“Love the Sinner. Hate the Haircut.”
Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is a comic genius, gifted pianist and American musicologist who defies easy classification. “I like to think of myself as the Victor Borge of the blues,” states the Reverend, but Billy goes way beyond Borge both in scope of subject matter (from politics to social commentary) and, of course, in taste. In fact, no theme is too extreme, taboo, or undignified for the Reverend, so long as it garners a good laugh.
Billy C. Wirtz was born in Aiken, SC, on September 28, 1954. One of his most treasured childhood memories was watching the gospel programs broadcasted from the Bell Auditorium in nearby Augusta, GA. In 1963, his family moved to Washington, D.C. where he eventually landed a job at Glen’s Music, a record store which catered to black music, including R&B, jazz, and spirituals. “I spent all day long listening to Julius Cheeks, Clarence Fountain, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. I was in heaven,” said Billy. In 1971, he attended a gospel concert featuring, among others, the 615 pound Gloria Spencer, billed as “The World’s Largest Gospel Singer” and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. “It was like an epiphany for me, a revelation to experience something like that live. It left an indelible impression on me,” added Billy. While working at Glen’s he was also inspired by recordings of pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo, and Otis Spann to name a few. He took up the keyboard while in high school, but it wasn’t until the tail end of his college career at James Madison University (from which he graduated with a degree in special education) did he play the instrument in earnest.
After graduation, as Wirtz was filling out applications to start a career in teaching, Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim came through Virginia on tour. After attending a performance, Wirtz introduced himself and discovered Slim was headed to the next gig via Greyhound Bus. Billy volunteered to chauffer the blues legend to the next show and struck up a lasting friendship. Later, Sunnyland wrote thanking Billy and invited him to stay at his home if he ever made it to Chicago – an invitation that found Billy heading to the Windy City to accept. He stayed with Sunnyland Slim, learning directly from the master, going to Chicago niteclubs and meeting blues artists he revered as a youngster. This taste of the musicians’ lifestyle ignited the idea that he himself might make a living playing the piano. His first official blues band was Sidewinder, a group from his college town of Harrisonburg, VA, and later was able to hook up with the Charlottesville All Stars, a larger ensemble with similar blues tastes.
As the 80’s dawned, Billy Wirtz had already earned the reputation of being a gifted sideman and became much sought after by many Washington, D.C area roots bands, including the legendary Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, and the original contingent of the Nighthawks, which included Jimmy Thackery on guitar. By 1982, Billy had grown weary of the incertitude of freelancing and decided to embark on a solo career. About the same time Billy declared his independence his first solo LP was recorded live in a bar in Hickory, N.C., Salvation Through Polyester, on the No Big Deal label of Atlanta. In 1988, Wirtz released Deep Fried and Sanctified on the Kingsnake label – a turning point for him in many ways. “I think we originally pressed about 2000 copies of this before leasing it to Hightone in 1989 and it marked my long and productive association with that great label,” said Billy.
He would remain with Hightone for the next dozen years, releasing six more undertakings: Backslider’s Tractor Pull, Turn for the Wirtz: Confessions of a Hillbilly Love-God, Pianist Envy, Songs of Faith and Inflammation, Unchained Maladies, Rib Ticklin’ plus a compilation, The Best of the Wirtz:15 Years on the Road with a 77″ Pianist.
“Wrestling is Real. It’s The Rest of it That’s Fake”
Pete Backof of Baltimore’s City Paper recently pointed out that professional wrestling is one of America’s indigenous art forms and even goes on to quote French literary critic, Roland Barthe’s commentary on the phenomenon – “the great spectacle of suffering, defeat, and justice.” In keeping with his assumed stage identity, Reverend Billy could not help but be attracted to this sport, a modern morality play of good versus evil. “I have to admit I was fascinated to the point of talking my way into the industry. In 1989 I even became a manager for about six months for Diamond Dallas Page. I loved inciting the crowds,” he said. After leaving management, he returned to the ring as the house band for TBS’s (Turner Broadcasting) Monday Night Wrestling, a three-month stint which accorded him some publicity, especially after a clip of a performance was shown on the Jay Leno Show. “Granted, for a spell, it was a gas. But then it got to be a grind. And besides that, the pay was lousy,” said Billy.
Billy soon would have yet another iron in the fire – writing. “I guess it all began about 1993 when I was living in Nashville and documented the passing of Thomas A. Dorsey,” he said. A blues scholar of the first order, Billy pointed out that Dorsey in his youth had written some racy blues songs like “It’s Tight Like That,” but after he embraced religion, was also able to pen some of the greatest gospel hymns ever, including the oft-recorded “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.”
At the time, Billy never thought that the isolated obituary was going to lead anywhere professionally, but a chance encounter that same year with Bob Doerschuk, then editor of Keyboard magazine, would soon cause him to reconsider. Since Billy was constantly blazing new trails, crisscrossing the United States, Bob suggested that he contribute a regular column entitled “Road Stories,” which, from Billy’s description, seemed to be along the same lines as the late Charles Kuralt’s television series devoted to local human interest tales. When Doerschuck left Keyboard in 1995 to become senior editor of Musician magazine, he invited Billy to reprise his former role with regular installments to the “Backside” section.
Billy continues in this pursuit, freelancing and making contributions to Allmusic.com, Blueswax.com and the Charlotte Observer. If this flurry of activity isn’t enough to keep him occupied, he has also proffered a book-length manuscript Don’t Eat At Joe’s to a publisher.
Sit On My Faith. The True Story of a Honky Tonk Angel Touched by Reverend Billy
Goateed and copiously tattooed, he is the antithesis of anyone’s ordinary concept of a preacher. Yet, as his name implies, Billy often employs this stage persona to set the scene in a song. Like an itinerant revivalist in a carnival tent, he’ll begin slowly and gradually build to a rapid fire torrent, as if he were whipping the congregation into a frenzy. Accentuating the lyrics with wild hand gesticulations and exaggerated facial expressions, he becomes a comedian, twisted televangelist and barrel house piano player rolled into one. Just when the crowd senses that he’s about to explode in some massive spasm, he’ll compose himself and segue into a slow blues number while asking the assembled multitude to forgive him for being “overcome by the spirit.” Naturally, his fans, the “faithful,” are accustomed to this denouement and even shout “Amen” but not before egging him on to even more histrionics before that ultimate crescendo is reached. “Testify, Billy, testify,” they cry, and the Reverend Billy, gathering strength from their exhortations like a hurricane from warm waters, is always willing to accommodate them.
When Blind Pig Records approached The Reverend with the idea of filming a DVD as well as recording a live CD he was both intrigued and excited by the possibilities. The result, Sermon From Bethlehem, documents Billy at his schizophrenic best, careening nonstop through a selection of old comic favorites (“Roberta,” “Granny’s At The Wheel”, “Mennonite Surf Party”, “Grandma Versus The Crusher”) and soon-to be-classics (“Female Problems”, “Do The Toleration”, “The King and I”) as well as knocking out some of the smokinest blues and boogie woogie piano this side of Sunnyland Slim.
* portions of this biography are borrowed from Larry Benicewicz’ article “But Seriously Folks,” published in the BluesArt-Journal