Billy Swan

Despite his success as a song writer, producer and recording artist, Billy Swan is one of those musicians who always seems to have dwelt on the fringes of the business. And arguably, that's exactly what's kept him vital. He's swept studio floors and emptied ashtrays at Columbia Studios (a job that his future musical compatriot Kris Kristofferson inherited when Swan quit during the recording of Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde album) and roadied for Mel Tillis. He's written songs for Waylon Jennings and Conway Twitty. He taught himself to play the bass in three days in order to join Kristoffersona's first band in the early '70s. He's also toured frequently with the likes of country music renegades such as Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman. But most memorably, he hit the charts himself with his swirling, organ-drenched rockabilly nugget "I Can Help" a song that he recorded in 1974 but that sounded like something out of time, as if it came from Memphis over a decade earlier.

It all makes sense when one considers Swan's history.

Growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Billy was initially inspired by Hank Williams and later Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. By age fourteen, he was playing drums in beer joints. Not long after that, he'd taught himself rhythm guitar and electric piano. Mirt Mirly and the Rhythm Steppers—a group that Swan would later join—recorded one of his songs, "Lover Please," when he was sixteen. Former Blue Moon Boy Bill Black, who'd recently hit the charts with "Smokie," liked what he heard and recorded it. Subsequently, Clyde McPhatter took it to the top ten in 1962 and an even better version of it came shortly thereafter via Nathaniel Mayer. Meanwhile, Swan had moved to Memphis, where in between working the gates at Graceland, he wrote songs for Bill Black's Combo prior to moving to Nashville. Years of scuffling finally paid off when Swan was awarded a production contract with Monument Records for some demos he'd been cutting with Tony Joe White. The results were three milestone LPs and White's smash hit "Polk Salad Annie." Interestingly, over the years both "Polk Salad Annie" and "I Can Help" have become synonymous with Swan's old employer and buddy, Elvis Presley, who turned in dynamite versions of both of them.

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