Billy Swan Biography

Billy Lance Swan, 12 May 1942, Cape Giradeau, Missouri, USA. Swan grew up listening to country stars such as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and then fell under the spell of 50s rock ‘n’ rollers. At the age of 16, he wrote ‘Lover Please’, which was recorded by a local plumber who also had an early morning television show, Mirt Mirley And The Rhythm Steppers. Elvis Presley’s bass player, Bill Black, approved and recorded it with his Combo in 1960 before passing it to Clyde McPhatter. McPhatter’s version went to number 7 on the US charts, but was overshadowed in the UK by the Vernons Girls, whose version made number 16. Swan, who had insurance money as a result of losing an eye in an accident, moved to Memphis, primarily to write for Bill Black’s Combo. He befriended Presley’s uncle, Travis Smith, who was a gate guard at Graceland. Soon, Swan was also minding the gate and attending Elvis’ late-night visits to cinemas and funfairs. Swan decided that he would be more likely to find work as a musician in Nashville, but the only employment he found was as a janitor at Columbia’s studios. He quit while Bob Dylan was recording Blonde On Blonde, offering his job to Kris Kristofferson who had entered the building looking for work. Billy swanned around for some time, mainly working as a roadie for Mel Tillis, before meeting Tony Joe White and producing demos of his ‘swamp rock’. Swan was invited to produce White officially and their work included Black And White, with its million-selling single, ‘Polk Salad Annie’.

By now Kristofferson had his own record contract and he invited Swan to play bass with his band. After accompanying Kristofferson at his unpopular appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, Swan joined Kinky Friedman in his band the Texas Jewboys; he appears on his albums and Friedman recorded ‘Lover Please’. Kristofferson invited him to join his band again and producer Chip Young, noticing that Swan’s voice was similar to Ringo Starr’s, invited him to record for Monument Records. The first single was a revival of Hank Williams’ ‘Wedding Bells’. Swan was given an electric organ as a wedding present by Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge. He was fooling around and the chords to ‘I Can Help’ appeared. Within a few minutes, he also had the lyrics. On the record, Chip Young’s guitar effectively balances Swan’s swirling organ and, with its heavy echo, the production was very 50s. The tune was so infectious that it topped the US charts for two weeks and made number 6 in the UK. The subsequent album was a cheerful, goodtime affair, almost as though Sun Records had decided to modernize their sound. Swan had a similar song prepared for the follow-up single, ‘Everything’s The Same (Ain’t Nothin’ Changed)’, but Monument preferred to take something from the album to promote its sales. ‘I’m Her Fool’, with its humorous barking ending was released but it was banned by several radio stations because of the line, ‘She pets me when I bury my bone’. A slow version of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ made number 42 in the UK.

Elvis Presley recorded a full-blooded version of ‘I Can Help’ in 1975, which became a UK Top 30 hit in 1983. Apparently, Presley was amused by the line, ‘If your child needs a daddy, I can help’, and he sent Swan the socks he wore on the session as a souvenir. Elvis died before he could record Swan’s ‘No Way Around It (It’s Love)’. One of the many asides on Jerry Lee Lewis’ version of ‘I Can Help’ is ‘Think about it, Elvis’. Billy Swan released three more albums for Monument and then one each for A&M Records and Epic, but he failed to recapture the overall quality of his first. Among his guest musicians were Carl Perkins, who joined him on remakes of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Your True Love’ and an unreleased ‘Matchbox’, and Scotty Moore and Otis Blackwell. The Kristoffersons recorded ‘Lover Please’, also a song by Swan and his wife, Marlu, ‘Number One’. Swan and Kristofferson co-wrote ‘Nobody Loves Anybody Anymore’ on Kristofferson’s To The Bone. Swan has also played on albums by Barefoot Jerry, Harry Chapin, Fred Frith and Dennis Linde. He has worked with T-Bone Burnett on several of his albums and they co-wrote ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (later recorded by Emmylou Harris), ‘The Bird That I Held In My Hand’. Swan briefly worked with Randy Meisner of the Eagles and James Griffin (ex -Bread) in a country rock band, Black Tie, which released When The Night Falls in 1986. The album includes a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll’s wildman, ‘Jerry Lee’, as well as familiar songs such as ‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody’ and ‘Chain Gang’. Since then, Swan has preferred the security of touring with Kris Kristofferson. In 2002 he recorded an album with Allan Rich and Meisner as Meisner, Swan And Rich.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.