Adams#8217; contributions to music gaining attention

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 29, 2007

When Elvis Presley took the world by storm in 1954 with releases “That’s All Right Mama,” “Mystery Train,” and his rock ‘n’ roll version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he was putting out a sound nobody had heard before.

Well, almost nobody.

Kentucky native and longtime Flatwoods resident Billy Adams had heard it. In fact, he did more than hear it. He played it, about two years before Presley changed the music world forever.

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“The perception of Billy Adams over time has changed and people in America are realizing that he was an early player,” said Clif Doyle, a booking agent who came to know Adams in 2001 and later joined Adams’ band, which still performs occasional shows in Europe and the United States. “In the industry, he’s perceived as one of the early Rockabilly artists.”

The beginning

Adams’ signature song — “Rock, Pretty Mama” — was released on Quincy Records in 1957 when he was just 17 years old.

Adams began playing in his pre-teens, primarily with his brother, Charlie. Adams’ early influences came from bluegrass music, including Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, among others.

The origins of his music includes sounds coming from the lid of a lard bucket, in which he would run his knuckles up and down to create a rhythm when he was just 7 years old. Those primitive beginnings helped shape a sound that led Adams to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

“He was different from a lot of the Rockabilly artists because most of them came from the area around the Mississippi Delta — Arkansas, Tennessee, some from Louisiana, but they mainly centered around the Mississippi River,” said Doyle, who said artists like Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis had the good fortune of becoming involved with Sun Records and legendary producer Sam Phillips. “Billy was in Appalachia, isolated with no recording centers. He didn’t have as much opportunity and his access to music was a lot different than those I call the ‘Sun Rockabillies.’ It’s different because of his bluegrass element.”

Doyle said Adams’ sound was distinctive and different than his early contemporaries. That sound, a sound that would later become classified as rock ‘n’ roll, was heard on the airwaves in Ashland, Ky., on WCMI Radio in 1952.

Adams, who was just 12 years old, said it was a day he will never forget.

“It was a Saturday evening type jamboree. Everybody thought I was beating that guitar to death, but I saw them patting their feet,” said Adams, who said Elvis’ sound two years later was familiar to him. “What was so different about me and got me in trouble was I was a creator. I heard the music differently, I learned to play going up and down. Whenever I heard “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “That’s All Right Mama,” it kicks off the guitar just like I played it — an up and down rhythm.”

A life change

Adams was born in Red Bush, Ky., near Paintsville, but his family moved to Greenup County when he was at an early age. His formative years in music were spent locally and by the time he was 21 he was working for Dot Records and was touring the country.

He came back home in 1961 and worked for WB Modern Dairy in Russell and delivered dairy goods on an Ironton route. He also spent three years in police work, with the Flatwoods and Russell, Ky., police departments. He married his wife, Freda, in 1961 and the couple were married until Freda’s death in May of this year after a long battle with cancer.

In 1964 he went to Nashville, Tenn., and was continuing his music career until a day in 1965 changed everything.

“I came back home on Aug. 8, 1965 and that’s when the Lord spoke to my heart,” said Adams, who is now an ordained bishop in the Church of God. He now lives in Tennessee and is the minister at the Word Church of God in Lewisburg, Tenn.

As his life and music took a different direction, Adams says so too did rock ’n’ roll … and not always for the better.

He said he was often disappointed by the showmanship and other elements that made some aspects of rock ’n’ roll different than it was in the early years.

“Some of those rock musicians, regardless of who they are, are some of the greatest musicians we’ve ever known — I wouldn’t take that away from them,” said Adams, who said rock ‘n’ roll was an innocent form of music in the beginning. “But they were so good in their talents, they would have won the music world over just with their talent, without going into all the other things — the sexual situations on stage, trying to sell Satanism, all that, they didn’t have to do that.”

Doyle said Adams’ life change took him away from rock ‘n’ roll and may have had an impact on his lasting legacy.

“Because he got out of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s and got into gospel, his place in history kind of got lost along the way,” he said.

But Adams says that what he found was worth more than his image as a musician. He said his shows now are a reflection of his faith.

“In our shows, nobody would ever do anything to embarrass the children or the parents of the children,” he said. “They are family-oriented and always give a testimony in some way for Jesus Christ.”

An ‘American songbook’

This month, Adams will be featured in an installment of a Public Radio International series called “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” 10 hour-long programs that explore the Rockabilly sound and explain it as the early formation of rock ‘n’ roll.

Adams said those early days played an important role in music history for a lot of different reasons.

“We brought Rockabilly out of the Appalachian hills of Kentucky and it’s gone around the world. I’m not proud of all it’s become, but what we did was important,” Adams said. “We were the first people who ever pulled the children out of a house and put them around a jukebox dancing. Musically speaking, they had very little and then all of a sudden we got their attention.”

Adams said he likes the notion that his music helps people. He said that has been a constant throughout his career.

Doyle said Adams’ natural ability to relate to people has served him well in his music and his ministry.

“His works as a humanitarian are what people should know about him. He’s a selfless man,” Doyle said. “He’s one of the most gifted people I’ve ever known.”

Doyle said Adams’ musical ability — even at age 67 — still shines through.

“He plays guitar — acoustic and lead — he plays piano and he even played some mandolin and fiddle. He’s a world-class musician,” he said. “He can play all the different styles, from Chet Atkins to Chuck Berry. He’s a walking American songbook.”