RIP to Billy “The Kid” Emerson, the oldest living Sun Recording Artist. December 20, 1925-April 25, 2023. The fact that Emerson was still alive until today is mind-blowing enough, but the fact that I got to visit him a few years ago at his home in Tarpon Springs, Florida, was so absolutely mind-warping incredible I can’t truly put it into words.
I want to thank Greg Laxton for everything he did for Billy—trying to help him get his songwriting and publishing back, and taking me to visit Billy back in 2019.
Billy was the most legit bluesman you could ever possibly hope to meet. He was an enigma wrapped in a riddle, as they say, a onetime rough-and-tumble songwriter, singer, piano player, and musician who recorded incredible sides for Sun, Vee Jay, Chess, and many other obscure labels of the 1950s and 1960s. His “Red Hot” was covered by Billy Lee Riley and a thousand other rockabilly acts. Elvis Presley recorded his “When It Rains It Really Pours,” and many of his other blues songs, such as “Something For Nothing” and “Little Fine Healthy Thing,” have become standards in the blues world.
At some point, Billy had a change of heart. When Greg took me to his house, Billy told a wild story of dying and waking up in the morgue on a slab after being there for three days, and screaming until somebody finally let him out. This experience (or, truthfully, something else—it’s not exactly confirmed that the morgue story actually happened, if you get my drift) convinced Billy to quit singing the blues and to become a preacher. He moved back to his home town of Tarpon Springs, Florida, outside Tampa, and preached at a little country church around the corner from his house for decades. He refused to play his old songs and became, as they say, an ornery old cuss.
When Greg and I visited his house in 2019, at first things were going quite well, and the visit was friendly. Billy was in a decent mood and told us several stories from the old days. Then I asked to use the restroom. I’m not sure what happened, but when I came back from the restroom, Billy was yelling at Greg about something and it was quite obvious the visit was over. I had brought along several original Sun 45s of Billy’s, and despite the fact that he was yelling and ushering us out the door, I asked if he would sign my Sun records. Suddenly, his mood changed once again, and he signed my records and took a few pictures with us before we left.
I can only say this: it was a real pleasure and an honor to be yelled at and chased away by the world’s oldest surviving Sun recording artist. I’ll treasure the memory of that day, and thanks again to Greg Laxton for taking me there, and for all the things he did to try and help Billy.
RIP Billy “The Kid” Emerson. Thanks for the tunes, and for heaven’s sake, I really hope Mr. Emerson doesn’t wake up in the morgue a few days from now, screaming to let him out, once again. The man deserves his rest!