Born William Lance Swan, 12 May 1942, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Singer / songwriter / guitarist / keyboard player / producer

A rockabilly-styled singer with roots in country and early rock n roll, Billy Swan was already in his thirties when his big break came, but he had a multitude of interesting stops along the way. He grew up listening to country stars like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce, then fell under the rock and roll influence of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. He learned drums, piano and guitar in his teens. The first song he ever wrote became a Top 10 single. "Lover Please" was written as a high school English class poem in 1958. The big band in Cape Girardeau at the time was Mirt Mirley and the Rhythm Steppers and when they went to record for Bill Black in Memphis in 1960, they asked Billy to come along. (Later he would join the group.) Needing a B-side, one of the group members suggested "Lover Please" and Bill Black liked the song. The record came out on Black's Louis label (# 1003), with credit going to The Rhythm Steppers. In late 1961 Black recorded the song again, this time with Swan's friend Dennis Turner and this version (Louis 2002) came to the attention of A&R man Shelby Singleton at Mercury, who covered "Lover Please" with Clyde McPhatter in February '62. It became McPhatter's second biggest pop hit, peaking at # 7.

After this success, Swan thought "Wow, this music business is going to be easy". He moved to Memphis, where he lived with Elvis Presley's uncle Travis Smith, but instead of becoming a songwriter he wound up a fringe member of Elvis's entourage. By August 1963 he was in Nashville. For the next decade, Swan did a little of everything. Artists like Mel Tillis, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings cut his songs and he had a few singles out under his own name in 1966 and 1968. He roadied for the Chet Atkins / Floyd Cramer / Boots Randolph group and served as a custodian at the CBS studios, a job he turned over to Kris Kristofferson in the middle of Bob Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" sessions. Billy produced the first three Tony Joe White albums for Monument (including the Top 10 single "Polk Salad Annie", 1969). By the early 1970s he was a backing musician playing with Kinky Friedman, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. The latter had become a big star and toured the world with his band, with Swan on organ or bass.

In 1973 Billy returned to Fred Foster's Monument label, as a singer. The first single under his new contract, a remake of the old Hank Williams hit "Wedding Bells" went unnoticed, but when Billy's own wedding bells rang, Kris Kristofferson presented him with an RMI organ as a wedding gift. Whilst fooling around on his new instrument, Billy hit upon a riff so catchy that it just had to be developed into a song. That song was "I Can Help". It had a charming retro feel and it was lean and simple at a time when pop music was turning more and more complicated and bombastic. Just as importantly perhaps, it stated a sentiment of confidence and altruism amidst the Watergate scandal. Recorded in two takes at Chip Young's Murfreesboro studio, "I Can Help" reached the top position on Billboard's pop and country charts in the autumn of 1974 an went on to be an international hit. An LP with the same title was rushed out and peaked at # 21 on the album charts. It started off with Swan's own version of "Lover Please" and included a slow 4 minute version of "Don't Be Cruel", completely different from the Presley original. It would have made a better follow-up single than the track that was chosen as such, "I'm Her Fool", which only reached # 53. Apart from a low chart position (# 91) for "Everything's the Same" (late 1975), that was the end of his short career as a pop hitmaker, though he continued to have Top 40 country hits until 1983. Perhaps he was too country for rock and too rock for country. Billy was thrilled when both Elvis and Jerry Lee later covered "I Can Help".

His first four albums, all on Monument, are well worth collecting and always had great session players like Reggie Young (responsible for that famous intro of "I Can Help"), Dennis Linde, Mike Leech and Bobby Emmons, with guest roles for Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore on the third LP (1976, simply titled "Billy Swan"). All through this successful period Billy chose to maintain his ties with Kris Kristofferson and his band, until the early 1990s. After Monument there were albums on A&M (1978) and Epic (1981) before Billy joined Randy Meisner (Eagles) and Jimmy Griffin (Bread) in the super- group Black Tie, resulting in the album "When the Night Falls" (1985). It included two splendid rockers by Swan : "Jerry Lee" (a tribute to his idol Jerry Lee Lewis) and a rock n roll version of the Beatles' "I Feel Fine". In the late 1980s he was beginning to show an interest in film work. He was assistant musical director on the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic "Great Balls Of Fire" (1989), taught River Phoenix to sing for "The Thing Called Love" and offered Nicholas Cage guidance in his Elvis impersonation in "Wild At Heart".

After almost a decade of absence, Billy returned to the recording studio in 1995 with the surprisingly good CD "Bop To Be" on Elite Records. The 1999 album "Like Elvis Used To Do" (recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis) was a further development of the idea behind his version of "Don't Be Cruel" : arrangements of familiar Elvis tunes that were quite different (in tempo, mood and accompaniment) from the Presley versions. It certainly had its moments, but was commercially disappointing. His most recent album is "The Mighty Handful", with a prominent role for saxophonist Boots Randolph, cut in 2006 and released in September 2007, shortly after Randolph's death. Now in his seventies, Swan continues to perform and write. His songs are always melodic, with a good-time feel.

More info :

Recommended CD's :
- Greatest Hits (Collector's Choice, 2005). 20 tracks from 1974-1982.
- Bop To Be (Elite PMPCD 1200, from 1995). 15 tracks. Liner notes by Stuart Colman.
- Like Elvis Used To Do (Castle Select SELCD 557, UK, 1999). 23 tracks. Annotated by Stuart Colman. Beware : the US version has only 14 tracks!
- The first four Monument LP's were released on two "twofers" (2 LP's on 1 CD) by See For Miles in the UK, but these are now out of print.

Acknowledgements : John Morthland, Stuart Colman, Fraser Massey, Phil Davies.

Discography / sessionography :

YouTube :
I Can Help (live) :
Lover Please :
Don't Be Cruel :
Shake, Rattle and Roll :
Everything's the Same :
Just Want To Taste Your Wine :
Vanessa :
Put A Move On It :
Rock On With the Rhythm :

Dik, April 2013

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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