For most folks in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Billy Brown will be remembered as the local preacher who was rumoured to be a bit of a singer in his younger days. But there are a whole host of us who were enlightened by him in a different way, who will mourn his recent passing as the death of a great rockabilly singer. His late ‘50s rockers may have drawn a blank in his homeland at the time, but two decades later they caused a major stir in Europe as the rockabilly revival was kicking off.
Born William George Brown in Princeton, West Virginia on July 22nd 1929, BB found music at an early age. He was spotted by Allen Bradley, who signed him to a management contract and introduced him to the local bigwig Bill Lowery. This in turn led to a contract with Columbia Records and a four song session was recorded in the summer of 1950. Jealous Stars was the first single but Brown was unable to promote it as he’d signed another contract – with Uncle Sam, for a spell during the Korean War! He remained semi-active during this time with Columbia issuing more singles and Billy playing on a military radio show. In 1956 he and his band found work at the Anchorage Club in Atlanta, Georgia. A single was issued on the local Atlanta label, Stars, featuring Did We Have A Party and It's Love (Stars 552). Party was a million miles from the country music he’d previously been playing and he took to it like a natural. Don Law heard about the stir the Stars single was making and he resigned Billy to a contract with Columbia Records on October 20, 1957. In November the single was reissued as Columbia 41029.
On December 18, 1957 he was in Nashville for a session at the legendary Bradley Studio where he cut two of the greatest rockers of all time, Meet Me In the Alley, Sally and Flip Out. Sally was released as Columbia 41100 in January 1958 while Flip Out had to wait until November 1958 when it hit the record stores as Columbia 41297. they say hindsight is a wonderful thing, but even with it it’s still impossible to fathom out why none of these songs was a hit. The backing band included Jerry Reed and Harold Bradley on guitars, Ray Stevens on piano, the great Lightnin' Chance on bass, the equally marvellous Buddy Harman on drums and Dutch McMillin on the wild saxaphone.
The next single was a bit more pop orientated but the sales results were just as disappointing. Next/Once In A Lifetime came out in May ’58 followed in April ’59 by a cover of Onie Wheeler’s Run 'Em Off and the original take of He'll Have To Go on the flip.
By this time the lack of sales had turned sour for Brown and Columbia alike and his contract wasn’t renewed. He moved to Gene Autry's Republic label for whom he had a couple of singles. Legend has it that when Brown heard Jim Reeves’ new number one hit, a cover of BB’s He’ll Have To Go, he crashed the car. The dent in the car was repairable but the dent to Brown’s belief and confidence wasn’t.
He became a preacher who travelled around the country with younger brother Tommy and friend and one time rockabilly Allen Wingate (aka Allen Page – Moon Records, Memphis). They preached and sang for the Lord. A one-off single for Challenge in 1969, One Of The Ten Most Wanted Women and another late ‘70s stab at He’ll Have To Go for the Chart Action label were issued.
A stroke in 1983 left him able to sing but not play the guitar and he lived his last twenty odd years in New Smyrna Beach where he died on January 10th, 2009 following a battle against emphysema and obstructive pulmonary disease. Thanks to a handful of brilliant rockers during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, Billy Brown will never be forgotten. RIP.
Note: Thanks to Colin Escott, Stuart Colman and Rick De Yampert