It’s hard to explain what Scott Billington has meant to New Orleans and Louisiana music in the past two plus decades. These following words must suffice:
Classified. Give Him Cornbread. Funk is in the House. Irma Thomas. Tangle Eye. Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas. The Houseman Cometh. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Danny Barker and Eddie Bo. Sing It! Johnny Adams. Who Stole My Monkey? The Whop Boom Bam. Buckwheat Zydeco. Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah.
If good New Orleans or zydeco music was recorded in the past two and a half decades, there’s a good chance that Scott Billington made it happen. Starting out as a graphic designer, continuing as a producer, and now working as vice president of A&R for Rounder Records, one of the best known and premiere roots music record labels in the world, Billington has made the records that many of us treasure. Recognizing him with OffBeat‘s Lifetime Achievement in Music Business Award is long overdue.
Billington grew up outside Boston and started out playing harmonica in blues bands when he was a teenager. At one point when his family lived in New Jersey in the late 1960s, he and friends would go into New York City down to Greenwich Village to hear the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and his idol, Paul Butterfield. When his father died, his mother moved the family back to Boston where Billington hung out at Skippy White’s record store in Cambridge and got an education in black music. “I remember getting Percy Mayfield’s ‘My Jug and I’ on Tangerine Records. It was on Ray Charles’ label with members of his band. It had great songs and great arrangements. It was a big influence on me when I made records with Johnny Adams. It showed you could have jazz level playing with a sophisticated take on the blues, but still be swinging with great story songs.”
Billington went to school for a year in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he had also lived for a short while, but then moved back to Boston. He managed a record store and got involved with the Boston Blues Society, which included such blues fanatics as Dick Waterman and Peter Guralnick. “We promoted shows at Harvard University,” Billington says. “We brought in Son House, Roosevelt Sykes, Mance Lipscomb, Houston Stackhouse. This was the last hurrah of folks who recorded in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a fantastic bunch of folks.”
Through the Boston Blues Society, Billington met the founders of Rounder Records. He soon became a part-time salesman for them and continued learning the business. “I had dreamed of making records when I was 15,” he says. “I heard the Live at the Village Vanguard records or the stuff on Chess Records. Peter Guralnick and I had recorded guitarist Johnny Shines in Cambridge, and Rounder put it out. I designed the cover and Peter did the liner notes—this was 1976 or 1977—and it won a W.C. Handy Award.” From there, Billington continued working on records with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sleepy LaBeef, and Johnny Spence. He also learned graphic design by “peeking over the shoulder of the woman who was Rounder’s graphic designer and taking some courses.”
About this time, Rounder had a huge, surprise hit with George Thorogood. “The success of Thorogood made other bluesmen want to record for Rounder. Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown came to Rounder and they said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’” I wanted to bring Gate back to the swinging, big-band blues mode, and Gate was comfortable with this. He did not like being typecast as a bluesman. We did [Alright Again!] at Studio in the Country [in Bogalusa] in eight days. It was a marathon session, and it won a Grammy.”
Billington had been to New Orleans several times by this point. “I loved being here,” he smiles. “I knew New Orleans from records—Dave Bartholomew, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint. It was eye-opening to see all this music in the context of the community rather than removed from the community with the concerts at Harvard. Seeing that the music is a real, living and breathing part of the community made a real impression on me, and the Grammy made me want to do more. I was hanging down here and seeing James Booker at the Maple Leaf and Tuts Washington at the Pontchartrain Bar.” Billington was getting more confident in his role as a producer, which combined with his thought that “New Orleans felt like the right place to be. In places like Chicago or Austin, most of the good musicians were making records, but here, there were these wonderful musicians, most of them at the peak of their creative, vocal, entertaining powers, and no one was making records by them.”
Billington’s first session in New Orleans was James Booker’s Classified. It was extremely difficult, as Booker would not do what they had rehearsed. On the third day, Billington went to Ultrasonic Studios to see if anything from the previous two days was salvageable, and Booker was there when he arrived and ready to play.
“We cut all the solo stuff for Classified that morning,” says Billington. Although Classified did not show the magic that James Booker could weave when he was on, it is a good record with some stand-out tracks. The Booker Classified session taught Billington that “when you’re trying to capture an emotional and connected performance from an artist who can’t summon that kind of feeling in a rote kind of way, you have to be patient. You can’t push a button and get that out of somebody. There might be artists like Johnny Adams who even at their lowest, they’re still pretty good. Booker had a much more pronounced high and low. I wish I would’ve had more time with Booker.”
Billington feels a great sense of accomplishment for his work with Johnny Adams. “That’s the relationship I’m most proud of in my career,” he says. “There’s no doubt that Johnny was a great singer. When I first met him, he was playing what was left of the black club circuit through Mississippi and Louisiana. We made a pretty good record for the first record. The rhythm section is tight. Johnny sings beautifully. After that, I saw how I can take a singer like this and give him or her the infrastructure they need to make a record.
Billington’s work over nine albums with Johnny Adams harkens back to the earlier days of producer/singer relationships such as Norman Granz and Ella Fitzgerald or Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey. The records have superb vocal performances and sympathetic musicians playing a variety of music from late-night jazz to gospel to organ blues. If Billington had not done these, it’s quite possible that Johnny Adams, one of the best singers ever, might have never recorded again, and certainly not as much as he did.
Another of Billington’s great triumphs has been his work with zydeco artists based in Lafayette. Beau Jocque, Boozoo Chavis, Nathan Williams, Chris Ardoin—the names go on and on. “I had heard Buckwheat Zydeco at Jazz Fest in maybe 1982. I called up Buckwheat’s manager in Lafayette, and went down there and stayed in a Days Inn. I got picked up in this big Cadillac and taken out to Richard’s Club in Lawtell. That was a mind-blowing experience, my first zydeco dance. It was packed with well- dressed people, Creole people. Everybody brought food. I was pulled from table to table having so-and-so’s fried chicken. There were set-ups. The dancing. I knew I was in a different world.”
There are other Billington records that space will not allow us to analyze. From his Irma Thomas recordings, which elevated her to the celestial level where she reigns, to the Walter “Wolfman” Washington recordings that give a tantalizing taste of the magic he does when it’s 3 a.m. at the Maple Leaf Bar. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band records that took them from the streets of New Orleans to the concert halls across the world. Last year, he signed the Soul Rebels to Rounder and recorded their Unlock Your Mind album, and at press time he was once again producing the Dirty Dozen. In all cases, he brought two impulses that have served him well throughout his career—a fan’s enthusiasm for the music and a respect for the musician.