On the surface, the idea of publishing a Billy Vera autobiography may seem a bit preposterous; it certainly was to me. After all, why would anybody release a book about a guy who had just one major hit in the 1980s? The acknowledgments page justified my skepticism a bit when Billy himself stated most publishers considered him “not a big enough name” to warrant a book.
But despite the doubts, the book somehow came to fruition — and that’s a good thing. It turns out there’s a lot more to Billy Vera’s story than meets the eye.
Vera was born in 1944, the son of a radio announcer dad and a radio singer mom. Like countless kids in the mid-1950s, DJ Alan Freed exposed him to R&B. There was no turning back after that.
During the 1960s, he released a few records and had some minor chart success when he recorded with former gospel singer Judy Clay for Atlantic Records. Over the next couple of years — both with Clay and on his own — he snuck onto the charts periodically, but that mediocre success ended along with the decade.
He kept working throughout the 1970s, writing songs and performing whatever gigs he could get, as well as releasing records here or there whenever the opportunity presented itself. Times were tough, but his fortunes took a turn for the better when Dolly Parton recorded one of his songs in 1978.
Motivated by this turn of events, Vera moved to Los Angeles and formed Billy and the Beaters. In 1981, they had a couple of minor hits including “At This Moment,” which made it to #79 on the Billboard singles chart. Things really changed for Vera a few years later when“At This Moment” was re-released after being used in the television show Family Ties. This time around the song topped the charts and ensured his ascension from anonymity.
After the hit came and went, Vera kept busy for the next 30 years by writing, producing, and performing music. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and eventually wrote a book. That last part may sound flippant, but to the average uninformed person — such as myself — that’s how the story plays out.
As it turns out, there’s quite a bit more to Vera’s story than that, and he goes into great detail about it in Harlem to Hollywood.
He spends the first half of the book going into detail about the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on his experiences as a recording artist and a live performer. Vera was never one to imbibe in drink or drugs, so his memories are mighty clear, and the stories he tells are quite interesting. He devotes an entire chapter to his experiences performing live – including a stint at the famed Apollo Theater – and it’s so engrossing, you really wish you could have been there.
The tidbit of info that really blew my mind was that he wrote the Remains’ “Don’t Look Back.”
Anybody who has more than a passing interest in ’60s garage bands knows this classic. Vera originally wrote it for soul singer Chuck Jackson, but Jackson ended up passing on it. Somehow, through a serendipitous twist of fate, the demo made it to the Remains. And we are all better people for that.
The last half of the book covers his life following the revitalized success of “At This Moment.” This dude stayed a lot busier than one would suspect. Aside from producing and performing, he’s been the driving force for a lot of classic R&B performers getting their due in the digital age. He compiled the tracks and wrote the liner notes for a Little Richard box set, which led to him overseeing dozens of other compilations drawn from the vaults of the legendary Specialty label, among others.
Personally, I owe Vera thanks for the Atlantic Records sets he put together in 2007. He was approached to compile a box set of Atlantic’s vocal groups to mark the label’s 60th anniversary. Vera agreed to do it on the condition that he be allowed to compile a blues set and a soul set. All three of these box sets are chock full of obscure tracks obviously compiled by someone who knows and loves the music, and they are highly prized by myself and — I assume — anybody else lucky enough to own them. The liner notes on those sets are terrific and demonstrate that Vera is a good writer and knows his music history.
As for Harlem to Hollywood, the book overall is a good read. But as with any autobiography, some parts are inevitably less intriguing. He goes into great detail about his experiences as a voiceover talent – which, along with his acting gigs, I never would have guessed were part of the Billy Vera story. While the anecdotes are interesting, they don’t really stick with you as much as the backstage stories at the Apollo.
It’s a colorful read, both in the stories it tells and the language it uses. Vera doesn’t pull any punches, especially calling out people that rub him the wrong way — Lesley Gore, Chubby Checker, and Baby Boomers, in general, come to mind.
The only downside is that the book starts out more as a linear story, but near the end, it feels like an endless number of anecdotes linked together one after the other. I didn’t really get the feeling that the author had grown much as a person over the last half of the book, but I guess that’s the point. He was 42 years old when he hit #1 with “At This Moment.” After that, life consisted of staying busy and remaining viable however necessary, even if it meant a string of different jobs and experiences.
If you’re a fan of Billy Vera, you won’t be disappointed with the book. If you’re indifferent but have an interest in life behind the scenes as a recording artist and a performer, you might be well served to pick a copy of Harlem to Hollywood and give it a whirl. He interacted with a dizzying number of artists over the past 55 years or so, and chances are he has at least a story or two that might pique your interest.
Get your copy of Billy Vera’s From Harlem to Hollywood via Amazon.