Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson, influential blues singer and songwriter, dies at 97

Billy “The Kid” Emerson, a blues singer, songwriter and pianist who wrote the rock-and-roll standard “Red Hot” and was one of the first performers on Sun Records, a label that later launched Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, died April 25 at a nursing home in Tarpon Springs, Fla. He was 97.

His son, Anthony Emerson, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Emerson lacked a national profile as a solo performer, but his records were regional hits and extensively covered by others.

Bob Dylan took the guitar line from Mr. Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believing” for his 2020 song “False Prophet.” Presley covered Mr. Emerson’s Sun recording “When It Rains It Pours” in 1957.

Then there is “Red Hot,” his most enduring composition. The infectious song, with lyrics rooted in schoolyard taunts (“My gal is red hot, your gal ain’t doodley squat”) proved irresistible to a generation of rock-and-rollers.

Sun Records issued it twice, first by Mr. Emerson in 1955 and then two years later by rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley, who turned the rollicking gospel rhythm into a pounding boogie-woogie.

Over time, the song has become canonical in rock-and-roll with at least 36 recorded renditions. The Beatles performed it as part of their repertoire at the Star-Club in Hamburg. Later, the tune charted for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in the ’60s and rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon in the ’70s.

Writing for Living Blues in 1979, blues historian Jim O’Neal commended Mr. Emerson’s “wild assortment of distinctive songs, often characterized by unusual chord progressions and novelty lyrics” as well as his gift for a unique turn of phrase. The lyrics of “Buzzard Luck,” written for blues shouter Wynonie Harris, illustrate Mr. Emerson’s humorous wordplay and skill with imagery:

Just like the buzzard flying high in the sky

Can’t kill nothing if nothing won’t die

Ain’t nothing boiling but the water in the pot

And it wouldn’t be boiling if the fire wasn’t hot

Mr. Emerson began recording in 1953 with the help of Ike Turner, whom he met while stationed at an Air Force base in Greenville, Miss.

Turner, then scouting talent for Sun producer Sam Phillips, brought him to Phillips’s Memphis studio where they waxed his first record, “If Lovin’ Is Believing” with Turner on guitar. During two years with the label, Mr. Emerson recorded several records prized by blues and rock aficionados including “The Woodchuck,” a song based on a nursery rhyme and the swinging, lusty “Little Fine Healthy Thing.”

But, according to Mr. Emerson, Phillips promoted his White singers such as Presley, Lewis and Johnny Cash to the near-exclusion of Black musicians, and Mr. Emerson saw his recording career decline. “Sam always said if he could find a white singer who sounded black, he’d make a million dollars. In fact, I told him that, though he always took credit for it,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2014.

Despite feelings of envy, he harbored no ill will toward Presley and recalled escorting him through the night spots of Memphis’s Black community.

“He was a sweet boy,” Mr. Emerson said. “A bunch of bluesmen took him to a black nightclub, the Flamingo, in Memphis one night so he could learn how to dance. I think he was scared.”

Decamping for Chicago, he shared artists-and-repertoire duties with producer and songwriter Willie Dixon, at Chess Records and other labels. They co-wrote the song “It Do Me So Good” (1960) for blues artist Little Miss Cornshucks. Singer Ann-Margret, someone not typically associated with blues, also recorded it the following year. The pair also co-produced recordings by bluesmen Little Walter, Junior Wells and Lonnie Brooks.

When harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) brought the song “Help Me” (1963) to Chess, Mr. Emerson, playing organ on the session, suggested they use the riff from Booker T & The MGs’ “Green Onions,” then a current hit. The arrangement became a touchstone for Chicago blues bands.

But eventually, his relationship with Dixon soured.

“He was smarter than me because he’d been in the record business a long time before me,” he told Living Blues in 1979. “When we would write things that he’d put my name on them, he’d spell my name wrong purposefully. Emberson. Billie.”

In 1966, Mr. Emerson took Phillips to court over nonpayment of royalties for “Red Hot” and received $2,500. He used the funds to launch Tarpon Records, named for his hometown. The performers he produced included his new discovery, Southern soul singer Denise LaSalle.

In later decades, Mr. Emerson, who had wearied of the nightlife, became a minister and choir director at a South Chicago church. A promoter who booked him in 1979 on the American Folk Blues Legends, an annual revue that toured Europe, recalled that Mr. Emerson would sit alone at the front of the bus. When the other performers would break out a bottle in the back of the bus, Mr. Emerson would chastise them with biblical homilies.

Eventually, he returned to Tarpon Springs to start a small church in walking distance from his house. When fans tried to set up interviews, he did not engage. But a local reporter — after a year of phone calls — brought him out of his silence.

“I wrote a lot about people who had never been interviewed so I was pretty good but man, I just couldn’t get past it,” former Tampa Bay Times staffer Jeff Klinkenberg said in an interview. “But then he called me out of the blue and said quite formally, ‘This is the Rev. Billy Emerson.’”

“He lived in a worn-out house with [a] piano near the front door,” Klinkenberg continued. “He had a small recording studio in his house. It could have been a converted bathroom.”

After a later conversation with Mr. Emerson, Klinkenberg said, “He set up his piano and started to sing. He still had a lovely voice. He started one phrase with a falsetto. When I started writing in my notebook, he jumped up at me and accused me of stealing his music.”

William Robert Emerson was born in Tarpon Springs on Dec. 21, 1925. He first sang in church at age 4 and as a teen, received piano lessons from his uncle, a church pianist.

Mr. Emerson served in the Navy during World War II and in the Air Force during the Korean War. Between the two wars, he studied nursing on an athletic scholarship at Florida A&M and started playing piano in bands. His stage name came from a cowboy outfit he wore in his first band.

A complete list of marriages and survivors could not be determined.

In 2017, Mr. Emerson, now the Rev. Emerson, received some belated laurels, a Florida Folk Heritage Award.

“I used to go around to the White folk with a hat and a bag to help buy uniforms and bats and things for the kids,” he said at the ceremony, according to the Sun Coast News. “I coached them and taught them how to play, but no one would put my name up on the wall anywhere.”

“I’m so grateful for this.”

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