One of the favorite people I’ve met,……. and later would come to call my friend, was Billy Roberts. To inform those of you who don’t know who he is….., (cuz Billy is a bit older than me, even…. are there any people older than you Stapes?)
Billy Roberts wrote the classic “Hey Joe” in 1962……yeah! …royalty battles raged for years….originally it was stolen by an LA group “The Leaves” who hadah big hit with it in the early 60’s…..but Billy thankfully had it copyrighted…….and it all was finally put to rest when a fellah named Jimi Hendrix recorded it on a little LP called “Are You Experienced?” and gave the publishing rightfully to Billy. The song has long been praised by musicians and composers for its “backwards circle of 5ths”.
Jimi Hendrix & Billy Roberts met up at one time and apparently they hit it off in a big way. Billy was immediately and immensely likable, he had a huge open personality that dripped with Southern charm and wit. Roberts was born in South Carolina in 1936
He told me the Hendrix story 30+ years ago and to be honest I couldn’t summon up a detail now to even begin telling that story. But suffice it to say, it is Roberts’ name that appears on the writers credits for “Hey Joe” on the groundbreaking “Are You Experienced”.
Roberts was, for the most part, a folk singer, he did carry kind of a rock and roll band for a while called “Grits” and they mostly played the San Francisco Bay Area. The group recorded one album “Thoughts of California”.
Roberts’ talent was not limited to singing, guitar, harmonica playing and song writing, his booming baritone voice was in demand for radio and TV advertisements, his most famous was a Chevrolet commercial in the 70’s when Chevy first used the “drove my Chevy to the Levy…” line that Don McClein would immortalize in “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”
This little story is about a clear, slightly chilly, Spring night in San Francisco, around 1972.
We were broke,…. all of us,…….flat broke…..no scratch, no bread, no scoots…….(too broke to pay attention)……there was harp great, Stevie Gurr, who went on to play with Elvin Bishop……barrel chested, song writer, guitarist and spectacular singer Lenny Laks….myself (Billy Stapleton), and Billy Roberts. The “Hey Joe” song royalties didn’t keep him totally afloat.
Roberts, suddenly slammed a big hand down on the kitchen table (Billy was about 6 feet tall, went about 225 of mostly muscle, he was a black belt many times over) and proclaimed in his best Southern Preacher voice (his god given middle name was “Moses”…no kiddin.)…
“Gentlemen!…..there comes a time….oh yes there does come AH TIME!….can I git an “amen”? “Amen!” we responded “When yah just….. when yah just …..got-tah go out….. and git….. what has to be got-ten…….are yah with me, brothers?” “Oh Yeah!” We were hooked on a Roberts ride. “And so I say onto you……that it is time…… HIGH TIME! ……..for us pickin and singin’……strummin and grinnin’……..purveyors of the Terpsichorean Muse…….” “Whaah? We asked, in the depths of our ignorance… “Music….” He informed us. “Ooohhh…..” we affirmed, amazed by his vocabulary. “To hit the STREET!…” he shouted..”and make us some gawd a’mighty…..mu-f#@*in’ MONIES!!……are yah with me?”
“Hell yeah!” we exclaimed. We all piled in my old 65 Ford Galaxy 500 Land yacht, with at least a full mouthful of gas in the tank, and headed out to Union street, it was about 6pm, Friday night, and people would soon start crowding the street, on dates, off to dinner, frequenting the many music and comedy clubs in the area. Some in suits, some in jeans and sweaters. We set up shop just as the Bank of America was closing, the bank had an almost “brick amphitheater” type of entrance, with the steps up to the front of the building, acting like a natural stage.
It was a beautiful night, Roberts kept his “gospel” oratory going all night, in between songs….he was truly inspired, getting lots of laughs and “amens” throughout the night from the ever changing crowd. They laughed, they applauded, they cheered…….. and they tipped like mad. I got to play slide on Billy’s old National resophonic guitar, and played until my fingers were beyond sore. At the end, around 10:30 we had emptied the guitar case of tips several times and when counted up the nights’ take. I think we had around $300…a freakin’ fortune in 1970.
We went to the Russian Deli, up the street on Union and had hot pastrami sandwiches, piled high on toasted onion rolls and slathered in Russian Dressing…man we were livin high on the hog…..and of course afterwards we went to our favorite watering hole, the Drinking Gourd. We laughed until we cried and told stories til the early morning, it was one of my favorite nights.
So, why the story? A life in the arts, as you all know, can be terribly unrewarding at the end of the day. We play and sing our hearts out for years, doing what we love. Cramming our gear in any number of various vehicles in various states of repair and set off into the night to put on a show….why? Because we love it…we are hooked…and very few of us can ever really “stop”. I have wondered, as we all have, what has become of people I used to play music with.
Well I came to find out that Billy Roberts was on his way home from a gig in the early 90’s, in Northern California on old highway one…. and was involved in a severe automobile accident, resulting in a debilitating brain injury that has left him confined to a nursing home ever since. Playing the rock and roll, the jazz, the blues, the music…. sometimes, she not only takes your youth and pays you with regret,….she can lull you into a sense of invulnerability…….sometimes, she can kill yah too……..or maybe like Billy Roberts, hurt you awful bad.
Sorry for the sad tale. When I had heard about Billy, all I could think of was that night,….. so many years ago, outdoors in the cool night air, …..playing with my talented friends, on Billys’ magical National, for crowds of passing strangers, trying to put a few bucks in our jeans. So I thought I could maybe write a little story about him, and keep him alive as he was then, imposing, charming, funny, endearing and a career musician.
(Sent by to me by Billy Stapleton January 29, 2011)
Thank you Billy for sending me this story for posting on Hey Joe Versions
See also: http://www.billystapleton.com/BillyRoberts.html