TARPON SPRINGS —
Guy on the phone says to "Google 'Billy the Kid' Emerson. He's old now, but he was really famous once. He lives here." // So I Google. An African-American piano player born in Tarpon Springs, Emerson ended up at Sun Records in Memphis. Elvis recorded one of his songs. // Talk to Billy the Kid, implores the anonymous caller. What a story he must have to tell. // In the summer of 2012 I call him. Billy the Kid Emerson says: "I NEVER EVER TALK ABOUT THOSE DAYS" — those days when he played the devil's music and knew Elvis. Now he listens only to spirituals. In fact, he's been writing a suite of religious hymns he calls his masterpiece. // I suggest we do an interview at his house. // "I'm not looking for
glory,'' he says. "But thank you for your interest.''
I'm stubborn. Why is this man so determined to avoid his fascinating past? Over the next year, he never answers my calls. He never answers my letters asking him to reconsider
On a hot afternoon in 2013, I knock on his door.
"Who are you?'' he asks, peering through the crack. Looks me over. "I guess you can come on in.''
I sit on the couch in a cluttered room. The old man says again that he has no need for publicity. Really, it's nobody's business what he's up to now. As for his past, "I don't live in the world now. I live in God's world.''
Unwittingly channeling Satan, I ask what happened when he lived in the secular world.
"I know what you WANT!" he explodes. "I could make $25,000 telling the world what I know about ELVIS. I'm not going to say a word about Elvis.''
Billy the Kid Emerson, I am learning quickly, can be as prickly as a crown of thorns.
"Do you go to church?'' he asks when I phone him a few days later.
"WHY SHOULD I TALK TO YOU? YOU'RE NOT EVEN HOLY!''
Perhaps we could go to lunch and talk about this.
"I CAN BUY MY OWN LUNCH!''
Well, it would be interesting to know more about …
"STOP STALKING ME!"
Jeremiah, the ornery Old Testament prophet, must have been a tough customer, too.
I write more letters that never draw a reply. I make more phone calls that never get answered. I'm licked. I'll never write this one.
On a spring afternoon the phone rings. "This is the Rev. William Emerson,'' says the voice on the line. "Are you the one who wanted to talk to me?''
Yes, let's talk, Rev. Emerson.
"YOU'RE LATE BY AN HOUR,'' he scolds when I show up. Actually, I'm on time. But no matter. One of the most complicated, mysterious men I may ever know has agreed to talk. I don't argue.
I just listen to him tell the story of the second coming of Billy the Kid.
The Rev. William Emerson's Tarpon Springs house is modest, small and dark because he shuts the shades against the drug dealers he says spy on him. About 20 neatly pressed suits hang in a closet above an intimidating collection of shoes, including one pair that might be made out of alligator.
On a table rest the booklets he churns out about the evils of secular music in church. I ask if he prefers gospel. "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS GOSPEL MUSIC!'' Lowering his voice, he quotes from the New Testament. "And he said unto them, 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.' That's from Mark 16. Notice Jesus didn't say SING THE GOSPEL. The Gospel is meant to be preached, not sung.''
A living-room loudspeaker props up the sagging keyboard of one piano. The other piano, out of tune, is still playable. A poster of Martin Luther King watches from the wall. Emerson's hair is gone. So are his false teeth. Says somebody stole them.
Billy Emerson was born at midnight on Dec. 20, 1925, in the black section of the same Tarpon Springs neighborhood where he lives now.
His father, Antonio Emerson, was a sporadic presence. His mother, Esther Hannah, was everything. She was beautiful, kind — and what a glorious contralto singing voice. While she sewed, while she cooked, when she tucked her little boy into bed, she filled the house with song. He can still remember Love Lifted Me.
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
Now safe am I
He sang at the Baptist church when he was 2 years old. Eventually Billy learned to play piano on his neighbor's. He had a good ear and could remember lyrics.
He was a good athlete at all-black Union Academy in Tarpon Springs. He could hit a baseball, shoot a free throw, shed a tackle. He could run a sponge boat, but he was an even better musician. He could play the boogie-woogie, the blues, jazz.
He enlisted in the Navy in World War II and saw the world. On his return, he was hot to play the piano for a living. In St. Petersburg he performed at the famous Manhattan Casino, where every black superstar from James Brown to Fats Domino to Ray Charles came to play. When he sang in that powerful R&B voice, folks could hear him miles away. He and his band dressed like cowboys. That's why he was Billy the Kid.
He ended up in New Orleans, where he met this younger guy who somehow seemed older, a good dresser, worldly, menacing. Ike Turner invited him to play piano in his band, the Kings of Rhythm. Ike was a big talker, a control freak, scary and as comfortable with a gun as he was with a guitar pick. To be fair, everybody in the band was armed. When cops raided a joint, Emerson remembers, "you could hear our knives clattering to the floor.''
He traveled with Ike — and this was years before Ike hooked up with Tina — and ended up at a little recording studio in Memphis run by a hillbilly named Sam Phillips who happened to love R&B. Little Milton and Junior Parker were on Phillips' roster. So was the legendary Howlin' Wolf.
Nobody Emerson knew well made much money at Sun — Phillips was a notoriously careless businessman — but Billy the Kid was young and excited, and felt like he had struck gold.
Visiting Emerson regularly, I never know which one I'm going to be dealing with. The friendly Emerson? The angry Emerson? The paranoid Emerson? Will he ever talk about Elvis?
Over a Greek salad at Costas in Tarpon, he casually mentions the young white boy, a truck driver or something, who walked through the door of Sun Records one day. "Good-looking, shy. He knew a lot of country tunes, but he really liked the blues.''
In 1953 Elvis booked the studio long enough to record the pretty ballad That's When Your Heartaches Begin. Nothing happened with that tune. But Elvis came back on July 5, 1954, with a couple of side-burned guitar players and a drummer. Late at night, Elvis tried an old blues number, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's That's All Right Mama. The white boy almost burned down the house. Some people believe rock 'n' roll was born at that moment.
Competition was fierce at Sun. It wasn't good enough to be good. Luck was just as important. Billy the Kid had recorded a new song that everybody thought had the potential to be a hit even on the white charts. But he had forgotten to stand in line when the luck was handed out.
You know what it takes, you got it, baby.
Don't leave me here with these heartaches,
Only you and heaven knows about my troubles, troubles, troubles
When it rains, it really pours
"Sam Phillips thought it might be better for Elvis."
Elvis recorded When It Rains, It Really Pours on Feb. 24, 1957. It's on an album called Elvis for Everyone! Elvis sold millions of records, which meant Billy the Kid got royalties. But the song added to Elvis' fame.
"Sam always said if he could find a white singer who sounded black, he'd make a million dollars. In fact, I TOLD HIM THAT, though he always took credit for it. Elvis was a nice boy, but I always wondered what would have happened if Sam had released my record as a single.''
But Billy the Kid, despite his understandable envy, liked Elvis. "He was a sweet boy. A bunch of bluesmen took him to a black nightclub, the Flamingo, in Memphis one night so he could learn how to dance. I think he was scared."
Emerson didn't quit. He sat at the piano and began working on a new song.
My girl is red hot
Your girl is doodly squat.
It was funny, a novelty song, but it swung. This time Sam Phillips gave Red Hot to an up-and-coming white singer named Billy Lee Riley. It was a hit, and once again Billy the Kid heard himself asking: "What about me?''
In his opinion, Sam promoted his white singers — Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis — at the expense of black musicians. "Even now, I don't like to talk about Sam Phillips,'' Emerson says. "I don't want to say something ugly. I don't live in that world anymore.''
Emerson continued making a living, working at Chicago's Chess Records, home of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. If someone was willing to pay, he played. He was on a bill with Little Richard. He played the organ on the Sonny Boy Williamson classic Help Me. Yeah, it's the one Van Morrison eventually made famous for white audiences.
At least there were girls who wanted to break down his door. He married and divorced. A casual relationship with a fan in Baltimore produced a son. But all those girlfriends began to feel wrong. Singing Red Hot on a nightclub stage, admired by bosomy women, he began to feel the gates of hell opening below him and the rank breath of Satan on his neck.
His blues went deeper than women. He had male friends who acted like friends but who were really not. They took advantage of his kindness, played him for a sucker, tried to steal his job, took the food right out of his mouth.
Sometimes he thought about murder.
"Lord, have mercy.''
I'm at his house one day when the pumping bass from a passing car rumbles into his house. Usually he explodes in anger when he hears rap. But he ignores it because he's talking about redemption. He remembers being saved in Chicago, 1980. "I started going to church again.'' It was a Baptist church with an excellent choir whose specialty was old-time hymns that reminded him of his childhood. He began studying the Bible the way he had once studied the piano; sometimes he felt a little like the sinner Paul, who stopped killing Christians and began testifying.
He returned to Tarpon Springs, where his mama still lived, where he still owned property, including a building he eventually turned into a little church. He fell in love and married — a big church wedding and a fancy reception in Clearwater. Emerson, under the best circumstances, is seldom mellow. Within a year, they divorced.
Even in church, peace eluded him. The music was all wrong. Folk, rock, blues, jazz, hip-hop — in his opinion it sounded blasphemous. "You might as well curse in the face of Jesus,'' he told anyone who would listen — even the pastors.
It was a hard sell. Many devout people, after all, enjoyed hearing contemporary music. For them, it helped connect their modern lives to the ancient Scripture.
"Little kids are shaking their behinds in the face of Jesus,'' Emerson scolded the world.
About a decade ago, he sat before the keyboard in a cramped spare bedroom and tried a few chords. He liked the progression, continued. A voice radiating out of the sky entered him like a tongue of fire. In his mind, he had become a radio tuned to God.
The former ladies' man began writing a new kind of music that was actually old. No more blues. No more R&B. Nothing that hinted at rock. He was writing "praise" music, the kind he had heard in black churches growing up, the music his mother had sung at the stove as she fried mullet for supper.
He wrote songs and threw songs out, kept tweaking and revising. In his little recording studio, he sat at the synthesizer and laid down a track of Hammond organ. He added horns and strings and drums. He wrote lyrics for a choir he imagined recording his songs one day, 10 perfect songs that glorified the Lord. People wondered, naturally, about his new work.
"I'm not ready for the world to hear this,'' he told them with an edge in his voice. He sometimes added: "Forget what I wrote for Elvis. Forget what I recorded at Sun Records. My new music will be my masterpiece.''
One day I ask him to sit at the piano.
"Why?'' he replies. It's our usual chess match.
I tell him I want to see if his big hands can cover three octaves. He laughs because he knows I'm dying to hear him play. So he plays a quiet, hymnlike instrumental that turns into a second instrumental.
I know he doesn't like to even think about the old secular music. But I ask him to play something anyway. He doesn't shout at me. Instead he smiles and begins playing — and singing — a blues number he wrote decades ago. He stops and starts while trying to remember the lyrics. Finally gives up.
I tell him I'd love to hear some of his new hymns.
He's not going to perform them on the piano, but he'll let me hear the recordings. He hits a button on the CD player. The rhythms and the chord progressions coming out of the speaker sound like something from a time and place when the Holy Spirit filled black pews.
"Here's the song where the choir will march into the church,'' he explains, settling into a living room chair. It sounds lovely. He cues up another tune: "Here's what you'll hear after the choir sits down.''
Suddenly, he begins singing, first in a soft tenor, then breaking into a falsetto at the place the sopranos will come in.
Thank you Jesus for healing my heart.
He stops, eyes blazing.
"ARE YOU WRITING THAT DOWN? STOP IMMEDIATELY! THAT'S IT. I'M NOT GOING TO SING ANYMORE.''
As far as he knows, I might be like some of the other characters he met in his life — a ripoff artist. Maybe I'll copyright the lyrics as my own. Maybe I was secretly recording the music.
Outside the house, after the latest emotional storm has passed, he pauses next to his Chevy Lumina, which looks almost new even though it's nearly two decades old. He points out the dents and a cracked taillight — more evidence, he says, that drug dealers are intent on running him out of the neighborhood.
Two doors down is the Holy Praise Apostolic Church of Jesus, which he founded years ago. The white paint is cracked and weathered; boards are falling off the building like snow. A sign says services are held Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, but they haven't been for more than a year.
Inside, things are in better shape. Pews have room for 24 souls and their Bibles. Closing his eyes, he can imagine them filled by women wearing their Sunday finery and smelling of talcum, and young boys wearing coats and ties and sitting without squirming next to their mamas. Perhaps someone in the flock will invite the preacher home after the service for chicken and dumplings, sweet potatoes, collards and two kinds of pie.
His dream: Go to Chicago to a church he knows that has a 60-voice choir. The choir will record his masterpiece, and he will sell the resulting CDs for $6 a pop. He'll make enough money — he needs $50,000, by his reckoning — to renovate his church and chase the devil out of his sorry neighborhood once and for all.
At least that's been the plan for two years.
In the meantime, he attends at least two religious services a week at the Sanctuary, a storefront church in his home county where attendees are young and old, black, white and Hispanic. Some folks speak in tongues. Others walk around the room with arms raised to the heavens. One just got out of prison. A few are porn addicts and fornicators.
Like the Rev. Emerson, they pray for salvation.
Emerson is fond of the white pastor, Ken Cook, a fire-and-brimstone Texan. Cook, 42, likes Emerson back but advises him to tone down his angry rhetoric "because it scares people away."
"No matter what we think, WE CAN'T TAME THE FLESH,'' the pastor declares, pacing the room. Some in his flock jump to their feet. Some weep. Others just respond with an "Amen." Emerson stays seated but raises his arms and whispers "Yes!"
The pastor's wife, Julie, plays the piano and sings in a gentle, lilting soprano. The songs about Jesus might be described as slightly New Age and slightly gospel. Church members sing along, clap and tap their feet. They love this music.
When the music begins, he sometimes removes his hat, places it firmly on his seat and hobbles into the lobby, where he doesn't have to put up with it.
He doesn't apologize to his pastor after the service, but he embraces him. They shake hands, exchange small talk. Emerson puts on his hat and heads for the door.
"My girl is red hot,'' the preacher sings impishly, "your girl is diddly squat.''
Maybe Emerson has heard the preacher's devilish little jest. Maybe he hasn't. He limps out without turning around.
Contact Jeff Klinkenberg at (727) 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.