Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 23 2108
Like so many of his contemporaries who’ve made music their passion and profession, Billy Hector had a moment of epiphany that took place in Asbury Park — although in his case the setting wasn’t some fabled Circuit bar, concert hall, or after-hours club, but one of those “win a record” wheel games on the boardwalk.
“I won my choice of record, and I chose the Rolling Stones…but the guy hands me something by The Cowsills,” recalls the guitarist and bandleader who returns once more to the Wonder Bar this Saturday, August 25. “Now, ‘Indian Lake’ is clearly NOT ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’…and when I complained about it, the guy jumps the counter and threatens to chase us down the boardwalk.”
Young Billy survived that encounter to fight another day, but the twin realizations — that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” without being a “Street Fightin’ Man” for your principles, and that what he wanted most of all was to spread the blues-rock guitar gospel to astutely attuned audiences — formed the foundation of a career that’s spanned some six decades.
While most of us are likely to mark our birthdays by kicking back just a little bit from the usual grind, the scene veteran makes that special occasion one of his busiest times of the year; inviting friends and fans to celebrate and catch up in real-world time at a very public place. It’s a tradition that he’s maintained for nearly 30 years — more than a dozen of them at Lance and Debbie’s corner landmark — and when Billy Hector takes the Wonder Bar stage on Saturday night on the threshold of his 62nd revolution ‘round the turntable, it will be a Birthday Bash that boasts the extra bump of a record release party.
Available now on his long-running indie Ghetto Surf label, Some Day Baby forms a bit of a departure from his most recent run of albums as solo artist, in that it’s “not a pure blues record…it’s got more of a bigger, classic Asbury Park-ish sound, with horns.” Appropriately enough, the August 25 gig finds Hector and his regular rhythm section (Sim Cain on drums; Wilbo Wright on bass) augmented by the keyboards of David Nunez — a bandmate of the guitarist during his 1970s tenure in the fondly remembered “SOAP” band The Shots — as well as a Midnight Horns section that features another fellow Shots veteran, saxman Mel Taylor.
The combo, whose big sound and sprawling knowledge of crowd-pleasing classics allowed them to follow in the footsteps of Stone Pony house band the Asbury Jukes, represented the first local affiliation for Hector, the North Jersey native who’d “been playing music one way or another since 1965…mostly just rehearsing every day after school; we’d play ‘Gimme Shelter’ for 45 minutes straight.” It also necessitated something of an attitude adjustment for the aspiring rock star who grew up on guitar gods like Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix (“although I didn’t quite understand that, or Muddy Waters, when I was 11”) — and who “had to rethink my role” in the context of a larger, multi-instrument organization in which he “couldn’t get away with doing all that cryptic shit.”
When he “came down here” to make a name for himself more than 40 years ago, Hector arrived in the thick of an era when 18 year olds could legally drink, bars stayed open until 3 am, and a dizzying proliferation of bands and clubs were “making many thousands of dollars” in the service of a scene based almost exclusively on playing covers.
But, as the Shore scene stalwart recalls, “everything went away in the mid-80s…the drinking age went up to 21; the ‘host laws’ came in; a club’s insurance bill would go from $1500 up to 15 grand almost overnight…and the stricter DWI laws were really taking their toll. Even Asbury Park was a parking lot for years after that.”
By that time, the avowed blues fan had used bands like the Allmans as a departure point for explorations that would lead him to Leon Russell, Freddie King, bluesrocker Roy Buchanan — and the legendary Howlin’ Wolf, whose longtime guitar lieutenant Hubert Sumlin would later regularly share stages with the kid from Orange, NJ. Armed with the realization that “the Chicago blues guys gave everybody the vocabulary they still use today,” Hector would transition from The Shots to a series of comparatively stripped-down and personal projects, the first of which was the more traditional rock quartet Hot Romance.
Co-fronted by Hector and Don Erdman — and making its base of operations at the one and only Mrs. Jay’s — the band was an ambitious undertaking that alternated full-speed-ahead biker bar boogie like “Bang Bang Mama Bang” with poppier, even New Wave-inflected fare like “Wild Hearts.” When Hot Romance cooled down after one album and a brief couple of years, the door was open for Billy Hector to assemble the band project that would prove to be the best vehicle for his talents to date — and that represented the first flowering of a creative (and life) partnership that would continue to this day.
Boasting a roster that also included harpist Bill Lilley and “Born to Run” drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, The Fairlanes teamed Hector with his partner in “hippie marriage” Suzan Lastovica, the vocalist-guitarist-songwriter whose presence brought an extra dimension to such smartly produced, blues-flavored albums like Hit the Road. While an ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis would eventually force Suzan to curtail her working-band activities, the artist known as “The Queen” continues to perform a weekly duet set with Billy in the intimately homey environs of Belmar’s Ragin’ Cajun restaurant (a gig that includes a once-per-month Thursday with full rhythm section) — and The Queen will be holding court as well, when birthday boy Billy lights that candle beneath the approving Tillie-grin of the Wonder Bar.
The dissolution of The Fairlanes found Billy Hector striking out to make his first recordings under his own name — and, some ten albums into a catalog that ranges from the anger-energized power trio crunch of Duct Tape Life, to the “11 Tracks of Love” on the guest-packed Old School Thang, the guitarist has an encyclopedic mental database of original and cover songs to draw from (“my regular guys know about 600 songs…you gotta make sure to mix it up when you play those regular weekly gigs”), to say nothing of a gleaming trophy case that includes four Asbury Music Awards, a pair of wins as Best Guitarist in the EC Rocker poll, and a Lifetime Achievement accolade from the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation.
For the new album, which features an update of The Fairlanes’ “Hit the Road,” Hector revisited some older, semi-completed material that he refers to as “broken toys…the kind of things you leave layin’ around the house because you don’t feel like picking them up. But then, some January evening…January’s a good time to catch up with ‘Law & Order’ reruns, and shedding some of the stuff that’s piled up over the past year…you find something that inspires you again. It’s just gotta marinate for a while.”
Keeping it closer these days to the home that he shares with Lastovica, Billy Hector can be found gigging around in settings that range from those up-close-and-personal nights at the Ragin’ Cajun, to a big-band session at Six Flags Great Adventure, and in-between venues that run from Avon’s venerable Columns, to the Sawmill on the Seaside boardwalk. Taking a renewed interest in a re-energized Asbury scene, he praises spaces like Marilyn Schlossbach’s Langosta Lounge and AP Yacht Club (although he has some choice sentiments for a certain rock and roll club of legend that “kicks people out” by the un-rockingly early hour of midnight).
“There’s a lot going on now; the scene’s really changed a lot, but I’m happy to still have a part to play in it,” says the man of the hour. “All I ever wanted was to play guitar for a living…and I win!”