can sure hear the chord progression; and I understand why the battle was not fought.
    Today’s music writing scene has not changed, really. In fact, the way it works now is you HAVE to give your rights over to the “power who may be” – and they’ll cut you (hopefully) a little bit of residual. Thank you. Steeven Radzikowski

  8. Niela Miller says:

    If anyone wants to hear the precursor to Hey Joe (plus a bunch of other songs I wrote around
    the same time) please go to http://www.numerogroup.com and look up Songs of Leaving.
    This album was produced by them a few years ago from a warped acetate demo record I had which sat on a shelf for forty plus years. Somebody tracked me down from a cover that Dave Van Ronk did of my song, Mean World Blues, and one thing led to another. Nobody was more surprised than I was when they offered to make an LP collectors album (plus mp3 download).
    Anyhow, folks, thanks for all your comments and interest—and I’m glad I didn’t go through with the lawsuit idea which, obviously, wouldn’t have gone very far. I also made a surprising discovery that someone put the song in question on a YouTube with the erroneous name, Baby Please Don’t Go Downtown.

    • wildflowerherself says:

      Niela, the two songs seem to me to be not identical,nor one so much derivative of the other, but that one answers the other.

  9. The on-line histories of Billy Roberts (I knew him as Bill) mentioned the time he spent around Washington DC. He was here in 1962 and stayed around for a couple of years, playing in local coffee houses. In fact, one afternoon that I had off from classes at George Washington University, I drove him to the Library of Congress where he filed the copyright registration for Hey Joe.

    During his stay, we recorded him singing a dozen or so songs which included Hey Joe. This may be the same recording that Hillel got from a friend. All the other songs were old with the exception of Hey Joe and Bells of Rhymney., a song which, at the time, if you had a 12 string guitar, you HAD to sing (so he did).

    His 12 string guitar at the time was named Betsy.

    – Mike Rivers

  10. Joao Cunha says:

    I understand that Niela Miller would not be able to copyright the chord progression, but the song Hey Joe would not exist without Baby Please Don’t Go to Town, the similarity is crystal clear. The fact that Billy Roberts never gave the due credits to Niela means that he knew what he was doing was not correct.

  11. Darrell Jenkins says:

    My stepfather and Billy Roberts were very close friends for many, many years. I know Billy pretty well, considering he stayed in our home with us on many occasions, not to mention the times I’ve been in his home, and we smoked weed together.

    Billy once owned a car that one of his ex-girlfriends wrecked, causing a death in the other car. He consequently lost a lawsuit in which he was named. As a result, he could not own anything of any real value for fear that it would be confiscated from him to help pay what he owed because of that lawsuit. Anything he ‘owned’ from that point on, was actually owned by my stepfather, who then permanently loaned it to Billy. I tell this story to make the point that I know Billy quite well.

    While I haven’t seen Billy for over 20 years now, I still think I know him well enough to know that he could easily have been capable of “stealing” Niela Miller’s song. However, I find it hard to believe that anyone could, or would actually say he did that. ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town’ and ‘Hey Joe’ may have some similar sounds, but that is where the similarity ends. Just because someone hears a tune, and likes it well enough to write another tune with a somewhat similar sound does not constitute theft. If anything, it was a complement to Niela Miller in that her song was what influenced Billy to write his. Billy Roberts never had any obligation to credit Niela Miller with anything other that the fact that her song may have been his inspiration for ‘Hey Joe’, but the fact that he didn’t choose do that means absolutely nothing.

    As a side note… Billy himself told me that he wrote ‘Hey Joe’ in 1959. I don’t know know how accurate that is, but it is what he told me. I cannot account for why he didn’t copyright it until 1962.

  12. Richard Wood says:

    I knew Billy in San Francisco in 1966-68. He told me the story of his authorship of “Hey Joe” and I have heard nothing since that would cause me to doubt that it was his creation. He was a larger than life character; and I am proud to number him among my friends. He and I played separate sets at several coffeehouses in the Bay Area, including the Drinking Gourd on Union and the always exciting Lion’s Share (the original one) in Sausalito. It was a great time to be alive and performing. One night at the Lion’s share, Carlos Santana dropped in to hear Billy and I play, and later we went down to the Ark to hear Carlos’s powerful performance. I don’t know why Billy and i hit it off so well other than the fact that i was born in Spartanburg, SC very close to his home. He was a fabulous singer, harpist, and guitarist. One of his monikers was “Dirty Uncle Billy”, and he played a version of “Ice Man” that invariably brought a house down. He was a great guy, and his accident and death a great loss to the performing world. Glad i got to be around him for a while.

  13. Michael Hogan says:

    It was the’60’s, in Edmonton, at the Yardbird Suite on 82nd Avenue. The folk crowd played until around 10 or 11 pm, and then the jazz crowd took over. They were wonderful times. I remember this man, larger than life, playing guitar and the harp, singing and playing with all his heart and soul. It was “Your Dirty Uncle Billy” comin’ to you, all the way from South Carolina. Joni Anderson, Hans Stamer, and many others were all there back then. I remember one night, when the cops performed their obligatory raid, (booze in brown paper bags) . I found Billy and Joni outside, in Uncle Billy’s car, and told them what was happening. If I remember it correctly, Billy went back in, went on stage, and somehow charmed the lads, who left after their mission was complete, sort of, and the show went on.
    Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end….

  14. Gray (Rather) Mayes says:

    Billy was my Dad’s childhood friend from Chattanooga. I grew up with him in Berkeley. Spent quality time as a kid on his farm in Petaluma. Would love to find him again and reconnect. He was always Uncle Billy to me. Played that 12 string guitar at many of my parents parties in the 60s. And one day when I was little, broke into our house to leave a giant stuffed donkey animal for us. I hope he is well and would love to talk to him again. Gray

  15. Gray (Rather) Mayes says:

    Just read a prior blog. Is he still with us???

  16. John Baracco says:

    I was a friend of Billy in the 70’s, and booked him to play in a club I managed on Union St . Called the Motherlode, up the street from the Drinjing Gourd. I can tell you that the version of Hey Joe on YouTube under his picture is definitely NOT him!

  17. Richard Wood says:

    I’m so happy to discover the Billy is still with us. I had been told that he had died, and I should’ve checked my sources. Richard Wood

  18. wildflowerherself says:

    If ever there are more recordings available, those of us who loved listening to Billy will be grateful. God bless that sweet man.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s