Reverend Billy C. Wirtz
Thursday - Aug 16, 2018
Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is a comic genius, gifted pianist and American musicologist who defies easy classification. “I like to think of myself as the Victor Borge of the blues,” states the Reverend, but Billy goes way beyond Borge both in scope of subject matter (from politics to social commentary) and, of course, in taste. In fact, no theme is too extreme, taboo, or undignified for the Reverend, so long as it garners a good laugh.
Billy C. Wirtz was born in Aiken, SC, on September 28, 1954. One of his most treasured childhood memories was watching the gospel programs broadcasted from the Bell Auditorium in nearby Augusta, GA. In 1963, his family moved to Washington, D.C. where he eventually landed a job at Glen’s Music, a record store which catered to black music, including R&B, jazz, and spirituals. “I spent all day long listening to Julius Cheeks, Clarence Fountain, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. I was in heaven,” said Billy. In 1971, he attended a gospel concert featuring, among others, the 615 pound Gloria Spencer, billed as “The World’s Largest Gospel Singer” and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. “It was like an epiphany for me, a revelation to experience something like that live. It left an indelible impression on me,” added Billy. While working at Glen’s he was also inspired by recordings of pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Big Maceo, and Otis Spann to name a few. He took up the keyboard while in high school, but it wasn’t until the tail end of his college career at James Madison University (from which he graduated with a degree in special education) did he play the instrument in earnest.
After graduation, as Wirtz was filling out applications to start a career in teaching, Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim came through Virginia on tour. After attending a performance, Wirtz introduced himself and discovered Slim was headed to the next gig via Greyhound Bus. Billy volunteered to chauffer the blues legend to the next show and struck up a lasting friendship. Later, Sunnyland wrote thanking Billy and invited him to stay at his home if he ever made it to Chicago – an invitation that found Billy heading to the Windy City to accept. He stayed with Sunnyland Slim, learning directly from the master, going to Chicago niteclubs and meeting blues artists he revered as a youngster. This taste of the musicians’ lifestyle ignited the idea that he himself might make a living playing the piano. His first official blues band was Sidewinder, a group from his college town of Harrisonburg, VA, and later was able to hook up with the Charlottesville All Stars, a larger ensemble with similar blues tastes.
As the 80’s dawned, Billy Wirtz had already earned the reputation of being a gifted sideman and became much sought after by many Washington, D.C area roots bands, including the legendary Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, and the original contingent of the Nighthawks, which included Jimmy Thackery on guitar. By 1982, Billy had grown weary of the incertitude of freelancing and decided to embark on a solo career. About the same time Billy declared his independence his first solo LP was recorded live in a bar in Hickory, N.C., Salvation Through Polyester, on the No Big Deal label of Atlanta. In 1988, Wirtz released Deep Fried and Sanctified on the Kingsnake label – a turning point for him in many ways. “I think we originally pressed about 2000 copies of this before leasing it to Hightone in 1989 and it marked my long and productive association with that great label,” said Billy.
He would remain with Hightone for the next dozen years, releasing six more undertakings: Backslider’s Tractor Pull, Turn for the Wirtz: Confessions of a Hillbilly Love-God, Pianist Envy, Songs of Faith and Inflammation, Unchained Maladies, Rib Ticklin’ plus a compilation, The Best of the Wirtz:15 Years on the Road with a 77? Pianist.