Red Hot

Tarpon Springs, Florida, a scenic spot on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico up the road from Clearwater, was the center of the world to William Robert Emerson; he was born there in 1929, performed there some two decades later when he began supporting himself as a musician, and named his own short-lived record label after the city nearly two decades further on. During high school in the mid-1940s he couldn't help but notice the cheerleaders, like most guys captivated by their pom-poms and the frequently-heard "Our team is red hot!," a yell perhaps hundreds of years old and still in use today with varying second lines boosting the home team or bashing the visiting rivals. The cheerleading chant stayed in his head for a decade or so, developing into the mid-'50s recording he would be most known for and that, through successive remakes, grew a little more frenzied as each artist passed the baton to the next.

A piano player of the self-taught honky-tonk tradition, he began sitting in with various bar bands in Tarpon Springs and around the Tampa Bay area; while gigging with a group in a St. Petersburg club, the manager suggested they dress as cowboys, an idea that saddled him with the obvious nickname "Billy the Kid." He attended Florida A&M on an athletic scholarship and served in the Air Force starting in 1952 (at the time of the Korean War), stationed stateside in Greenville, Mississippi. After his discharge in January 1954 he traveled a couple of hours from Greenville up Highway 61 to Memphis where he met bandleader Ike Turner, joining Ike's Kings of Rhythm as a pianist and sometime singer.

That very same month he signed with Sun Records (where Ike and the Kings, as The Delta Cats, had cut the Jackie Brenston classic "Rocket '88'" in '51 and continued as regular session players) and, as Billy "The Kid" Emerson, immediately committed his first in a series of self-penned songs to wax; "No Teasing Around," a ballad more notable for Ike's guitar work than Billy's singing, appeared in early '54, backed by the more compelling, bluesy "If Lovin' Is Believing." A second disc, the similar "I'm Not Going Home," has an amusing flip side, "The Woodchuck," a mostly-spoken account of an earthy woman obsessed with the age-old question: 'How much wood can a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?'! Each single was more impressive than the last; 1955 began with "Move Baby Move," possessing a hotter Kings of Rhythm arrangement while its flip side, "When it Rains it Pours," paid welcome dividends when it was included on Elvis Presley's 1965 album Elvis for Everyone! (titled "When it Rains, it Really Pours" as sung in the lyrics, Elvis had recorded the song in 1957).

"Red Hot" came next and, like the others, it wasn't a hit, disappointing as it was his best work to that point, a loose party-in-the-studio with call-and-response between Billy and the Kings (a real bragfest with hard-to-resist lines like '...if she need a Jim Dandy she's a snapperoo!' and '...that girl ain't never been kissed...yeah, an' I got a girl ain't never been missed!'). Primary lyric 'My gal is red hot...your gal ain't doodly squat,' a casual slang term to be sure, may have been off-putting to some (there being a crudity to 'doodly squat' by '50s standards), hampering the record's potential for widespread airplay. But the song wasn't forgotten by fans and musicians who mattered; "Red Hot" has since been recognized as a rock and roll classic.

There was a fifth and final Sun single, "Little Fine Healthy Thing," then Billy began working with pianist Phineas Newborn, who'd formerly recorded with B.B. King, spent time with Turner's Kings and been involved in a number of Sun sessions before embarking on a career in jazz with Atlantic Records, making a spectacular splash with the 1956 album Phineas' Rainbow on RCA Victor. Emerson's time with Newborn was brief; he moved to Chicago later in '55 and signed with Gary, Indiana-based Vee Jay Records. His output during this time ("Don't Start Me to Lying," "Tomorrow Never Comes") had a big city feel; the two-sider "Somebody Show Me" and "The Pleasure is All Mine" used a female vocal backing group and the result was very nice but unrecognizable from anything he'd done at Sun. None of these records sold well, but his relocation had a silver lining; the rundown clubs of Memphis had been replaced by the Regal Theater and other upscale Windy City venues.

Billy 'The Kid' Emerson

Billy joined Chess Records in '58, dropping "The Kid" from his name and putting himself in producer Willie Dixon's hands. He began collaborating with other songwriters including Calvin Carter, Harold Burrage (sometimes credited as Harold Barrage) and Dixon; singles like "Holy Mackerel Baby" and "Um Hum, My Baby" were lighter poppish efforts, solid in execution but disconnected from current trends. Emerson spent a few years without a record deal, making his way performing in clubs in Chicago and parts of the south. A slicker version of "When it Rains it Pours" (reinstating "The Kid" on labels) came out on Mad (a record label with a wacky logo inspired by, but not affiliated with, Mad magazine); the song's eventual exposure via Elvis made this perhaps his best shot at a hit, but another update, on U.S.A. in '64, failed to support the theory.

Sticking with his known moniker, "The Kid," from this point forward, Emerson took a shot at instigating a dance craze in '63 with the M-Pac! label single "The Whip," putting Lash LaRue ' a trick bag' while painting himself into a corner. His decision in 1966 to start the Tarpon label came after he received an unexpected royalty payment from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs' semi-hit remake of "Red Hot," the best-selling version of the song. There were just seven singles on the label over a span of a year or so, five of them by Billy (including a fourth go-around with "When it Rains..." and "Dancin' Whippersnapper," taking one more crack at "The Whip"). The other two were "A Love Reputation," the debut by Mississippi-born soul songstress Denise LaSalle (who had a strong run in the '70s beginning with the million-selling "Trapped by a Thing Called Love") and "Sufferin' Soul" by expert electric guitar picker Matt "Guitar" Murphy. Emerson continued performing for many years, finding a new audience in Europe after a number of Sun reissue collections were released featuring his original recordings. He has since become a minister, staying strictly with gospel as his musical preference.

As for Billy "The Kid" Emerson's most famous recording, "Red Hot," it has taken on a life of its own. A wild, rockin' version by Sun's Billy Riley and The Little Green Men came along in late 1957, considered by some the definitive version (a nickname, "Red Hot Riley," resulted); Bob Luman immediately hit the street with an even more deranged rendition on Imperial, seemingly designed to one-up Riley at his own game. Cameo Records released The Carroll Brothers' "(My Gal Is) Red Hot" in the spring of '58, a pop-rock version with the same tune and opening line but otherwise different lyrics. Ronnie Hawkins' "My Gal is Red Hot," from his self-titled 1959 album on Roulette, is lyrically closer to the original, but neither this nor the Carroll recording gave songwriter credit to Emerson. Sam the Sham remained faithful with his garagey rave-up from '66 and gave proper credit to the song's creator, as did rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon when he and guitar legend Link Wray exposed the song to a younger fan base in 1977.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Red Hot