The music of Billy Vera spans genres and generations.
Raised on the soul of Ray Charles, the jazz of Benny Golson, and the pop of Frankie Lymon, Billy Vera broke color barriers in music in the ‘60s, wrote hit songs for numerous notable singers as well as for himself, and is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable ethnomusicologists in the field of blues, soul, and R&B. Jilly Rizzo, famed as Frank Sinatra’s right-hand man, was quoted as saying, “Other than Frank, this kid is the best phraser in the business.” While he never met Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Billy Vera heard from other friends of Sinatra that he was one of his fans.
Vera grew up with music; his mother sang with the Ray Charles Singers on The Perry Como Show; his father was a staff announcer for NBC. Billy Vera’s early exposure to music came from the R&B and jazz records his father would bring home from the station. After experimenting with drums, Vera learned to play the guitar and began writing, recording, and performing. He received regional airplay in the Northeast, Texas, and Louisiana while he was still a teenager. By the mid-‘60s, he was beginning to make his mark in the music business. In our interview for ADS, Vera said, “In those days, I could write a song in the morning and by the afternoon play the song in a publisher’s office and walk out with 50 dollars.”
When Billy Vera was 21, Ricky Nelson charted with his song, “Mean Old World,” which gave Vera his first Billboard hit. A year later his song, “Make Me Belong to You” charted as a hit for Atlantic Records’ vocalist Barbara Lewis. This success brought R&B godfather Jerry Wexler into Billy Vera ’s life. Wexler, producer and label exec for Atlantic Records, believed in the hit potential of one of Billy Vera ’s love ballads, “Storybook Children” (co-written with Chip Taylor). Written as a duet, numerous vocalists were auditioned for the female part; none of them had the right feeling until Wexler brought in gospel/R&B singer Judy Clay. Judy’s relatives included Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) and Dionne Warwick. If you haven’t heard of Judy, she sang with strength, sensitivity, and feeling on a par with any star singer you may care to name.