Wirtz, Billy C.

views updated

Billy C. Wirtz

Pianist, singer-songwriter

A legally ordained minister as well as a knowledgeable roots-musician, satirist Rev. Billy C. Wirtz regularly attacks intolerance, pop culture excess, televangelism, professional wrestling, and percolating hormones with evangelical zeal. A first-rate boogie pianist, he possesses a flair for Jerry Lee Lewis-style honky-tonk and blues ala his early mentor Sunnyland Slim, and deftly sends up blues, country, and gospel with an insider's sense of nuance and authority. He has also written for such notable publications as Blueswax, Musician, Keyboard, and All Music Guide. However, his stock in trade is provoking laughter, and ever since his emergence during the early 1980s, his sanctified routines have elicited belly laughs from club crowds worldwide.

Born in Aiken, South Carolina, Wirtz may have inherited a sense of humor from his father, who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. "He was a real smart guy and he did voices and impressions that were pretty dead-on target," Wirtz told Blue Suede News.

During the civil rights era, young Wirtz's social consciousness was raised by his mother, a sociologist who worked to reform the police department. "So, I was taken around with her and I ended up hanging out in a lot of hillbilly bars and stuff like that, dancing around to Ernest Tubb on the jukebox," Wirtz recalled in an interview. "We also got the TV from Augusta, Georgia, and apparently, my favorite shows at the time featured the black gospel quartets. My mom said, ‘You were way too young to even know what you were watching, but the more they hollered and rolled, the more you loved it.’"

The Wirtz family moved to the Washington, D.C., area when the youngster was nine years old. It was there that the cross-pollination of R&B blues and country music cultures made a strong impression on him. Listening to the disc jockeys on such black music stations as WOOK and WUST acquainted him with blues and soul music in a most entertaining fashion. Further, the area was rich in country music, thanks to local television shows hosted by Jimmy Dean and Connie B. Gay, respectively. Equally important to the youngster was the cultural education he received during the early 1960s' comedy album boom. "The neighborhood I lived in was all New York Jewish kids," Wirtz recalled. "I learned more about Jewish culture from Allan Sherman's My Son, The Folksinger than anything else. I wore that album out and I can probably still do most of it from memory." Along with such classic rock acts as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, these roots forms of music and humor would provide the foundation for his later musical satires.

After seeing neighborhood friends Johnny Fabian and Barry Keene performing in a two-man band, the ten-year-old Wirtz began playing the guitar. Hoping to impress girls, he played rock and roll with local pick-up bands during the mid-to-late 1960s. "My very first bands were playing Yardbirds and Beatles type stuff," he recalled. "It was just Garage Rock—there was no real distinction."

Selling records at Waxie Maxie's Record Store turned him on to the blues as well as to jazz and gospel. During the hippie era, Wirtz learned the basic of piano on an organ that his parents grudgingly bought for him. "My problem was that I didn't like to practice. I was pretty sucky as an organ player and I got kicked out of my band when I was fifteen and a half."

Wirtz didn't fully renew his musical ambitions until after he graduated from college and began working at a residential camp for children with special needs. "At nighttime, there just wasn't much to do, so I went down to the lodge and just started plinking around on the piano," Wirtz explained. "I did that for a few months, then I was pretty drunk one night and I asked the local band if they wanted a piano player. They were Charles, Terry, and the Swingin' Countrymen. We were playing at this local redneck bar called the Four Corners Tavern in Star Tannery, Virginia."

One of the key figures in Wirtz's early musical career was blues great Sunnyland Slim. After a show in Virginia, Wirtz met the famed pianist, and upon learning that the elder musician planned on taking a Greyhound bus to his next gig, offered to give him a ride. The two became fast friends and Slim invited the younger pianist to stay at his home in Chicago. Sunnyland Slim not only made an impact on Wirtz's playing, he got the youngster onto a Muddy Waters recording session.

After Wirtz returned home, he joined a local blues band called Sidewinder before briefly striking out on his own. During the early 1980s, he paid the bills working as a sideman for the Nighthawks, Evan Johns and several other Washington, D.C., acts, and during this time he began to perfect the "Reverend" persona. Armed with a slew of funny songs, costumes, and a minister's credential from the "First Universal Christian Kingdom," the stage persona of the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz was born. As for the name of his mock church? "The First House Of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire, and Our Lady Of The White Go-Go Boot, Lord Of The 40-Watt Undulating Bubbling Lava Lamp Apocalyptic, No Pizza Take-Out After Twelve, Shrine Of The Rasslin' Rick Flair ‘WOOOO’ Jesus! Love Tabernacle From Sunny Daytona Florida," replied Wirtz. "That pretty much says it right there."

Skewering his audiences with puckish evangelical zeal, he found that his act worked better in music clubs than comedy venues. "The thing was, I was a little too far out in left field for the comedy clubs. They wanted more of the Jeff Foxworthy type of thing. I ended up doing a spell in the comedy clubs, but in '82 I made my first album called Salvation Through Polyester. I pressed about a thousand copies of it with Darryl Rhodes on his label [No Big Deal]."

Wirtz's much delayed second album would prove to be the catalyst for his national reputation. Recording with former Root Boy Slim cohort Bob Greenely, he laid down Deep Fried and Sanctified. The disc sold nearly 2000 copies for Kingsnake records before roots music publicist Mark Pucci passed a copy to Hightone, who quickly signed Wirtz to their label. His fortunes quickly began to improve.

In 1989, as his album began to pick up airplay, he signed on with the TBS cable network's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) as a "manager" for the likes of Dennis "Median" Knight, the Nasty Boys, Gigolo Jimmy Backlund, and Diamond Dallas Paige. "I recorded the song ‘Teenie Weenie Meanie’ and that led to a gig as a wrestling manager," he explained. After the six-month gig ended, Wirtz returned for a three-month stint as a house musician for the WCW's Monday night telecasts.

Far more lucrative was his work as a touring recording artist and comedy act. Playing everywhere from southern biker bars to the prestigious Bottom Line in New York, Wirtz attracted a loyal following. Moreover, morning drive-time disc jockeys turned many of his zany songs, like "Roberta" and "Sleeper Hold on Satan," into playlist staples. "‘Just Friends’ was a major hit on Pittsburgh radio," recalled Wirtz. "‘Brenda The Truck-Driving Lesbian From Venus’ was a huge hit in Memphis. To this day, it's maintained a pretty decent status for me there."

Beginning in 1993, Wirtz also began writing about music for Musician and Keyboard magazines. Always prolific, he also contributed reviews, columns, and features to Blueswax.com, All Music Guide, Florida Today, and the Charlotte Observer. "Fortunately I had a real good education along the way," reflected Wirtz. "And the … years of learning basic writing skills and communications? It's paid off ever since."

Although Wirtz would later host a weekly radio show called Rev Billy's Rhythm Revival on KPIG, his constant touring kept the bills paid. His seven-year association with Hightone ended in 2002 and left him without a label for a few years. In 2006 he signed with the independent blues label Blind Pig and released Sermon from Bethlehem, which was released on both CD and DVD.

As he began touring with his new album, Wirtz was stricken with a lung infection that resulted in two operations and a lot of time off. After making a conscious decision to slow down and not spend quite so much time on the road, he began taking steady local gigs in Florida with his new trio, Rev. Billy and the Tallywackers. "I finally have a drummer to do rimshots for my bad jokes," he stated on his website. He also teamed up with a young boogie pianist named Victor Wainwright for a two man show called Pianist Envy.

For the Record …

Born on September 28, 1954, in Aiken, South Carolina; father worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and mother for the local police department; married and divorced; graduated from James Madison University with a degree in special education, 1976.

Singer-songwriter, pianist, producer, nightclub performer, part-time columnist and radio host, 1973-; began gigging with local band the Swinging Countrymen, mid-1970s; worked with blues greats Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters, 1979; toured with Root Boy Slim, began solo career, 1982; recorded for Hightone, 1989-98; worked as a wrestler/wrestling manager; recorded for Blind Pig records, 2006; hosted weekly radio shows, 2006-.

Awards: National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD), Comedy Album of the Year, 1991.

Despite his health scare, Wirtz has stayed busy, seemingly enjoying his status as a cult comic and living by the mindset he had spelled out for Blue Suede News in 2001. "I've always felt that, ‘If I don't hit the big-time, at least I'll have a nice, mid-level career here. There'll be some credibility so I can work for as long as I might want to.’ And, that's what I've done."

Selected discography

Salvation Through Polyester, No Big Deal, 1982.

Rev. Billy C. Wirtz Live at Fitzgerald's Chicago, Rest Stop Records, 1985.

Deep Fried & Sanctified, Kingsnake, 1988; reissued Hightone, 1989.

Backslider's Tractor Pull, Hightone, 1990.

Pianist Envy [live], Hightone, 1994.

Turn for the Wirtz: Confessions of a Hillbilly Love God, Hightone, 1994.

Song of Faith and Inflammation [live], Hightone, 1996.

Unchained Maladies, Hightone, 1998.

Best of the Wirtz: 15 Years on the Road with a 77" Piano, Hightone, 2001.

Sermon from Bethlehem [live], Blind Pig, 2006.


Sermon from Bethlehem, Blind Pig, 2006.



Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, Musichound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1997.


Blue Suede News, Issue #55, Summer 2001.


"Billy C. Wirtz," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com. (September 21, 2007).

Billy C. Wirtz Official Website,http://www.reverendbilly.com, (September 21, 2007).

"Rev. Billy C. Wirtz," Blind Pig Records, http://www.blindpigrecords/index.cfm?section=artists&artistid=68 (September 21, 2007).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a 2001 phone interview with the artist.

—Ken Burke