Check out this rockin’ video! Billy’s “Mississippi Saxophone” really gets going around the 6 minute mark!
Billy Gibson remembers the day he decided to become a professional musician. It was the summer he turned eighteen, and the annual Medgar Evers Homecoming was in full swing.
Billy’s band had been booked for a week’s worth of shows, more because they were willing to do just about anything just to be a part of it. “We were genuinely grateful,” he says, recalling that one minute they were saying thank you, and the next they were carrying everybody’s amps.
As was his custom, B.B. King was there. “I think it was his way of sayin’ ‘I remember my home town. Thank you for everything,’” says Billy, whose defining moment came mid-concert, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Having finished his set, Billy was watching the rest of the show from the sidelines. “I was on the side of the stage with all these blues men,” he says, “and BB King was playing. And everyone wanted to watch BB play. You could look around and see all these legends, every one of them big in their own right. And I remember BB King lookin’ over at the side of the stage, and he’s smilin’ at all the guys, and he’s lookin’ at me. And I’m sippin’ a cold beer. And right then the promoter of the show walks up to me, puts money in my hand and says, ‘Hey man, you guys did a good job; here’s you all’s pay.’ And I said, ‘My God, we get paid to do this? I’m going to do this the rest of my life. This is the greatest thing!’” Gibson shakes his head, smiling. “And thirty years later, here I am, doin’ the exact same thing, pretty much the same way, and havin’ just about as much fun.”
That was, as Billy puts it, “a lot of years and a lot of beers ago.” Born in Camden, Tennessee and raised in Clinton, Mississippi, he started playing the harmonica when he was just a little guy.
“Back in those times there was no such thing as a harmonica teacher,” he says. “So I just fooled around with it. I thought it was cool carrying it around. I liked the way it felt.”
As a teen, he was wowed by the music of hometown blues men Sam Myers and Greg “Fingers” Taylor. “I just didn’t know the harmonica could do that,” he says. “So it was like a revelation, and it just set a fire in my belly.”
Billy says he picked up a lot from watching them, and he formed a band with some of his buddies. “We were just trying to make sounds and learn tunes and seein’ if we could invite girls over to rehearsal—tryin’ to impress them and just havin’ fun.”
After high school, Gibson spent some time in Clarksdale playing bass guitar and a little harmonica with blues guitarist Johnnie Billington and drummer Bobby Little. It was Little who encouraged him to move to Memphis and try and make a name for himself.
It was the early nineties, and Beale Street was jumping. “You could walk down the street, stick your head into these different clubs and hear Rufus Thomas, Calvin Newborn, Fred Ford, Charlie Wood, or Pete Pedersen—they were all there,” he says. “And I said, ‘This is where I’m going to make my stand. There’s a lot to learn right here.’”
The Billy Gibson Band was featured by the BBCs World Television Program ” Destination Music”
Billy spent the next two years playing gigs around the city, and hanging out on Beale—watching the older musicians and picking up whatever he could. It was during that time that he took his first formal harmonica lessons from Pedersen. “Seeing Pete was another one of those moments,” he says. “I had no idea that the harmonica could do that.”
No slouch, Gibson was also racking up college credits at the University of Memphis. “That was a very special time,” he says, “‘cause I was studying theory and composition and arranging, and taking chromatic lessons from Pete.”
Billy’s big break came when he joined a southern rock band known as the Junkyard Men. “We were endorsed by Budweiser,” he says. “It was a big deal. They gave us a lot of money, and we thought we’d made it.” An endorsement from Hohner and a series of albums followed. “We were traveling, makin’ our way and makin’ a name, playin’ some of the bigger festivals and havin’ a lot of fun,” he says. “Unfortunately, at the peak of our fame and fortune, we broke up.” As for the “why” of it, Gibson believes it’s just the nature of the beast. “Things run their course,” he says. “People grow and move in different directions. It’s just natural. But I’m really proud of what we did.”
Billy Gibson at the North Atlantic Blues Festival
As the nineties drew to a close, Billy continued to play on Beale, striking up a friendship with David Bowen, who was the leader of B.B. King’s house band at the time. “David was the guy who took me in and introduced me to all the Beale street guys,” says Gibson. “He taught me how to make my way up and down the street.”
By 2005 Billy had earned a well-deserved reputation, and was named Beale Street Entertainer of the Year. Over the next few years, other nominations and awards would follow, including the 2009 Blues Music Award for Instrumentalist of the Year.
It was that kind of recognition and confirmation that gave him the confidence to move on, but it was far from an easy decision. “It was hard to leave Beale Street,” he says. “I remember saying the day I left, ‘Why would I go out to the world, when the world comes to me?’ I looked out every night, and the room was filled with tables of different people from around the world. But I remember thinking, ‘If I’m ever going to go, I’d better do it now.’”
Looking back at that decision, Gibson has no regrets. “I’ve had a wonderful time,” he says. “I’ve gotten to meet some wonderful people and had some really fun adventures. The harmonica’s been my passport to the world.” And he’s not kidding, having racked up some heavy mileage performing for our troops in Baghdad, Cairo, and Guantanamo Bay.
Closer to home, Gibson recently spent some time in Jackson, Tennessee adding a little “Mississippi saxophone” to an album featuring former Alabama lead singer Randy Owen.
On the immediate horizon: the release of Progress Trap, a collaborative effort showcasing Gibson and the Memphis-based RV’s. “It’s Memphis rock and roll,” he says, adding, “but we’re taking all those different influences that we love: a little bit of country, little bit of rock, little bit of blues—all original. I love that.”
Billy Gibson has come a long way from the days when he was carrying amps for other players, but he says it’s something he still does on occasion—a lesson he hopes will not be lost on young players. “It’s not necessarily about showin’ off and bein’ number one,” he explains. “You’ve gotta pay a few dues too. It’s a way to show respect and say, ‘Hey, I appreciate bein’ here, and this is my opportunity to say thank you.’”
He also hopes they’ll take the time to “dig a little deeper—go beyond the techniques, and try to find out who the musicians they care about are, because,” he says, “there’s actually a story there that’s very important to the music.”
As for the music makers, Gibson will tell you that making music is really about camaraderie and community. “I like to try to bring folks in and share the experience together,” he says, pausing ever so slightly to look down at the harmonica that’s been waiting patiently beside him. With a nod to his harp and the genre he loves, he smiles and says simply, “I’m not a blues man. I’m a blues fan.”
To hear a cut from Progress Trap and get more information on Billy Gibson and his music, head for http://www.billygibson.com