Interview:Madman of the Blues

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Billy C. Wirtz:

Madman of the Blues


Part 1: Gospel, Surf, and R&B


Billy C. Wirtz is on his back on stage, his feet straight up in the air. His left hand raised to the piano, Wirtz is crawling out a wicked bassline as he delivers the ongoing punchline of his song about "Roberta," the wife from hell. The crowd is enraptured, mesmerized by his rolling story, as well as his zebra-skin shoes, "stolen from the closet of Wilson Pickett."


His timing is impeccable, the results of years on the road perfecting his skills. Part preacher, part bluesman, and part circus ringmaster, Wirtz has the music in him, and his nightly shows are like an exorcism of the soul and R&B he soaked up along the way. He hooks the crowd like a hungry bigmouth bass, and reels it in with the expertise of a man with a bulging tacklebox full of one-liners, punchlines, and a love for music.


Born in South Carolina, Wirtz's family moved to Washington DC when he was nine, which exposed him to a veritable melting pot of soul, R&B, and country music. As he discovered music Wirtz discovered himself, and he began to find true purpose in being not just a fan, but a player. Graduating college with a degree in Special Education, it was at a camp for the mentally handicapped that Wirtz began his piano career. I heard that gospel music first got you interested in playing. True?


Billy C. Wirtz: Actually, kind of a combination of all of it. I liked music from the time I was a child. I came from a very non-musical house. My parents weren't particularly into popular music - they were into pretty serious classical. I went to bed every single night to classical music - Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. At about 11 years old, I discovered rock 'n' roll, much to my parents' chagrin. I started out wanting to be a drummer, and then I played guitar. But the girl down the street was paying attention to the guy who was taking organ lessons. My dad actually played organ, so that's what got me into it. Did you have one in the house?


Wirtz: We had a pump organ, a parlor organ. Yeah, that thing would wear you out - it would give you like the lower cardio workout! I played a little as a teenager, but I never really learned much on it. My father was a pipe organ enthusiast. He hated Hammond organs. Hated them. I had a Farfisa at one time, with a Silvertone amp. What were you listening to at the time?


Wirtz: "Walk Don't Run" by the Ventures. I wanted to be Nokie Edwards of the Ventures. Did you like a lot of the surf guitar, the Dick Dale stuff?


Wirtz: Oh sure. I never listened to Dick Dale very much. I hate to think of all those albums that I used to look at and never picked up. They're all worth $300 now. There was a guy named Johnny Fabian in our neighborhood, and he and his buddies had a surf band. It was basically two guys plugged into a Fender Bandmaster, but it was really loud and reverby, with the Fender Jaguars, and I thought that was the coolest thing on the entire planet! So, I was into the surf thing until I was about 12. And you grew up in the DC area?


Wirtz: Yes - I grew up in the South Carolina area until I was eight, and then in D.C. until I was 17. Was that kind of music popular there, or was it just on your block?


Wirtz: Well, the gospel and the hillbilly and all that I grew up with was in South Carolina. My mom said that when I was three or four, I would sit in front of the TV and watch the gospel shows, bopping back and forth. And the more they screamed and rolled on the floor, the more I loved it. And I still do today!! Tell me more about the D.C. scene at the time.


Wirtz: D.C., you have to remember, was a hotbed. We had all the working whites from the South who were coming up to build all this new suburban Washington in the mid-'60s. And then you had all the government workers, and then you had the large black population. So you had this very heavy R&B/soul music scene, you had a very heavy country music scene. Patsy Cline got her start there - she was from Winchester, Virginia, but she really got her first break in D.C. The "Cavalcade of Stars" or whatever, and Roy Clark started there, and all these other guys.


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