Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Best-known for the 1974 number one hit "I Can Help," soft-spoken Billy Swan has struggled and succeeded through various musical eras, somehow keeping the true roots feel in his best records. A fine songwriter, guitarist, producer, part-time Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano pumper, and professional jack-of-all-trades, he is simultaneously a living link to the first great era of rock 'n' roll and one of its most credible foot soldiers.
Bill Black Gave Him His Start
Growing up in Cape Giradeau, Missouri, during the 1950s, Billy Swan initially admired cowboy movie hero Gene Autry. Through his sister's record collection, he was exposed to country great Hank Williams and grew to love the music of Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, and Johnnie & Jack, along with such established pop stars such as Perry Como and Vaughan Monroe. However, it was rock 'n' roll that really turned him on.
Swan began playing guitar when he was 14 years old, and occasionally attempted Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano pumping on his aunt's piano. By the time he was 16, the youngster had added the drums to his repertoire and began gigging with a local band, playing cover versions of tunes by Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Not long after, local singer Dennis Turner provided an introduction to Mirt Mirley & The Rhythm Steppers, the band that facilitated a turning point in Swan's life.
When Mirley and his band went to Memphis to record for Bill Black, they asked Swan to come along. They recorded his single "Lover Please" on Louis Records, though that first version sank without a trace; but Bill Black subsequently put out another version by Swan's friend Dennis Turner. When that record started getting airplay in St. Louis, Mercury Records' producer Shelby Singleton recorded a version with R&B pioneer Clyde McPhatter in 1962. The result was a true pop classic, and the final Top Ten pop hit of McPhatter's career.
Swan, a fan of McPhatter's, recalled just where he was when he first heard his song over the radio. "It was about 12:30 at night and it was snowing in this small town in Missouri," he said in an interview. "When I [heard it], I was so happy that I just started spinning the car around in the snow-;there was nobody out at that time in the morning. I never will forget that."
Produced "Polk Salad Annie"
Just 19 years old, Swan continued to play gigs with the Rhythm Steppers and another group called the Four Notes. Eventually he moved to Memphis with the idea of writing full-time for Bill Black's publishing company. With no job or further hit songs on the way, the youngster struggled. Fortunately, a chance conversation with Travis Smith, Elvis Presley's uncle and the gatekeeper at Graceland, resulted in Swan renting a room with Smith's family. For a time the aspiring singer-songwriter hung out with Presley's crowd when the rock king rented out movie theaters, skating rinks, or amusement parks.
Drifting, Swan returned to Missouri, before moving to Nashville in August of 1963. Doing whatever he could to keep afloat until he got a break, Swan's career began in earnest with a job at the CBS studio in Nashville, working for producer Fred Foster. "I used to hang out there a lot and play ping-pong with all the musicians," he recalled. "So they offered me this job that they called an engineer's assistant, but basically I would clean up between sessions. I would erase tape and go get food for the engineers."
This seemingly menial position led to a chance to produce a hit recording by swamp blues rocker Tony Jo White. Swan's technique with White was simple: he let the artist use the wah-wah peddle on his funky blues guitar fills. The result was "Polk Salad Annie," which hit number eight on the pop charts in 1969. Subsequently, Swan produced three albums for White, although none yielded any further hit singles.
Finding work as a producer meant that Swan could leave his job as an engineer's assistant. He plugged along during the early 1970s writing songs and working in bands headed up by friend Kris Kristofferson and by Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman. In 1975 the gift of a compact RMI organ provided the impetus for his greatest commercial achievement. Living in an apartment complex in Nashville and awaiting the birth of his first child, he wrote "I Can Help." "I wrote it in this duplex my wife and I were living in," Swan remembered. "It was one of those songs that came real fast. I wrote the three verses first and I said, Well, I need something to go between the second and third verse. So, I wrote that little bridge, When I go to sleep at night."
Released on Monument, "I Can Help," with its swampy organ and twangy rockabilly guitar fills, became a number one pop and country hit. Swan formed his own band, toured Europe, and hosted an edition of NBC's late night music series The Midnight Special. The tune inspired dozens of cover versions, none more important to Swan than those by two of his boyhood heroes, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Due to his excessive drinking, Swan lost the focus on his career and on a proper follow up to "I Can Help." One single, "Everything's the Same (Ain't Nothing Changed)," gained favor with country programmers and rose to number 17 on the charts. Although he never enjoyed another major pop music success, Swan didn't really fit the model for a true one-hit wonder. After issuing strong albums on Monument and A&M, he found a niche at Epic Records, where he racked up five Top 40 country hits, including "Do I Have to Draw a Picture," "I'm Into Loving You," and "Stuck Right in the Middle of Your Love." His commercial luck ran out after 1983, although he continued to record without much success for Epic and Mercury before being relegated to independent label status.
For the Record …
Born William Lance Swan on May 12, 1942, in Cape Giradeau, MO; son of Jasper Ray and Mary Johnson Swan; married Marlu (deceased); children: two girls, Planet and Sierra.
Singer, songwriter, producer, 1959–; played piano and guitar for Mirt Mirley and the Rhythm Steppers, 1959–62; wrote "Lover Please," which became a hit by Clyde McPhatter, 1962; produced Tony Joe White's hit "Polk Salad Annie," 1969; toured with Kris Kristofferson's band, 1971–87; wrote the number one pop and country hit "I Can Help," 1974; formed Black Tie with former Eagle Randy Meisner, 1986; assistant musical director of film Great Balls of Fire, 1989; appeared in David Lynch's film Wild at Heart, 1990, toured Europe with The Billy Swan Band, 1993–95; recorded as Meisner and Charlie Rich Jr., 2001; has recorded for Monument, A&M, Epic, Mercury, Bench, Varese, and 706 Records.
Awards: Inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Collectors; Choice Music, P.O. Box 838, Itasca, IL 60143-0838, phone: 1-800-923-1122, website—http://www.ccmusic.com, http://www.wma.com. Booking—Mars Talent Agency, 27 L Ambiance Dt., Bardonia, NY 10954, phone: 561-743-1990, fax: 561-743-1993, website: http://www.marstalent.com, http://www.wma.com. Website—Official Billy Swan Website: http://www.billyswan.com.
Meisner, Swan & Rich
During the mid-1980s Swan dabbled in films. He worked closely with producer T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack for the Jerry Lee Lewis bio-pic Great Balls of Fire!, and handled the music and tackled a small role in David Lynch's film Wild at Heart. Far more interesting for his musical career, however, his willingness to jam resulted in a band affiliation with former Eagle Randy Meisner and Jimmy Griffin from Bread. They went on the road as Black Tie, with Alan Rich later stepping in when Griffin returned to Nashville. Black Tie produced one album. The nucleus of a later edition of the band recorded another album as Meisner, Swan & Rich during the early 1990s, but it wasn't released until 2001. The group's work together turned out a smart fusion of gospel, rock, country and blues that just didn't benefit from enough distribution or promotion to encourage more than a cult following.
The latter part of Swan's career found him returning to his roots for self-produced albums on Audium and 706 Records. An album titled SUNatra—Frank Sinatra classics redone in the style of 1950s Sun Recordings—was shopped around to no avail. On the bright side, he continues to do gigs when offered the right opportunity. Moreover, he takes great pride in the accomplishments of his two music-minded daughters, Planet and Sierra. Asked about his daughter Sierra, who now records for the Interscope label, Swan replied, "She gives me advice," he laughed. "I can't tell her much of anything. She's got her own little peers in her age group that she works with and they are all very hip. Hipper than I am at this time of my life. You kind of feel like some things have passed you by, and then you don't, because music, I've always felt, is like gambling. I could probably write a great song when I'm 70 or write a great book or paint a great picture. The arts are that way. You just never know."
"I Can Help," Monument, 1974.
"Everything's the Same (Ain't Nothing Changed)," Monument, 1975.
"I'm Her Fool," Monument, 1975.
"Hello! Remember Me," A&M, 1978.
"Do I Have to Draw a Picture," Epic, 1981.
"I'm Into Loving You," Epic, 1981.
"Stuck Right in the Middle of Your Love," Epic, 1982.
"With Their Kind of Money and Our Kind of Love," Epic, 1982.
"Rainbows and Butterflies," Epic, 1983.
"Your Picture Still Loves Me (And I Still Love You)," Epic, 1983.
Billy Swan, Monument, 1975.
I Can Help, Monument 1975.
Rock 'n' Roll Moon, Monument, 1976.
Billy Swan, CBS, 1977.
Four, Monument, 1977.
You're Ok I m Ok, A&M, 1978.
I'm in to You, Epic, 1981.
When the Night Falls, (w/Black Tie) Bench, 1990.
Bop to Be, Carlton, 1995.
Billy Swan Live, Carlton/706 Records, 2000.
I Can Help/Rock 'n' Roll Moon, See For Miles, 1997.
Billy Swan/Four, See For Miles, 1997.
Golden Classics Collectables, 1997.
Like Elvis Used to Do Castle/706 Records, 1998; reissued, Audium/Koch, 2000.
I Used To Be James Dean, 706 Records, 1998.
The Best of Billy Swan, Epic/Legacy, 1998.
Meisner, Swan & Rich, Varese, 2001; reissued, Rev-Ola, 2002.
Greatest Hits, Columbia, 2005.
Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1997.
Jancik, Wayne, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, Billboard, 1998.
McCloud, Barry, Definitive Country—The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Makers, Perigree, 1995.
Roland, Tom, The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits, Billboard, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, & Grelun Landon, Country Music—the Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
"Billy Swan," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 13, 2006).
"Billy Swan," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com/SwanBilly1.html. (November 13, 2006).
"Black Tie," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 14, 2006).
"Meisner, Swan & Rich," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 14, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was drawn from a 2004 interview with Billy Swan.
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