Billy Hector

Workin' Hard For Ya!

A good artist makes a crowd move and sweat. A great artist makes the crowd itself.

The scene is the legendary Stone Pony rock club on the beaches of Asbury Park, New Jersey. An early spring evening, past the bedtime of the non-musical world, the beginning of a Saturday evening for the initiated. The crowd in attendance at the CD release party for Billy Hector's latest CD, "Out of Order: The Stone Pony Sessions" (Ghetto Surf Music), have returned to the scene of the crime. The album was recorded at two gigs held at the club in November 2001 and a year later.

As Hector and his band, Winston Roye on bass and Rich Monica on drums, take to stage, the dance floor is reminiscent of a high school social; the boys and girls hugging the edges of the room, talking, hanging out and flirting, afraid to approach. Unlike high school, perhaps, there's a bit more smoke and alcohol in the room.

With the first notes ringing out of Hector's Fender Strat, the talking fades out, and the dance floor starts to crowd. First, the die-hard fans take their place at the foot of the microphone stand. They're followed by a few couples staking out prime dancing territory. By the third song, there's a party going on, the good times have begun. Damn the clock, we're not going home until tomorrow morning.

Hector became familiar to fans along the Jersey shore as a member of the Shots, the R&B-tinged house band at the Pony, replacing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in 1977. The hectic schedule, usually two nights a week, honed his chops to a fine edge.

After the Shots broke up, he continued to perform at the Pony on a regular basis in the late 70s; but the club holds only one aspect of his fabulous career.

Through the 80s and 90s, when the styles of the music world strayed about as far from classic rock and blues as it gets, Hector continued to perform with two other bands, Hot Romance and the Fairlanes. For the past several years, the Billy Hector Band has been a power trio, but the music has always been rockin' blues, blues that rocks, and something very cool in between.

"Out of Order" is his eleventh release, four covers and seven originals written by Hector and Suzan Lastovica, his long-time cohort and collaborator, who also mixed the album and often offers her vocal talents during his live gigs. The tracks represent classic blues standards from the 1950s, as well as modern sounds that would fit well on today's radio, although they intimidate most program directors by not molding snugly into an individual niche.

He continues to plug away over 250 dates a year. Reading through his recent interview with Chorus and Verse redefines the definition of success and reveals a passion for music and a wealth of insight from a professional and consummate performer who's worthy to be called a "legend", but far too dedicated to ever rest on that laurel.

"Out of Order" is your eleventh album, all of which have been independently released. It is a source of pride to release your own music over the years, and do you ever regret not courting more label support? Do you ever feel you've traded off more financial success for artistic integrity by doing so?

Let me answer that with a question: What is success? Is it being tired, unhappy and lonely on tour in Paris with a pocketful of money, or is it tired and happy and sleeping in your own bed in New Jersey? I don't feel like I've sacrificed anything by not courting label support. If somebody thought they could make a million bucks off me they'd be there in a heartbeat. This is America for chrissakes! They'd drive me like a rented mule 'till I was dead! Blues people are too rigid, the rock people just don't understand. I have freedom to do what I choose to do, to use the whole box of crayons: funk, folk, rock, blues and all points in between.

Why were songs from "Out of Order" taken from two different Stone Pony shows that were recorded over a year apart? Was it originally your intention to use the first show, and you needed to record additional material, or were there some other circumstances involved?

We just wanted to give the energy of the show. We just wanted people to experience the energy of a Billy Hector show, so we picked the tunes that I thought best reflected that. Ten songs out of thirty or so in a night. No one show is perfect.

Why do a live CD as opposed to a studio album? Are there different challenges you face when recording an album live verses in a studio, or is there an advantage that a live crowd brings? Do you have any preference towards one means of making a record or the other?

I think people seem to respond more to the live stuff regardless of sound quality or whatever. It has energy that can't be captured in a studio unless you put thirty-five people in the studio with the band. I don't have a preference as to where I record as long as it's done fast cause it's all a hellish process to me; hard work and I'm a lazy man.

How did you decide to use the four covers that are included on the CD? Did you consciously select songs that would complement the original music you included, or did those tunes somehow influence the original music that you laid down? Are you pleased with how the covers and the originals work together?

The songs were performed well and people seem to like those songs. Plus, they do build a set. Whenever we make a record, we try to build the songs like a set of music that you can listen to from beginning to end without freaking out. People seem to like the most manic song on there, "Daddy Rollin Stone". They were asking which CD that was on the first day we started playing it, so that went on the CD.

How did things go at the CD release party at the club on May 3rd? After having played the Pony so many times over the years, it is still exciting for you to be able to get up, play new music and have a new album out there for fans to listen to? It is still fun to get up on stage and perform for a crowd?

It's addicting to get up onstage and perform for a crowd. The audience has always seduced the performer for years. The Pony is always exciting to play and I thought the show on May 3rd was one of our best.

The Pony is well-known for its sound system. How did it perform during the recording and how important is getting the sound right during your live shows? How much does having a good sound guy behind the board add to a performance?

I trust the sound men. They do 250-plus shows there a year. I do my job I trust them to do theirs. I'm a plug-in and play kinda guy. Their sound system is one of the best, the sound men are some of the best in the business and always very nice, too. [Publisher's note: "Out of Order" was recorded by John DiCapua and Neil Newman.]

Speaking of the Pony, do you have any estimate of how many shows you've played there in your career? Are there any other venues that you have that sort of history with?

I'd say I've played there a couple hundred times in my lifetime.

Every club that hires us, we're partners with for that evening and the clubs that have worked with us over the past 18 years, they are like our record companies. They keep us playing and, of course, our audience as well. They're both 50% owners of the Billy Hector thing.

Let's say, our first friends, the Pony, Wallace's in Orange (now defunct), Jason's in Belmar (now defunct), the Elysian in Hoboken and, of course, the Stanhope House in Stanhope, Orphan Annie's in Stirling. All of these places believed in us all these years. The folks in Mt. Holly, all these people we have history with. Without them we are nothing. We are auto parts drivers without them. And we love them all madly.

The gig at the club reunited you with Mel Hood, the owner of Jason's, who served as the special MC for the evening. For those who don't know, can you briefly explain your connection with Mel and Jason's, and your feelings about his being a part of the evening?

Me and Mel have never been apart. The club is just a building. We're still in touch with each other every few weeks.

You've been playing around the local scene for 25 years, but as recently as last year were still being recognized with Asbury Music Awards for "Best Guitarist" and "Best Blues Band". What does it mean to you to have been popular and recognized around the scene, and do you have any explanation as to your longevity and why you've so been successful for so long?

You just keep playing and you win by default. You just don't stop playing. It's the love of the music. It's not the money, not the glory, because many nights there is none. The music is the incentive. Since the beginning of time there have been the tellers of tales and the makers of music. Any musician that is working in any idiom is successful. Period. There's no security, you're always hustling for fear of having no work and being two checks away from foreclosure. For instance, BB had a heart attack and now the whole musical community is coming together to help him out because of the situation of musicians. You're always close to the edge. You have no security. But we knew that when we took the job. That's why you are chosen to play music. If you're doing it for the Mercedes, you're doing it for the wrong reason.

Another award you received was as a "Living Legend". Does it feel weird to be called a legend when you're still releasing new music, and playing out as many nights a year as you are?

Well, the award made me very introspective. The week I got it I was very introspective and just looking over my whole life - what brought me down the shore from Orange, to play with the Shots; like I just said before, all the clubs that made it possible for me to continue playing. I was definitely left of center, more like a novelty act, not a party band type associated with the Jersey shore.

The week before I got the award Donny Bertleson, the lead singer for the Shots, passed away. And, at that point, I was glad to be alive, glad to be playing. Then, the month after that was 9/11 and the month after that I was diagnosed with cancer. Then it all seemed like small potatoes and I said to myself "I'm gettin' a 12-string and a 5-string banjo. I'm gonna live before it's all over."

Let's touch on another project you were recently a part of, a studio session with Hubert Sumlin and Billy Boy Arnold to record "Juke" for the seven-part film series about the blues being put together by Martin Scorsese. How did you get to be invited to be a part of that historic recording, and what are your impressions of performing with those great musicians?

Bob Santelli asked me if I could do it and I said yes. Me and Rich Monica went there to re-create "Juke". It was definitely a highlight of a musical career. These guys are the pioneers. Everyone else are sucker MCs.

Hubert has the exuberance of a 10-year-old and he's a 70-year-old man with one lung. His joy was infectious, I'm still reeling from it. Billy Boy's playing was perfection and they were both very nice. And, they both wore suits to the studio.

Can you describe a little bit about that studio session? How long were you in the studio, how many takes were required, and how long did you prepare before tape was run? Was "Juke" a song you already knew, or did you need to learn it?

I've been listening to "Juke" for years, but now I was asked to listen to it with new ears. There's no bass or bass drum for the most part. We just went in and played "Juke". About nine takes of the song, about three hours. Each take was fine.

Do you know how your recording of "Juke" is going to be utilized in the film series, and do you expect to have any further involvement with that project?

No, not yet.

Back to the album, have you gotten any feeling thus far as to how the album will be received? Do you think it'll receive any radio play, and has the press taken an interest in the release?

I've heard it's been on a few radio stations, folks have told me. I don't know if there's a groundswell yet, it's too soon to say.

Obviously, the album will available at your shows. How else can fans get their hands on "Out of Order"?

"Out of Order" is available at www.billyhector.com, all gigs, New Jersey CD Worlds and soon to be at independent record shops.

[ Website: www.billyhector.com ]

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