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Billy Mays III is a pitchman like his father, but for his music

Billy Mays III performs at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg last month. He has been making music for about a decade.
Published Apr. 16, 2017

No one is watching Billy Mays III. Not the shoeless woman to his right sketching and scrawling in a datebook. Not the guy at 2 o'clock ticking away on his laptop. Not the woman at 11, bowing to her toes in a meditative stretch.

Mays isn't watching them, either. He's cross-legged on a pillow on the floor of St. Petersburg's Studio@620, hunched over an electric guitar and rows of knobs, lights and pedals. He plucks and pokes at his instruments, building ripples of tones that whir and rumble and fold upon one another, filling the room with an ambient pulse.

"I find there's these ebbs and flows of people at these things," he says. "I don't pay attention that much. At some point, I'll look up and realize, Holy s---, there's people here!"

This spring Mays launched a spate of performances in unconventional St. Petersburg venues — bookstores, galleries, yoga studios — designed to integrate his music into the fabric of a bustling and creative city. Instead of a tour, he dubbed it an "ambient installation series" — savvy marketing that, so far, seems to be working.

And if Mays' name rings a bell, that might come as no surprise.

His father was the late, legendary TV pitchman Billy Mays, the OxiClean king with the Brillo beard and bright blue button-up. "HI, BILLY MAYS HERE," he'd roar in infomercials hawking Mighty Putty, Orange Glo, the Awesome Auger and a zillion other gotta-get-it widgets. Mays' memelike appeal made him a cult figure and reality TV star before he died at his Tampa home in 2009.

Today, Mays III is pitching something, too, though it's not as easy a sell as the Hercules Hook or Vidalia Slice Wizard.

"I could have taken my dad's path," says Mays, 30. "I've been asked to pitch products in his way. Over the years, I was like, No, no, no, I'm a musician, I'm an artist. Now I'm finding more and more that I'm becoming a pitchman, but in art. For my art."

• • •

The elder Mays never saw his son perform live.

It was not for lack of support (though as Billy III notes, his father's style was more REO Speedwagon than Brian Eno), but more a matter of timing.

The men lived in different cities, Billy III in his old man's hometown of Pittsburgh, his father in Tampa, close to home-retail giant HSN. They'd meet up in both places, watching action movies in Billy's home theater and hanging out on infomercial sets. Billy III was fascinated by his father's empire and celebrity; he watched him sign autographs in airports and accompanied him to The Tonight Show to meet Conan O'Brien.

After high school, Billy III moved to Florida to study recording arts and entertainment business at Full Sail University near Orlando. He was making rough, noisy songs on a digital 8-track recorder, music that he says his father heard and liked. "I think he knew that I was a serious music maker," he said.

For a while after college, Billy III lived with his dad in Odessa, working in TV production and making experimental music on the side. He bounced around apartments in Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, still making music, but never performing live. The songs just weren't ready.

In early 2009, he lost much of his equipment, including a laptop with most of his music, in an apartment fire. His father helped replace it, and Mays began writing new music that was "more reflective, ambient, more emotional." He was about a quarter of the way into recording an album called Gently when his father died that June.

"That was the turning point of music sounding differently to me," he says. "It became therapy for the rest of the year."

For a while it appeared Billy III would slide right into his father's shoes. He was a production assistant on Pitchmen, the Discovery Channel series about his father, even contributing music to a tribute special. There was talk he'd join the cast. But the show ended after Season 2.

Billy spent the ensuing years acting as sort of a digital curator of his father's legacy, interacting with fans on Twitter and Reddit and championing his dad's likeness in pop culture. He worked in film and TV production; someday he'd like to produce a documentary about his father. He moved to North Carolina for a year with a woman; when it didn't work out, he returned to St. Petersburg for good.

The whole time, he kept fine-tuning his musical direction. He developed an improvisational project called Mouth Council, in which he'd pass the microphone from participant to participant, recording their noises and looping them into an on-the-spot song; he has taken it from bars and festivals to companies that use it for team building. In January, he brought Mouth Council to the Women's March in St. Petersburg, where he performed for thousands of people.

He also pushed forward with his more experimental project, which he dubbed Infinite Third.

Here's a minute from my recent sidewalk ambient installation on Central Ave in #StPete. #i3AiS pic.twitter.com/HCJURuEBXq

"I call it cathartic ambient music," he says. "It's always progressing, rather than stagnant. It has a lot of that atmosphere and that deep drone, but it also constantly arcs. It's a sound that I wasn't sure was going to be viable over the years, if it was going to be accessible. And it got more and more accessible."

Most bars aren't clamoring for four-hour sets of wordless, improvised music. So Mays decided he wouldn't play "sets." He asked friends to set up in their museums, art galleries, breweries — spaces people could "have some attention on the atmosphere, and not just playing a set." He encouraged people to bring books, canvases, yoga mats, anything to occupy their mind while he played.

"A lot of them aren't necessarily paid gigs — some of them are — but a lot of them are just allowing me to show up," he says. "It's like a popup shop, and I can take donations. Surprisingly, I end up making some decent money at some of them."

After about a decade making music, this is the first year when Mays says he's "almost completely funded by my music gigs" — not just Infinite Third and Mouth Council, but also consulting on friends' projects under a digital marketing banner called Remember You Are Dreaming.

"He's setting a really good example for how art can be done in St. Pete," says musician Mark Etherington, a friend and collaborator. "He's creating spontaneous, improvised artwork, with his environment as inspiration."

• • •

Since its launch in February, there's no telling how many people have heard Mays' "ambient installation series." He has played four-hour sets at the Morean Arts Center and Creative Clay, Daddy Kool Records and the Body Electric Yoga Company, even outside on Central Avenue. Strangers walk in and out and in again. Some linger. Some listen.

"That's probably been the best part, is being surprised by how many people get it," he says. "Because I've gone over five years with people not quite getting what I do."

Etherington recalls watching passersby at one outdoor event, marveling at this intricate public display of unconventional music: "I had this aha! moment, realizing how far the art scene has grown here," he says. "Everybody that walked by had this really interested look on their face. People who probably weren't from St. Pete were like, Oh, St. Pete is awesome! Look at this!"

After a few years in the city, Mays is putting down roots. Earlier this month, he married his girlfriend, a graphic designer, in an intimate ceremony on the beach at Treasure Island. This fall, they hope to throw a bigger, more weddinglike celebration for family and friends, including some of his dad's TV colleagues.

Many in St. Petersburg have no idea who Mays is. That's fine with him. He has never shied from talking about his father, even though "as much as it's opened doors for me and created opportunity, it's been a barrier to being seen without bias, and having to prove myself."

He has spent his adult life "reconciling art and business, seeing where they overlap, and not demonizing one for the other." In promoting his music, he has found a "back-door route to becoming my dad," but "an evolved version of it, rather than just trying to fill his shoes."

"He was part of a dying breed of carnival barkers, so he took this art form and took it to its head. He was the only one that transcended it," he said. "I'm trying to take it a little deeper, rather than take it bigger."

He doesn't want to play a character, like his father did on TV.

"I want to be transparent. When you know me, you know my music; when you know my music, you know me."

At the Studio@620, Mays kneels and strums and twiddles, lulling his audience into a calm, creative mind space as they busy themselves with sketch pads and meditation. He came to be heard, not seen. But every so often, the groove gets so deep, the music so evocative, that eventually, they all look up and start watching.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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