Music Feature: Shor’ty Billups — The Last Boston Soul Man
A celebration of a man who is, along with singer Toni [Lynn] Washington, one of the only remaining Boston R&B and soul artists who recorded in the 1960s.
By Noah Schaffer
Shor’ty Billups is celebrating 70 years in music on May 13.
70 years ago, an up-and-coming singer named Ruth Brown heard about another teenager who could play piano. She hired a Boston kid with the memorable name of Shor’ty Billups.
Today, Brown and most of her peers from the early days of R&B and soul is gone. But Billups can still be found on local bandstands several times a month. After barnstorming the chitlin’ circuit as a young man, Billups did a military stint and attended college before returning to the music scene. Switching to drums, he backed the likes of Screaming Jay Hawkins, Bill Doggett, Jackie Wilson, Freddie Scott, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Wilson Pickett. He also cut a number of highly prized 45’s, both under his own name and as Eddie Billups.
Billups ended up moving to Atlanta, where he recorded for William Bell’s Peachtree label, cut the disco/funk classic “Shake Off That Dream,” and played with several gospel groups before coming back home to Boston where he reestablished his Foxx Band. In recent years, Billups has self-released a series of CDs filled with classic and newly written material that showcases his humor and panache.
On Saturday, Billups is being fêted by his friends with a night called “This is For You” at the Perfect Place Function Hall in Brockton. Veteran harmonica man James Montgomery will lead the festivities in honor of Billups’ “70+” years in show business and 85th birthday. Also on board will be ex-Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau, Professor Harp, Cheryl Arena, and other local blues scenesters. They’ll be celebrating a man who is, along with singer Toni [Lynn] Washington, one of the only remaining Boston R&B and soul artists who recorded in the 1960s.
Recently Billups talked with the ArtsFuse about his career.
Arts Fuse: Do you remember your first gig?
Shor’ty Billups: It was with Ruth Brown. I was 14. We played in Portsmouth, VA and from there we went on the road. She had her big hit “Mama, She Treats Your Daughter Mean.” We were both teenagers. Her dad was a deacon in the church and didn’t want us to do it, but her mom had the last word — woman power! My grandmother would travel with me locally and would sometimes go on the road with me as well. She was a diabetic, so had to stay close to her insulin. I gave her shots two times a day. We had a good rapport. She got me into music — we always had a piano in the house. My other family members sang gospel in the church choir. I had one sister who could really sing – I loved to hear her. She could holler and scream and didn’t understand none of it, she got it off the record! But she sang it better than the lady on the record.
AF: When did you switch to the drums?
Billups: Well, I taught my brother how to play piano and he got so good that I got out of it and switched to the drums. But it was a super fluke the way I did my first drumming gig. I was playing with this saxophonist from North Carolina. We hadn’t had no work for six weeks straight. He came to me and said ‘get your clothes, I got a gig.’ I grabbed my clothes and I took off. When we got there I asked where the piano was. He said there’s no piano! So I said ‘what I am supposed to do, just sing?’ He said “no, you’re gonna play drums.” I didn’t even know how to set them up! He set them up and gave me two sticks. I played the way he showed me, until someone in the crowd asked “When is somebody going to sing?” The whole band looked at me. I said “Not me — I can’t play drums and sing.” Then the band went straight into Little Richard’s “Lucille.” I sang it, and the rest is history. It’s not really that hard to drum and sing at the same time — once you find a way to be on time at the same time, it ain’t no problem at all.
AF: What part of Boston did you grow up in, and what was the music scene like?
Billups: I grew up in the South End. There was a lot of music at that time. We had Wally’s, Big Jim’s, Estelle’s, Slade’s, Teddy’s Famous Place, the Golden Nugget, places up in Mattapan, in the Combat Zone. There were places to play that hired R&B bands and country bands and some long hair music, whatever you wanted you could get it here. Boston’s always been home. I went to Atlanta for 15 years. That’s about it.
AF: But most of your ’60s records were made in New York?
Billups: But Boston was still home — I had family here in Boston, I was in New York with a buddy of mine, a guitar player. We were trying to make our first hit record, seeking our fame and fortune – the big time! We starved to death. I was determined I would do it and I did it. Some guys heard my demo and said they’d record me. The session had Eric Gale on guitar, King Curtis on saxophone, Don Gardner played drums, and Dee Dee Ford played organ. All I had to do was sing! People are still playing it.
AF: That was “Boss Chick?” That one goes for a pretty penny if you try to buy it today.
Billups: You know it! It was a nice tune. It would have been a hit, but the vice-president of the company messed up all the money. They were shipping twice a week to Canada [there was so much demand] — I worked around town several times because of that record. I did the Apollo because of that same tune. Then the vice-president messed up the company. You win some and you lose some.
AF: Did you ever record in Boston?
Billups: I just made demos – nothing that I could say OK, I’m going to put this out. I was on several major labels, including United Artists and Josie. When I decided to leave them alone I went to Atlanta and recorded my first 45 for myself on own own label, and it was a hell of a tune, “I Won’t Be Around.”
AF: That’s a real classic deep soul track. There’s some confusion because that 45 and some of your other records came out under the name Eddie Billups. Why did that happen?
Billups: Eddie was my brother! We’d work together a lot. I was in Atlanta and sent him to Nashville to get the records pressed up. For somehow the guy at the pressing plant got his name instead of my name. We needed the records because we were pushed for time in releasing them so I said ‘ don’t worry, let’s just put it out,’ and it worked out allright. Some are in his name and some are in my name. If he was around he’d laugh about it himself. I told him I think he did it on purpose. He was a devilish kind of guy. He’d just start laughing and walk away.
AF: To what do you credit the longevity of your career?
Billups: I never stopped performing. You don’t stay out there as long as I have unless you’re doing something right. I’ve never been fired from an act that I played behind. When I backed Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix was playing with him at the same time. Richard came out of the sanctified church and they didn’t use guitars in the churches at that time. So for a long time he wouldn’t use a guitarist — Jimi was the first guitar player that he used. We had fun. Look man, it was fun playing with everybody that I played with. It was a job and I did it like it was a job. I don’t drink, dip, smoke, or chew. Bill Doggett told me that he liked how, whenever it was time to go back to work [after a set break], I’d always be standing by the bandstand. That made me feel good. Because as a drummer my job is to make whoever is out front look and sound good. I didn’t make much money, but I sure got peace of mind. I truly have been blessed.
AF: In recent years you’ve been out as a frontman with the Foxx Band and with a series of new CDs.
Billups: Nobody told me that I couldn’t do it. I just put a band together. It’s my band. The current Foxx Band is a relatively new group though previously I had used the same name. Before that name the band was billed as Shor’ty BIllups and His Rage. Our last CD was Young Woman ana Old Man. I was in a place and when we left this young lady asked us to give her a ride home. One of the guys in the band was an older guy, and was hitting on her. He said you need an older man — those younger men don’t seem to stay with you. So that’s where I got the idea for the title tune. With “I Won’t Be Around,” I heard my brother tell one of his girlfriends that they were busting up. He told her ‘when you want me to kiss you I won’t be around.’ Back in the day you could just walk down the street and see somebody on the other side doing something crazy and you could just write a song about it and it’d become a hit!
AF: What do you have in store for your big celebration on Saturday?
Billups: I really can’t talk too much about it because my manager Miss Hattie [Barrett] and my friend James Montgomery said I don’t have nothing to do with this! They are making the plans. Miss Hattie told me just to look good and show up.
AF: Is it true that Shor’ty is your actual name and not a stage name?
Billups: That’s right. My aunt named me. She said they brought me home from the hospital without a name. They kept calling and calling from the hospital to get the records squared away. She said “Shorty” and the hospital put down “Shor’ty.” For some reason Social Security can’t seen to put the accent in there. I am completely computer illiterate, yet I can put that accent in there, so I don’t know why they can’t. You can call me “Shorty” or “Shor’ty” or whatever — they call me a few other words and I answer to them too!
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
Tagged: Barry Goudreau, Bill Doggett, Boston Soul Man, Cheryl Arena, Foxx Band, Freddie Scott, Jackie Wilson, James Montgomery, Perfect Place Function Hall, Professor Harp, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Shor'ty Billups