photo by JC McIlwaine
by Michael Todd
It’s the late 1950s, and Billy Rich hears only one word: “Practice.”
As a black-and-white relic of a flyer proclaims, he’s the “wizard of the guitar,” a tall order for a short, elementary school student. In his family’s band, the Seven Wonders, Rich plays his Silvertone guitar at Omaha venues like the Offbeat at 24th and Lake, about 10 blocks north of the Rich household. His sister Carol sings, his brother Bob plays percussion and sings. At the front of it all is Billy’s brother Herb, who began taking piano lessons at age 4 and who Billy calls a “musical genius.”
“He could write music like he was writing letters,” says Billy in a phone interview just before a soundcheck in Columbia, Mo., for Taj Mahal Trio, the worldly blues band he’s played with for more than 40 years.
Back in Omaha, the Rich family lived close to the Kellom swimming pool, but Billy’s practice took precedence over playtime. The Seven Wonders played originals like “Carcoat,” written by Billy’s father, and they’d eventually produce a 78 rpm vinyl, before 45s were a more prominent format. Ask the now 64-year-old musician, who’s toured the world ‘round as a bassist with Taj Mahal and others, if he’d have rather bellyflopped than built calluses, and he’ll pick the latter.
“I knew I wanted to do that early,” Billy says, tracing his history back through hundreds of thousands of touring miles and dozens of albums. “So that’s what I did. I just kept plugging at it, though it wasn’t easy.”
First objective: Switch from guitar to bass. Around the same time that Bob Dylan introduced his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the world, Billy says it was his pant legs blowing in the wind, vibrating in the deep sonic gusts of the bass at shows he saw that drew him to his mainstay instrument.
“I could just feel it,” he says, adding, “I was getting a little too much attention when I was 7 or 8 years old (laughs). A lot of these women coming around, kissing on me with alcohol, putting money in my pockets.”
The more background role of the bass suited Billy’s personality a bit more than lead guitar, and now 50 years later, has proven to be a bedrock career path. He’s laid the musical foundation for Taj, the Buddy Miles Express, Paul Butterfield and even a few times for Jimi Hendrix back in the ‘60s.
This Friday, Billy plays Omaha’s Holland Center with Taj Mahal. Vusi Mahlasela and Fredricks Brown will round out the lineup. Billy has called Denver home since 1972, but it’s been some time since he last played his original hometown. The last gig “must have been twentysome years ago,” somewhere by Peony Park, Billy says.
Having been home last year for the funeral of his oldest brother, Billy notes, “My neighborhood, boy, everything is gone by my house where I grew up.” He still easily rattles off his first address, 945 N. 25th Ave., as he says, “It’s a whole other thing over there.”
In 1960s North Omaha, Billy says he caught the tail-end of performances by artists like James Brown and Bobby “Blue” Bland. The landscape started to changed around the same time Billy left Omaha, first filling a position as bassist on a tour with The Whispers, just after he graduated high school. After a few months traveling around the country in fits and starts, gigs getting cancelled and getting stuck without money in towns, Billy would end up in San Francisco and meet fellow Omahan Buddy Miles, with whom he’d play in The Buddy Miles Express.
Billy’s built a repertoire of stories from his ever-lengthening time on the road — not to mention the repertoire of songs, about four or five hours’ worth just with Taj Mahal, he says — but one tale set in Denver stands near the top.
He says his brother Herb and he were booked for a wedding gig in Cheesman Park. Jimi Hendrix was in town playing Mile High Stadium. As they played a backyard near the park, a limo pulls up, Hendrix gets out.
“Of course, our guitar player takes off his guitar and gives it to him,” Billy related in a past interview. “We start jammin’ and the next thing you know, all these people start gathering around. The police show up to see what’s going on, so Jimi jumps back into his limo and takes off.”
Sure, there’s no chance a limo will pull up to the Holland on Friday with a surprise legendary guitarist, back from the dead, but Billy says Omaha could offer a few reunions.
“I’m excited just to come there and hopefully see some of my friends or family who I haven’t seen in years.”
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. He encourages you to dig deeper into the history of The Offbeat with Dereck Higgins as your tour guide. Reach Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.