Billy Roberts

Thanks to those of you who have read an old road dog's (me) stories and have responded favorably...
and even asked for more.

Spending 25 some years "chasing it", as most of you know,........ you do run into an amazing array of people. And one truth you come to find out in the entertainment business, is that people who you thought were "famous" and "well off" are out on the same circuits as you, playing the same places (presumably for better money) and are gigging to keep a roof over their heads.

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". But this story is about none of that.

This little story is about a clear, slightly chilly, Spring night in San Francisco, around 1972. We were broke,.... all of us,.......flat scratch, no bread, no scoots.......(too broke to pay attention)...... harp great, Stevie Gurr, who went on to play with Elvin Bishop for years......barrel chested, song writer, guitarist and spectacular singer Lenny Laks....myself and Billy Roberts. The "Hey Joe" song royalties didn't keep him totally afloat.

Billy Roberts at that time had taken over the old Santana rehearsal compound in the Upper Filmore area. He had expenses keeping the little magical courtyard facility afloat...and on this particular night..we just wanted to go eat someplace nice and have a drink or two... or twenty...but alas no dough.

Although the jokes and camaraderie were great as we toasted up the last of a loaf of bread on his gas stove in the kitchen...the crushing "no money" atmosphere soon enveloped us.

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" 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 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......and you too Stevie Gurr......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...
"Musicians...." He informed us.
"Ooohhh....." we affirmed, amazed by his vocabulary.
"To hit the STREET!..." he shouted.."and make us some gawd a'*in' MONIES!!......are yah with me?"
"Hell yeah!" we exclaimed.

We lightly bundled our selves up against the San Francisco night Spring air and grabbed instruments for our outdoor performance. Billy had an old Martin, Lenny had his battered Guild, Stevie had his harps.....but I had nothing remotely acoustic back then, and at the time, due to a hand injury could only play slide guitar.

Roberts said."Wait right 'chere, Billy." I waited. Roberts disappeared upstairs into the old building and emerged with a ancient black guitar case covered in dust. He placed it reverently on a sofa and opened it up.

Inside was a 1930's National style "O" resophonic, metal guitar, resting in a tight fit of green velvet lining, it was absolutely beautiful. It was the first one I'd ever seen, immaculate condition, gleaming chrome (I was about 22yrs old.) He handed it to me and said he'd heard some pretty good slide players, play old Nationals, where'd he'd come from in South Carolina.

Well one strum told me this was a spectacular instrument, it was unbelievably loud and full. I tuned it to and open E and played a few licks and knew it was gonna be just fine. I was absolutely astonished that this was to be MY guitar for the night, and that he was going to let me play it!

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, not far away, 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 an old National, and played until my fingers were beyond sore. At the end, around 10:30 we had emptied the guitar case several times and went back to the car where we 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 we we high on the hog.....and of course afterwards we went to our favorite watering hole, the Drinking Gourd and got real happy. 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. About a year ago I searched for some trace of Billy Roberts. You can Google him and find any number of references to his authorship of his one and only "hit". But it took some digging to actually find him.

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 and had taken the scenic route home 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, imposing, charming, funny, endearing and a career musician.

Keep your wits about you, my brothers, in them clubs and them bars....and especially on that 'ol road.

Bye for now, Stapes

P.S. I should mention that i had looked everywhere for a copy of this picture, which is how I remember him. After spending days online, I had all but given up. But a last ditch phone call to an old friend, the talented singer/ guitarist Lindy Barrett, told me she was listening to "Thoughts of California" only LAST WEEK...there is a cosmic consciousness kids, I'm here to tell you. thanks Lindy, you rock girl!

Guitar Stories & Billy Roberts © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

Billy Roberts

"Keep pickin’ ... "
- Billy Stapleton