Billy was born into a musical family. When Billy was a youngster, his mother encouraged him to sing in church, which he did with great vigor.
He originally wanted to play trombone, but picked up the piano from his Uncle John Hannah. “My uncle was a church pianist, but he played a little boogie boogie too.” Billy also learned from Ivory Mitchell. Ivory was a graduate of Julliard University and the first student sent to Russia in an exchange of students back in the day. Billy says, “He went over there and blew Russia away!”
Billy also used to listen to his neighbor “Shine,” who used to play in the minstrel shows. Shine knew all the old classic Kansas City style blues.
“Shine used to tell me, “You could learn to play the piano. I believe you have the talent to learn.” That’s where I learned all the boogie boogie beats, from Shine.”
This inspired Billy to pursue a career in music.
For Billy, one good thing to come out of being enlisted was that there was always a piano on base.
After his stint with Uncle Sam, Billy finished high school at the segregated Union Academy where he was a star athlete. After graduation, Billy began his musical career, singing with the Mickey Maxwell band and other local combos.
Working the clubs during the evenings, Billy found time to attend Florida A&M University on a football and athletic scholarship, studying Physical Education.
Billy “The Kid” Emerson picked up his moniker during a gig in Florida at the Corral Drive-In Restaurant. The owner of the establishment had the band in cowboy duds to match the uniforms of the car hops. Walking home one evening still wearing his cowboy outfit, he was spotted by a friend of his who said, “Hey, there goes Billy the Kid!” The nickname has been with him ever since.
In 1952, war once again interrupted Billy’s entertainment career. He served his country in the Korean War, this time in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Greenville, Mississippi during 1952 and 1953.
During his time in the Air Force, Billy crossed paths with Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm and Little Milton Cambell and many of the great blues singers. Ike let Billy sit in with the band and Little Milton. Before long, Billy was playing with the Kings of Rhythm whenever they passed through Greenville. Billy would play all night and get back to the base just in time for roll call.
After his discharge from the Air Force, Billy moved back home to Tarpon Springs. On a swing through Florida, Ike again crossed paths with Billy and asked him to join the Kings of Rhythm full time. Billy credits Ike for showing him the skills and techniques in becoming a professional vocalist.
Ike was also a talent scout, and had Billy do a few sessions with RPM Records that never saw the light of day. On January 11,1954, all that changed when Ike brought Billy “The Kid” Emerson to Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis Tennessee.
Billy laid down various takes of three of his songs that day, NO TEASING AROUND, IF LOVIN’ IS BELIEVING and the up tempo rocker HEY LITTLE GIRL - backed by Ike’s band. Billy made the grand sum of $20, Ike made $25, and the rest of the band split $100. Billy signed a one year contract with Sun the same day.
A couple months later, Billy was back at Sun, again bringing three self-penned compositions with him. He received $10 for an advance on future sales, and he was paid $22.50 for the session. He also sat in on THE SNUGGLE by Raymond Hill.
Billy was a touring musician and not part of the local Memphis music scene, although he does recall a gig at the Hippodrome, a large dance hall of Memphis’ famed Beale Street.
His next effort for Sun received rave reviews. MOVE BABY MOVE was a pick on Billboard, and WHEN IT RAINS IT REALLY POURS was a top seller in New Orleans, right behind AIN’T THAT A SHAME and BO DIDDLEY.
WHEN IT RAINS IT REALLY POURS should have broken out on a national scale and given Billy some well-deserved success. Unfortunately, it seems that Sam Phillips had other priorities, devoting his finances and efforts to a young rockabilly named Elvis Presley. Billy recalls, “That song was a monster. Sam loved it, but didn’t concentrate on it. He wanted Elvis to cut it.”
Elvis covered the song in 1955 at Sun, but it sat in the vault for decades, unreleased until 1983. Elvis re-cut the song at RCA in 1957 and it was released on the LP “Elvis for Everyone” in 1965, bringing Billy some well-deserved royalties.
Billy’s next session at Sun turned out to be his most lasting contribution to rock and roll. It was RED HOT.
The song was an homage to Billy’s high school days, back home in Florida. The school’s cheerleaders would chant, “Our Team Is Red Hot!” Billy spun that memory into the now well-known line “My Gal is Red Hot, Your Gal Ain’t Doodley Squat!”
The song received great reviews and sold well. However, Sam Phillips decided to put his efforts behind Johnny Cash and CRY CRY CRY which was released the same day. Apparently, Billy didn’t receive songwriter’s royalties on RED HOT and some other songs he recorded. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he was able to recover $2,500 for the Sam The Sham and Elvis covers of his songs.
Billy’s final session at Sun occurred in late 1955 and Billy says it was his best. “SOMETHING FOR NOTHING, that was when I found my style. You listen to that and LITTLE FINE HEALTHY THING and you’re listening to the real Billy Emerson.” Billy recalls, “Sam didn’t see it as a hit. I didn’t like the cold way he treated people, so when my contract ended, I quit.” Also feeling Sam’s ear was now tuned into rock and roll and no longer hearing the rhythm and blues that Sun was founded on, Billy parted ways with Sun in 1956.
Of all the African American artists who recorded for Sun, it was Billy “The Kid” Emerson that had the most impact on rock and roll and rockabilly music.
After leaving Sun, Billy headed north and immediately secured a contract with Vee-Jay Records, releasing four sides in 1956 and 1957, including his rocking blues rave-up EVERY WOMAN I KNOW (CRAZY ‘BOUT AUTOMOBILES). Over the years, this song was recorded by Sam The Sham, Ry Cooder and others.
In between recording sessions, Billy never stopped performing, playing gigs with the likes of Joe Turner, The Orioles, BB King, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, The Dells and others.
In 1958, Billy moved on from Vee-Jay and signed with Chess Records. He released a few 45’s on Chess. It was here that he began a songwriting partnership with Willie Dixon.
In 1960, Billy was playing the top clubs in Chicago while he concentrated on writing songs and getting them published. One composition, DO ME SO GOOD, was recorded by Ann-Margaret.
In the early 1960’s, Billy released several records on smaller labels such as MAD, USA, Constellation, M-Pac and others. He wrote songs for Buddy Guy, Wynonnie Harris, Little Walter and others.
In 1965, after receiving some royalties for Sam The Sham’s version of RED HOT, Billy opened his own label, TARPON RECORDS. A total of seven 45’s were released on Tarpon. Five were recorded by Billy, and one from Matt “Guitar” Murphy as well as the debut recording of Denise LaSalle. Billy recalls other releases by Lonnie Brooks, Nolan Struck and Carol Vega on Tarpon. Research on these elusive releases is currently underway.
In the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, Billy tired of the record business and took a “day job,” but continued playing clubs in the evenings. But something…or rather someone…else was calling to Billy. He became the Choir Director and organist at the Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Church in Chicago. He took time off and decided to put God first.
Just before devoting himself to God full-time, Billy “The Kid” Emerson embarked on a tour of Europe. It was a resounding success. While in Europe, he did some recording for Big Bear Records.
The music of Billy “The Kid” Emerson has stood the test of time. RED HOT is a rock and roll classic. Billy Lee Riley, a Sun Records stablemate, gave the song a rockabilly rave-up in 1957. Bob Luman followed shortly thereafter with his version. The next year, the Carroll Brothers and Ronnie Hawkins did theirs. For reasons unknown, the Carroll Brothers and Ronnie Hawkins failed to give Billy proper songwriting credit.
Sam The Sham released his version in 1966, Robert Gordon and Link Wray brought the song to the attention of a new generation in 1977. These artists gave credit where credit was due, recognizing Billy “The Kid” Emerson as the song’s original creator.
His work in the church began when he was appointed the “Executive Music Teacher” at the Christ Temple Apostolic Church at 14 South Ashland Avenue in Chicago. His Christ Temple Missionary Choir sang Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs exclusively, bringing the “Sacrifice of Praise” into God’s House.
Billy was also appointed the Director of the National Missionary Choir of the Pentecostal Churches of the Apostolic Faith, the PC of AF, national headquarters located in Louisville Kentucky.
Reverend Emerson relocated to his hometown of Tarpon Springs and started the Holy Praise Apostolic Church of Jesus as well at the Good Spirit Music Ministry where he continues to preach the Gospel to this day.
As long as he can remember, Billy says the music has “just been coming out.”
Now in his 90’s, the music is still coming out. He is currently working on some religious based music called “The Sacrifice of Praise.” The Prophet Jeremiah said, “for those that would bring the sacrifice of praise back into the House of God, he would restore all that was lost.”
Billy believes this will be his best work yet.