In 1955, an 18-year old piano player with a background in gospel music and a keen interest in jazz would spend evenings and weekends moonlighting with D.C. area R&B bands. One night he gets noticed by Bo Diddley. The kid is invited to join Diddley’s band, and ends up recording one of his songs with Diddley’s record company, Chicago’s Chess Records.
Why did I buy this record? For the B-side. The A-side is nice enough, an instrumental track that is best described as “Bo Diddley and his band performing a tango”. Flip to the B-side and give it about 15 seconds. Then the voice kicks in. Everything about Billy Stewart’s style, which would come to fruition nearly 10 years later, is there. That sweet high tenor. The doubling up borrowed from his gospel background. Scat phrasing from his love of jazz. The trills. The torch-song like emoting. Everything that would make Stewart one of the key influences of the Chicago Soul style is here. It sounds like a hit.
A hit it was not. For several reasons I suspect, most suspect being that it may not have been intended for Billy Stewart to cut a record. Join me in the Way Back Machine of the imagination: Elias McDaniel (Bo Diddley) was in the studio with his band laying down some tracks. At the end of the session there was some studio time left over and artists were loathe to waste expensive studio time. Did anyone have a song? Billy had a piano riff. He played it for the band. Jody Williams, McDaniel’s rhythm guitarist, quickly works out an arrangement (and gets credit as song co-writer) while McDaniel adapts the riff for guitar. The band works through the number. Boom! Instrumental track. Time to put down vocals. But the song was just born and it does not have any vocals. Stewart uses his gospel and jazz experience to ad-lib some words scat style. The studio time runs out before the song can be polished.
Problem 1 is that the mix on the vocal track is bad. The backing track fades in and out, and sometimes McDaniel’s guitar work gets buried in the mix. The volume on Stewart’s vocals is uneven; a couple of times it is apparent he has turned or moved away from the mike. Typically, records of this period use the vocal track as Part 1/the A-side. Leonard Chess may have decided the cleaner instrumental track, a solid Bo Diddley dancer, would make a better A-side. But he could not release it as a Bo Diddley record; they had another Bo Diddley single, the seminal “Who Do You Love”, in the can and ready for release. Billy Stewart, here is your shot at the big time: a record where your performance is relegated to the B-side.
Problem 2 is that “Billy’s Blues” was released on the Chess label at the same time as Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. DJs were quite careful of playing too many records from the same record label, lest someone think they may be getting paid to do so. A new release from a complete unknown was not going to bump one of Chuck Berry’s biggest hits off the turntables. “Billy’s Blues” got NO airplay.
Problem 2a is that the record was released on the Chess label period. The audience for Chess singles expected to hear some dangerous sounding blues by Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, or a rocker the likes of Chuck Berry or Bobby Charles. Instead they got… a Bo Diddley tango? Outside of the L.A. market, which was kinder to jazzy-sounding records, “Billy’s Blues” did not bother the charts. Chess must have recognized the mistake. The record was re-issued on Argo, Chess’ jazz imprint, a month or so later. Argo recordings tended towards lounge jazz, and apparently Argo buyers did not want a Bo Diddley tango either.
To modern ears, “Billy’s Blues” has a catchy rhythm, all the hallmarks of classic Bo Diddley, and earnest vocals from a young singer on the rise. It is also a very raw recording that circumstance was not kind to. It would take six years, two as Bo Diddley’s piano player and four more paying his dues on the club circuit as a solo performer, before Stewart got another chance at cutting a side for Chess. Listen to one of Stewart’s mid-60s sides and then revisit “Billy’s Blues”. Stewart’s performance has the feeling of a bird leaving the nest for the first time, testing his wings. It wouldn’t be until 1962’s “Reap What You Sow” that the bird finally left the nest for good. But oh, what a test flight is”Billy’s Blues”.
Want to know more about Billy Stewart? This site is a bit old but has a comprehensive biography.