Scott Billington – Making Tracks: A Record Producer’s Southern Roots Music Journey
University Press of Mississippi
324 Pages Hardcover edition
Rounder Records has long be one of the finest purveyors of American roots music. Many Blues Blast readers undoubtedly treasure many of the recordings that the label released starting in the early 1980s. One name that often appeared on those releases was producer Scott Billington. A working musician who also spent time employed by a Boston record store, Billington met the future owners of Rounder through the Boston Blues Society. He was hired by the label to help promote releases, quickly proving himself adept at that task, which lead to more responsibilities including graphic design.
Once he talked his way into an opportunity to produce an album, he found his true calling. With noted author Peter Guralnick, he co-produced an album, Hangin’ On, with blues legends Johnny Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood that received the 1980 W.C. Handy Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year (now the Blues Music Award). The following year saw a release from the multi-talented Texas music legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, a man of strong convictions who could be difficult at times. But Billington was able to bring out the best of Brown, leading to his Alright Again! album with backing by a full horn section taking home a Grammy Award in 1982 for Best Traditional Blues album.
Over 14 chapters, Billington shares his experiences with a number of key artists in the blues realm, as well as some giants of Louisiana music. The journey starts with guitarist Sleepy LaBeef. With a booming deep voice and a wide repertoire that had some fans affectionately referring to him as the “Human Jukebox”. Mixing stories from a live show with reminisces of the recording session for the Electricity album, Billington honors an artist who deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of music.
Other sections that will appeal to blues lovers include the piece on Brown, that finds the producer hitting high notes as he helped Gatemouth find a new, and appreciative, audience, a path that was not without some tough moments. There was quite a bit of affection between Billington and the legendary R&B singer Ruth Brown. Again, he captures the essence of the singer over two albums, both receiving Grammy nominations, and describes how Bonnie Raitt helped shine the spotlight on Brown late in her career.
Billington worked similar magic with the seemingly ageless Bobby Rush, taking the singer to New Orleans to record with a stellar line-up of the cities musicians, along with guitarist Vasti Jackson to make sure the music stayed rooted in the tradition. The resulting album, Porcupine Meat, won a Grammy award, a first for Rush, and went on to receive a number of other awards. There were some rocky moments over the course of Billington’s relationship with the dynamic singer Solomon Burke. But once again, the producer’s knack for understanding an artist led to the classic Soul Alive recording.
Central to the book are chapters on three of the finest artists in New Orleans musical history. Irma Thomas is, was, and will always be the Soul Queen of New Orleans. Billington cut several albums with her, and shares some recollections of the Sing It project that included Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson. For those who aren’t familiar with the work of piano genius James Booker, you will be after reading Billington’s touching tribute to the mad genius. Johnny Adams was one of the finest vocalists of any generation. His projects with Billington showcased the many facets of his artistry, and garnered the singer a new level of well-deserved respect and attention.
For those unfamiliar with the world of zydeco music, Billington serves up several lessons on the energetic music. His work with Boozoo Chavis introduced many people to a seminal artist whose “Paper in My Shoe” record in 1954 is considered the first zydeco record. Under Billington’s care, Chavis was able to update his sound without losing its roots. The piece on Beau Jocque chronicles a man on fire, intent on updating the sound and traditions with a killer band and a live show that kept the dance floor filled all night long. He and Chavis used to stage classic zydeco battles with their accordions at the Rock’n’Bowl in New Orleans, to the delight of all who attended. Another giant is Buckwheat Zydeco, who extended the music’s reach around the world, building on the legacy of Clifton Chenier.
Additional chapters go deeper into Billington’s efforts to document zydeco music as well as Rhythm & Blues he recorded, including another legend, Walter “Wolfman” Washington. An additional chapter finds the producer sharing his history and thoughts on the label that made it all happen. The book is illustrated throughout with black and white photos, many form the recording sessions. Also included is an 18 page discography by artist covering the extent of Billington’s work for the label.
After reading this wonderful saga of Billington’s career, you are left with a deep appreciation for his vision and his remarkable ability to bring out the absolute best in a wide array of artist. He combined great artists with compelling material, and stellar backing bands, then skillfully brought all of the pieces together time after time. A marvelous book worth several reads, which makes it highly recommended!