BILLY 'RED' LOVE
Born Milton Morse Love, 8 December 1929, Memphis, Tennesssee
Singer / pianist / songwriter / arranger. Until recently, very little information was available about Billy 'Red' Love, an R&B artist who recorded for Sam Phillips at 706 Union Avenue in the early 1950s. He was never interviewed and never featured in any music publications. Thanks to the admirable research of Martin Hawkins for the new Bear Family CD, many new facts have come to light. Billy's instrument was the piano. It is unknown whether he had any formal training on piano or what his basic influences were. By the late 1940s he was gaining a good reputation in Memphis as a player and as a teacher (Rosco Gordon was one of his pupils and called Love a formidable pianist).
In 1951 Sam Phillips was very busy in his part-time studio (the Memphis Recording Service), recording as much of the local blues and R&B talent as he could. He had not yet started his Sun label and leased most of his product to Chess and RPM/Modern. Billy Love did some session work for Phillips, backing Walter Horton, Rufus Thomas and Willie Nix, before he got the chance to cut his own record as a singer-pianist. This resulted in the storming drinking song "Juiced", probably cut on July 24, 1951. Phillips was under pressure from Chess to come up with a good follow-up for Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" (a # 1 R&B record, produced by Phillips, his first big success), after "My Real Gone Rocket" had bombed. It was decided to issue "Juiced" under Jackie Brenston's name (Chess 1472). Brenston was a better sax player than a singer and hardly had time for recording, as he was in constant demand on the road. Love was a better singer, wrote his own songs and played a mean piano. "Juiced" was the finest record that Jackie Brenston never made - and that Billy Love was never credited with making. But it did not chart. Love's next session took place in October or November 1951 and yielded three songs, two of which, "Drop Top" and "You're Gonna Cry" were issued as a Chess single (1508), this time credited to "Billy 'Red' Love and his orchestra". "Drop Top" was in the same uninhibited style as "Juiced", an attempt to follow in the slipstream of "Rocket 88". There were four sessions in 1952, but only one single was released, "My Teddy Bear Baby"/"Poor Man" (Chess 1516, now very rare). These two singles seem to have received very little promotional support from Chess and sold poorly. Through 1952 (the year in which Sun Records was launched), Love continued to work as a session pianist at Phillips's studio, but Sam's files are completely silent on Billy Love for the whole of 1953.
On January 19, 1954 Love returned to the Sun studio with a new band and cut five titles. He must have had a real expectation of seeing his first Sun record out in the spring, and so must Sam Phillips, who scheduled "Hey Now" and "Way After Midnight" for release on Sun 205, registering their copyrights with BMI that May. Sam assigned Sun master numbers to the two titles (U 118 and U 119), but the record did not appear with the May batch of Sun discs. By July, the first record by Elvis Presley had been released on Sun 209 and Phillips was too busy promoting his hot new property to release Love's disc. It was the beginning of the end for most blues and R&B singers at Sun and particularly so for Love who had a reputation for unreliability. Phillips told Martin Hawkins : "Billy Love was a supergood musician but he didn't have the gut desire to succeed. Not that he didn't want to, but I didn't have time to waste and I think Billy's problem was lack of patience and devotion to what he was doing. He played well but there is a kind of dedication and belief in your music that extends beyond the doors of the studio. He did not have that."
One more session was recorded at the Sun studio, resulting in "Blues Leave Me Alone" and the promotional record "Hart's Bread Boogie" for the Hart's bakery in Memphis (released on Harts H B-66). Pat Hare played guitar on that session ; Billy played piano on Hare's "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (recorded May 14, 1954, originally unreleased). Around this time Love had joined Rosco Gordon's band and he spent a good part of the 1954-56 years travelling with Gordon, who re-signed with Sun in 1956 (that's Billy playing piano on "Shoobie Oobie"). In 1957 Love disappeared from Memphis and nobody knew where he had gone. It later turned out that he had relocated to Colorado Springs, playing at Duncan's Cotton Club. He was still living there when he got in trouble with the law in January 1974, accused of selling heroin and possessing an illegal weapon, but apparently this did not lead to a jail sentence. Love's luck ran out the next year. He passed away on Friday May 2, 1975 and was buried at the Memphis National Cemetery. "Drank himself to death", according to Rosco Gordon.
Some of his unissued recordings were included on side 2 of an LP shared with Junior Parker in the "Legendary Sun Performers" series (Charly CR 30135, 1977). The Bear Family CD contains all of his known recordings that have survived (some of the tapes are lost) and was reviewed very positively in Now Dig This 336 (March 2011), by Pete Bowen, who calls Billy Love "a superb purveyor of Memphis music."
CD : Billy 'Red' Love, Gee ... I Wish - The Sun Years Plus (Bear Family BCD 17149). 26 tracks, including a few alternates. Released 2011. 47-page booklet by Martin Hawkins.
Acknowledgements : Martin Hawkins.
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