Norton Records' Billy Miller Interview
By: Rich Tupica
"I love working with Billy and Miriam, they are great people with a lot of heart. They live rock-n- roll," Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las recently told me, and you know what, she isn’t fucking around. Since Billy Miller and Miriam Linna started Kicks Magazine in 1978 they have been on a mission to bring old school rock, soul and rockabilly out of obscurity and on to our turntables. After some natural progression Kicks morphed into Norton Records in 1986 and they began pressing rare songs from rockers that never quite made it to Little Richard’s height of fame, but maybe should have. Norton Records is the reason I know who Jerry McCain, Esquerita and Hasil Adkins are. Norton saved music. It seems that a lot of folks share a similar idea that Billy is true to what he does. "There may be no single person more committed to music than Billy Miller. He lives it, breathes it and dreams about it when he's asleep," said Lance Wille, drummer for the Reigning Sound who provided the back beat on the new Weiss album. To say the least, Billy has been very busy lately between his A-Bone duties and rushing to the recording studio with a certain Shangri-La and Greg Cartwright, but he found time to answer some questions.
Where did you grow up as child and where did you meet Miriam?
"I was born in Queens and I grew up on Long Island. I guess I saw Miriam play with The Cramps a few times in 1976 and early '77. Once her and Bryan Gregory were sitting behind my friend and me at the movies, but I only remember talking to Bryan. I didn't really meet Miriam until 1977, which was when I was set up selling at a record show. I sold her "You Must Be A Witch" by The Lollipop Shoppe. You can't let a gal with taste like that slip away!"
Billy and Miriam, Lenox Lounge, Harlem 2006
What is the history of how Norton Records got started?
"To go back to the real beginning, that'd be Kicks Magazine that Miriam and I started in 1978. We were both writing for the New York Rocker, but we'd write about Larry Williams and Warren Smith and, as much as I appreciate The Rocker including our articles, they'd be in there next to Adam Ant. I was real hard headed then and it actually bugged me to think that I was discrediting Larry Williams' memory by pooling it with what squares were digging. So we started Kicks. I was 24 years old and Miriam was two years younger. She was working as (former New York Dolls manager) Marty Thau's assistant at Red Star Records. I got a $900 tax return and I knew it was supposed to be ninety bucks. I contacted the IRS and said, "Are you sure about this?" They told me it was correct and so we started Kicks with that money. As soon as the first issue came out, the IRS contacted me and said, "You owe us $810 - NOW!" We'd put out some issues over the next few years and really got a fan base going of like-minded no-counts. After we interviewed Hasil Adkins he kept sending tapes of his music. We had a pretty good following through the magazine and so we put out Hasil's 'Out to Hunch" album in January 1986 with the label being like an offshoot of Kicks. Tim Warren from Crypt Records likes to say that I started him collecting records and he started us putting records out, which is true."
The beginning of Norton Records, Kicks Magazine
Since Kicks Magazine ended...Do you ever write about music?
"We haven't had a new issue of Kicks since 1992, but a week doesn't go by without somebody asking when the next one's coming out. We've probably done more writing with Norton liner notes than we ever did with Kicks, but people keep demanding a full-on page-turner. Miriam writes more than I do. Sometimes I'll write liners for other labels."
What was it like to operate Norton Records in the early days with Miriam Linna as opposed to today?
"Actually, when we first started the label we both still had day jobs and it took a few years to shake loose from that scene. There's a whole lot more to do now, but we don't mind a bit. If going out to see the Mighty Hannibal play is part of my job duties, who am I to complain? You pretty much have to stay on top of everything every waking hour in order to do things right, but Miriam will still always find time to crash Jerry Lee Lewis' birthday party."
Ike Turner & Billy in NYC
"It's Miriam, me and internationally known DJ Josh Styles, though we have art guys and other people that work for us but they don't come here on a daily basis. When it's new mail order catalog time, we always hire more people. And for the past few weeks Andy from the great band The Little Killers has been working here, too, if you can call talking about The Coasters all day long working."
Hasil Adkins was your first Norton artist. How did you learn about him?
"I had a copy of 'She Said' on 45 and a friend had 'Chicken Walk' on 45 and it intrigued me that this same guy could make two so uniquely amazing singles and not be better known. Our friend Donn Fileti from Relic Records tracked Hasil down in West Virginia. Hasil ran the full range of emotions. He could be the life of the party or he could sink into incredible blue moods. All that comes out in his music. We had every kind of adventure imaginable together."
Billy and Miriam with Hasil Adkins and Joe Coleman, NYC
What's a fond memory you have of Hasil?
"As far as a fond memory, this may sound real corny because you're probably looking for a crazy tale, but Haze called one time and he was crying on the phone, he was so happy. He'd only been to school one day in his life and he'd been asked to lecture on music at the University of Kentucky. He was so proud and we were really thrilled for him about that. It really is quite an accomplishment when you think about it."
A young Hasil Adkins
What inspired you start Kicks Publications?
"Miriam had tracked down Eddie Rocco, who had taken the classic Esquerita photos and we worked out a deal with him to publish a book of his photos. Eddie had a very fascinating career. He photographed many rock-n-roll and R&B acts for Charlton Publications. Jayne Mansfield was his assistant and he encouraged her to dye her hair and play up her assets. We plan on publishing a novel co-written by Andre Williams and Miriam that is just fantastic. We are also looking into reprinting some paperbacks from Miriam's collection."
Billy Miller & Jack Oblivian photo: Theresa Kereakes
Detroit's favorite garage band The Hentchmen got their start with Norton Records when they were quite young, what is the story of them getting a record deal with you?
"The Hentchmen are the only band in twenty years of biz that we signed off a demo. We've signed more acts out of men's shelters. I still think The Hentchmen are one of the best bands to come out in years. They wanted to do a record with us and I told those guys that I was leaving for Europe the day we spoke and we had the Sam The Sham tribute album 'Turban Renewal' almost wrapped up, but they could do a cut for it. So when I got back, they had their Sam cut plus an album and a half for us. Their album 'Three Times Infinity' is a monster, probably the best thing they ever did, really fantastic group."
The Hentchmen, Billy Miller, Shaggy of Swingin' Neckbreakers
Norton deals with a lot of great, mostly previously unheard music, who finds this music and also how do you go about deciding what you want to re-release on your label?
"I'd like to point out that much of the early rock-n-roll recordings that we release have never been released anywhere so technically they're not really reissues. The Jerry McCain demos that he made for Excello had been out before but by the packaging it looked like any other blues harmonica album. 'My Next Door Neighbor' and 'Cutie Named Judy' are among the rawest sides ever recorded. There's nothing sounding closer to the young Hasil than McCain's 'I Want Somebody To Love.' Those songs needed to be done up right. We licensed those McCain demos and we also worked out a deal with AVI Records to release Jerry's actual Excello singles on an album, but at the last minute AVI sold its entire catalog to Universal."
Billy, Kim Fowley & Miriam
Is it hard to get the rights to this old music?
"Every situation is different. Miriam had the whole deal in place for our new Figures Of Light 45 with the contract, master tapes, photos and liner notes within 48-hours of hearing the record for the first time. On the other hand, Thee Midniters took years to release as ownership of the masters was in litigation forever. It was sure worth the wait, though."
How many releases does Norton have under its belt now? And did you ever think that your label would become what it is today?
"We've done over 150 albums and nearly 250 singles. If it were practical, I'd love to only make 45s. I absolutely love them and that's really the way to hear rock-n-roll. We never really had a Norton master plan. We originally pressed up 500 copies of Hasil Adkins' album and expected to go to the grave with 400 of them. Right after we issued that one, we acquired Esquerita's un-issued 50s demos and then Jack Starr's recordings so we stick to what we dig and that seems to work out fine."
Esquerita reborn as the Norton mascot!
What was it like interviewing Esquerita back in 1983? What's the story behind that? What do you remember about him?
"There was a time for me in high school when the sun pretty much rose and set on Little Richard and Chuck Berry. In fact, this girl I knew then has a picture of me and my high school buddy Joe Satriani playing Chuck Berry records as kids. That was my sound and I got heavily into Larry Williams, Don and Dewey, stuff like that. So when I heard and saw Esquerita on this reissue called 'Wildcat Shakeout' I was totally gone! For about ten years he became more and more of a mythical figure in my mind. Then, in 1982, there was a tiny ad in the paper that 'ESCORITA' was playing a small club. A bunch of us went down there and it was him. He was planning on playing 'On Broadway' and standards like that but when we showed up we got him to do all his insane rockers and he did them great. Those were real cool times. I hung around with him a lot and there was always crazy shit happening...lunch with Reverend Al Sharpton where both those guys got into an argument over who knew James Brown better, a fistfight on 8th Avenue with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a combination of the Lyres and A-Bones backing him at a basement party."
So,chaos pretty much followed Esquerita?
"Every single time you saw Esquerita there was lunacy involved. The first time I sang 'Rockaround' onstage with him, he grabbed me by the collar, pulled my face up close to his and said, 'Boy, this is the greatest moment of your life!' Then he threw me at the microphone. He told great stories and so we told him we wanted to interview him for Kicks. I remember Miriam, Andy Shernoff and I went up to his place for the interview. For some reason, I mentioned Lloyd Price as we walked in and he dialed the phone when I wasn't looking and said, 'Hey man, the phone's for you!' I took the receiver and went, 'Who's this?' and the voice goes 'Lloyd Price!' Esquerita died in 1986. He was the greatest piano player in the world and even Little Richard copped to that. Esquerita was so fuckin' intense. There was nobody in the world like him, nobody. I feel real fortunate to have known him. We sort of made him the Norton mascot to keep his legacy out there."
Miriam with Long John Hunter, NYC.
How often did you see Esquerita during that period?
"I saw Esquerita whenever he played and I sang with him about five or six times. Once he called me and I thought he was going hit me up for money, so I let the machine get it. He kept going, "Billy, you there? I got a surprise!" Turned out he was with Little Richard and wanted me to come hang out with them. Another time he called to hang out and I went to this swank apartment that belonged to Atlantic Records founder Herb Abramson. He was there in a black bathrobe rolling big fat joints and playing piano. I have no idea what he was doing there!"
Joe Satriani was your childhood friend? Thee Joe Satriani?! Do you still talk to him ever?
"Yeah, Joe's brother John was one of my best friends in school. I was always at their house. We used to go see Joe's first gigs, playing Rolling Stones covers in gymnasiums when he was about 15 years-old, but I haven't talked to him in thirty-years."
Miriam with Larry Parypa of The Sonics at Kearney Barton's
studio in Seattle WA.
A big project you have coming up is a new studio album by Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las, how did this deal get started? And how involved were you with the process?
"Last year, Rhino Records put out this Girl Group box set and there was a release party here in New York. Miriam called and said she had some tickets but I told her to go on her own and that I really wasn't interested. Miriam kept calling me about this party and I kept saying no. Finally she called and said that a friend called from the party and that Mary Weiss had just shown up. That's all I needed to hear. I got down there like a rocket, met Mary and a few weeks later we started talking about doing a record. I couldn't believe it. The Shangri-Las have always been one of my favorite groups. It's been a thrill, a pleasure and an honor to work with Mary. She's the greatest! I worked with her every step of the way. We worked with our piano player Dave Amels a lot going through material and then everything fell right into place once the Reigning Sound came up here. Recording the album was a total blast for all of us."
Billy, Mary Weiss & Greg Carwright photo:Theresa Kereakes
Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound wrote some songs for the Mary Weiss album, how was the connection between Mary and Greg? Also who else helped with songwriting?
"Greg wrote most of the songs, maybe fifteen and we are using about ten of them. Mary really took to his writing, she does her homework, believe me. In fact, when I first brought up Greg as the main songwriter and Reigning Sound as her band, I suggested she check out 'Time Bomb High School.' A few days later, Mary called and she'd checked out not only all the Reigning Sound albums, but the Compulsive Gamblers and Oblivians records as well, she loved them all. She picked out 'I Don't Care' from the first Reigning Sound album to re-do and it was a great choice on her part. John Felice from the Real Kids gave us a killer song, so did Andy Robertson from Tough And Lovely. Andy from the Little Killers wrote a cool one with Dave The Spazz and I co-wrote one with Andy Shernoff from The Dictators. Mostly Greg and a bunch of guys named Andy did the writing!"
The Alarm Clocks, you decided to put out their first new record in decades. How did this long lost band suddenly reunite?
"The funny thing is that we never asked them...they told us! Norton issued the 'Yeah!' album a few years ago, which included their sixties recordings like 'No Reason To Complain'. We worked that out with the band, but nobody could find Mike Pierce who wrote and sang everything. Then, less than a year ago, we get a call from Mike out of the blue saying he'd be in New York in a couple of days, and he showed up with plans to reunite the band, record, tour, the whole nine yards. Forty years gone and he pops up rarin' to go! Their first show out was at the Beachland Ballroom in their hometown of Cleveland with The Choir. They absolutely stole the show! Nobody could believe what they were hearing."
Miriam with Dion, NYC
How did The Alarm Clocks album get started and finished?
"After the show, Mike tells us that they have a bunch of songs ready to record for their new Norton album and that he had started writing for the second album. He never really asked, and who were we to deny the mighty Alarm Clocks? They cut it in two days at Freddy Fortune's studio in Michigan and it's fuckin' incredible! They even apologized because one song took four takes. The album's called 'The Time Has Come', which is what their band card read in the sixties, and it's deadly. Those guys really outdid themselves."
You also play in your own rock-n-roll band, The A-Bones, is it hard managing both your label and your band?
"When I think about 15-years ago when we were doing lots of touring, I'm still not sure how we did it. Of course the label had less releases to handle back then. The A-Bones broke up in 1994 and got back together a few years ago. Still, we don't travel as often as we used to."
What are some newer bands out right now that you are digging, bands that you go out of your way to see them play a gig?
"Black Lips, Reigning Sound, Bloodshot Bill, King Khan and BBQ. The Little Killers...the third track on their new CD is amazing, I have it in my car and misplaced the case so I don't know any of the titles, but trust me, track three is a monster!"
What's your favorite record label right now?
"Let me say Crypt and Telstar because Tim and Todd are my best friends. We all started around the same time, spinning records at barbecues and talking about having record companies. Now we all have record companies and we talk about spinning records and having barbecues."
Billy, Link Wray & Crypt Records' Tim Warren
Who puts together the compilations that Norton releases? How do you compile these together?
"Most of the stuff Miriam and I do together but there's some albums like the Sonics or Long John Hunter where she did everything and there's some like Gino Washington or 'Wolf Call' where I put them together. If you mean like the 'Big Itch' comps, we love doing those. Usually enough 45s pile up here and once that about a half dozen make sense together, we start to plan out a full length. You really need to play the original records over and over to see how well they hold up and also if they even work together. Sequencing is real important. Even on a 'Big Itch' LP, I'll mess with the order like it's 'Pet Sounds' or something."
What has been your proudest moment since starting your label?
"I was pretty knocked out when we did that big Norton Soul Spectacular show with Nathaniel Mayer, Andre Williams, Lonnie Youngblood, Dolemite, King Coleman, the Mighty Hannibal, Bettye LaVette and everybody. There are lots that we're proud of, but more importantly, I'm not ashamed of anything."
Big Pimpin! Billy with soul legend Andre Williams
Do Andre Williams and Nathaniel Mayer have a lot of cool stories that they tell you? Is there any stand-out ones that you remember off hand?
"Those guys have some cool tales, but actually, the Mighty Hannibal is the best story teller on the label. You really need to tape everything he says. My favorite is the one Hannibal tells about him, Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson being out on Johnny's boat. Larry had a bag of barbecue tied to a rope and they were trying to throw it over the wall of the women's penitentiary to his girl while guards in the tower were shooting at them!"
Billy and The Mighty Hannibal. Wowsville
Christmas Party, NYC.
Is there any album or music that you haven’t released, that you would really like to someday?
"It'd be great to put out the catalog of Fortune Records from Detroit. There's so much incredible R&B, hillbilly and rock and roll in their catalog. The doo-wop stuff is so otherworldly, that it defies description...lesser-known groups like The Earthquakes as well as the bigger names like Nolan Strong and the Diablos and Andre Williams. They've been out on bootlegs but it'd be something to have it all done properly. I love anything to do with Fortune. I even have the address numbers off their old front door. It'd be wild to do it up right but the company simply refuses to license their music to anyone."
Why do you suppose that Fortune Records is refusing to license their music?
"Fortune has always been like that, even in their heyday. They licensed 'Bacon Fat' by Andre to Epic Records, and Nathaniel had a few that they let United Artists put out, and Motown was hot to sign Nolan Strong, who was Smokey Robinson's idol, but Fortune wanted to keep the artists for themselves. Although, if Andre went to Epic, we'd never have heard a 'Jail Bait' or 'Jail House Blues'."
So who owns Fortune Records today?
"The Brown family still owns the company. Devora Brown is probably the single most underrated record producer the music world has ever known. Berry Gordy tried to copy Nolan's 'Mind Over Matter' with the Pirates, who were really the Temptations, but he couldn't get near the sound that Fortune got. Everything was crudely recorded in the back room of the Browns' Fortune Records shop. Andre said 'If you touched them knobs once Ms. Brown had them set, you took your life in your hands!'"
Real Kids! John Felice, Billy & the late Allen "Alpo" Paulino,
NYC, New Years Eve, 1998
Where do you see Norton in 10 years?
"Either on the lips of everyone in the world or else tied up in string and set out by the curb."
What's next for Norton Records?
"There’s always plenty of projects in the works. We'll have The Dictators' demos which go back to 1973, two live 1964 radio broadcasts from The Sonics, a third volume of early Bobby Fuller home recordings, a whole set on this guy Cash Holiday that is just blistering. We also started transferring some reels of un-issued Charlie Feathers material. We have loads of singles lined up. There's more in our Rolling Stones covers 45 series coming up, Black Lips, Demon's Claws, The Alarm Clocks, Bloodshot Bill and The Royal Pendletons. I love putting out those Stones covers and the bands are really into doing them. Everybody's got a good Stones cover in them."
What is the craziest shit you have seen touring around the world for either your band or your label?
"The A-Bones were playing one night in Belgium and luckily, I stepped outside to the sidewalk with the club owner. The band had rented our van in France and it had a Paris address on the side. These Belgian anarchists were so anti-French that they had stuffed newspapers under the van and started lighting it to blow our van up. We got them at the last minute, like in a Steven Segal movie. I remember chasing them down the street thinking, 'what the fuck am I doing?!' It's all in a day's work, I guess."
Check out Norton Records webpage for more info!
Norton Offical Website
Norton on Myspace
Norton Records 20th Radio Show!
Billy Miller Fortune Records Tribute on WFMU
A-Bones on Myspace
Esquerita on Myspace
Punk Turns 30! - Theresa Kereakes
New Interview with Mary Weiss
Norton Records on Wikipedia
Dave the Spazz Radio Show - Listen!
Hasil Adkins on Myspace
Billy & Miriam Interview about Hasil (very cool)
Punk Turns 30! - Theresa Kereakes
Thanks! to Billy Miller for digging out some great pictures.
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