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December 20, 2015 / rockroots

Billy Harrison – Billy Who?

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Billy Harrison is in many ways the unsung hero from the big bang of Irish R’n’B. He formed The Gamblers in Belfast with Alan Henderson and Ronnie Millings – the band that later became Them with the addition of Eric Wrixon and Van Morrison – stepping back from front-man to lead guitarist behind Van’s dominant persona. He remained band leader and manager until the music biz professionals took over, but Billy was an integral part of the original Them sound, with his distinctive raw guitar playing to be heard all over their first album, and apparently much more input into the writing process than he is credited with. After a confrontation with manager Phil Solomon over vanishing royalty payments, and finding little solidarity from the rest of the band, Billy packed it in. He was briefly involved with a rival line-up of Them (which evolved into The Belfast Gypsies) and did some session work with Van’s Them, Joe Meek and The Pretty Things, and was eyed-up by Belfast group The People before Henry McCullough joined and they became Eire Apparent. Billy then left music completely and took a regular job with the Post Office, returning from London to Belfast in 1975.

That was it until 1979, when Billy Harrison decided to revive Them one more time, inviting Eric Wrixon and Alan Henderson along with new guys Mel Austin and Billy Bell. They convened in Hamburg and the resulting Shut Your Mouth album – all written or co-written by Harrison – was an enjoyable return to their R’n’B roots. Again the band was incapable of holding together and Billy was fired from the group he had started, to be replaced a second time by Jim Armstrong for a subsequent German tour.

Perhaps surprisingly, Billy decided to make one further album. This 1980 record, with the self-deprecating title Billy Who?, is essentially a follow-up to Shut Your Mouth, being entirely written by Harrison and recorded once again at Hamburgs TELDEC-Studio by engineer Klaus Bohlmann and producer Frank Dostal. This time Billy was singing as well as playing guitar, and was backed by a group of experienced German session musicians. Like its predecessor it’s a mix of R’n’B material and ballads, but Billy’s gravelly faltering vocals, to these ears at least, give a more fragile touch to his songs than Mel Austin’s croaky holler on the previous album. On tracks like Big Lover we get to hear Billy’s distinctive slide-guitar sweep back through our speakers once again. Orange Field lists some landmarks from a more innocent time in Belfast and asks an unnamed person when they last walked its streets (decide for yourself who that might be directed at). Baby Please Don’t Go is an original ballad with a presumably tongue-in-cheek title, while Bad Night is peppered with Billy’s menacing wolf howls.

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(click to enlarge)

Thereafter, Billy Harrison officially retired from music. He seems to consider his contribution to rock music to have ended on a high in 1965, and that to have carried on as a struggling musician would have been at the cost of his reputation. This is a noble idea but, bearing in mind that Eric Wrixon and Jim Armstrong each made a decent living touring a Them-based blues repertoire in the nineties and noughties, we can only wonder if this decision was due more to his poisonous experiences of the music business. Still, far from being bitter about the past, he will occasionally sit-in on a local pub gig, or attend an event to commemorate Belfast’s musical legacy. Probably because it was released under the Them name, his 1979 album has since been reissued on CD as Them Reunion, but to the best of my knowledge this 1980 solo album has remained unjustly out-of-reach.

Billy Harrison – Billy Who? (192 kbps):

  1. Big Lover
  2. Hold On Tight
  3. Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman
  4. Orange Field
  5. Baby Please Don’t Go
  6. Bad Night
  7. Get Some Lovin’
  8. Summer Nights
  9. Black Haired Momma
  10. Free Ramblin’ Man

 

See Also:

Billy Harrison interviewed by Richie Unterberger – Ugly Things #31 & #32 (2011)

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One Comment

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  1. Mike Wilgar / Sep 21 2016 14:49

    Later 2012 Billy Harrison formed a new line up of THEM with Mike Wilgar- Dave Turley John Crawford Terry Donnelly
    They performed in Whitehead Festival County Antrim

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