When Bob Weinstock founded Prestige Records in 1949, he’d no idea that his nascent label would become one of the most important, influential and innovative labels in jazz music’s history. So much so, that nowadays, Prestige Records sits proudly beside Atlantic, Blue Note, Columbia, Impulse! and Verve at jazz’s top table. No wonder. Look at the artists who called Prestige Records home.

Prestige Records’ discography is akin to a whose who of jazz. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean, Modern Jazz Quartet, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins, Donald Byrd and Brother Jack McDuff. They all recorded for Prestige Records and are responsible for a string of classic albums. However, not every album Prestige Records released became a classic. No. Some of Prestige Records releases are hidden gems awaiting discover.

This includes two albums that Billy Hawks released in 1967 and 1968. Billy released The New Genius Of The Blues in 1967 and Heavy Soul! in 1968. Both albums fall into the category of hidden gem. They’ve long been overdue a rerelease and deserve to be heard by a much wider audience. Ace Records realised this. They released The New Genius Of The Blues and Heavy Soul! on their BGP Records imprint. The two albums feature on one mid-price CD. This is the perfect opportunity to discover the music of Billy Hawks, whose career I’ll tell you about.

Billy Hawks was born on 3rd September 1941. He grew up in the town of Blackstone, Virginia. The Hawks’ family were a musical family. Everyone sang or played an instrument. This included Billy. 

From the age of five, he was playing the piano and singing. Music was his life. If he he’d been allowed, Billy would’ve played the piano all day. When he wasn’t playing the piano, Billy was listening to the blues. This was both Billy’s musical eduction and inspiration. One of Billy’s favourite artists was Fats Domino. He inspired Billy, who moved to Jersey when he was seventeen.

Not long after moving to Jersey, Billy Hawks decided to switch to the big burner, the Hammond organ. Billy loved the sound of the Hammond organ. So it made sense to switch to the Hammond organ. Especially since it was growing in popularity. Switching to the Hammond organ proved to be the best decision Billy ever made.

By 1961, aged just twenty, Billy Hawks joined Steve Gibson’s Red Caps. His decision to switch to the Hammond organ was vindicated. He was a member of Steve Gibson’s Red Caps until 1962.

Billy left Steve Gibson’s Red Caps in 1962 and joined joined the Modern Flamingos. For the next two years, Billy’s musical education continued as a member of the Modern Flamingos. Then in 1964, twenty-three year old Billy Hawks was ready to become a bandleader.

With manager Clifford Doubledee guiding him, Billy founded The Billy Hawks Organ Trio. They were based in Philly and featured guitarist Maynard Parker and drummer Henry Terrell. The Billy Hawks Organ Trio made their name playing along the Eastern Seaboard.

Soon, Billy was working six or seven nights a week. He played in clubs, army bases and private parties. Soon, Billy was travelling all over America. Atlantic City, Jersey, New York, Philly and Virginia Billy played them all. Billy was like a hired gun. Wherever someone was looking for an organist, he’d make his way there. He’d then entertain audiences with his unique blend of blues, gospel, jazz and soul. Audiences were won over by Billy and his three or four piece band.

Having honed their sound, for two years, Billy’s band were ready to record their debut album. He was actively looking for a record deal when he heard that Prestige Records were looking for new artists. For Billy, this was the break he’d been looking for.

Billy and his manager Clifford Doubledee made an appointment to see Prestige Records’ A&R man Cal Lampley. When the meeting took place, at first, Cal wasn’t interested. He became more interested when Billy mentioned his band. Knowing he had to rescue the situation, Billy noticed a piano sitting in Cal’s office. Billy offered to audition. Instead, he was told to submit an audition tape of The Billy Hawks Organ Trio.

Knowing that this was The Billy Hawks Organ Trio’s big chance to shine, they began work on an audition tape. They recorded several songs, then submitted the tape to Prestige Records. Luckily, founder Bob Weinstock heard the tape. He liked what he heard. Before long, Billy was signed to Prestige Records. Before long, Billy would enter the studio to record what would become The New Genius Of The Blues.

The New Genius Of The Blues.

The New Genius Of The Blues featured ten tracks. Five of these tracks tracks, Billy had written during the last two years. This included I’ll Wait For You Baby, Why Do Things Happen To Me, Let Me Love You Before You Go, Mean Woman Blues and Hawk’s Blues. Other tracks included covers of Preston Foster’s Got My Mojo Working (But It Just Won’t Work On You), Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman, Willie Dixon’s I Just Want To Make Love To You and Ferdinand Washington’s Every Time It Rains. The other track was Albert Beach and Charles Trent’s I Wish You Love. These ten tracks became The New Genius Of The Blues.

Recording of The New Genius Of The Blues began on November 15th 1966. Joining Billy were drummer Henry Terrell and guitarist Joseph Jones. They were waiting for Billy when the sessions were due to start. Unfortunately for Billy, he overslept. Billy had a reputation as a somewhat laid-back person. Even the thought of recording his debut didn’t seem to excite him. Indeed, the thought of playing without an audience filled Billy with dread. He seemed to think he needed an audience to inspire him. That was far from the case. With Henry and Joseph accompanying him, Billy recorded ten tracks which was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and produced by  Cal Lampley. They became The New Genius Of The Blues.

On it release in 1967, The New Genius Of The Blues wasn’t a commercial success. This was disappointing. It’s not a reflection on the quality of music. Billy Hawks was a seriously talented organist and vocalist. That’s apparent from the opening bars of The New Genius Of The Blues.

What better way to start The New Genius Of The Blues, than a blistering cover of Got My Mojo Working (But It Just Won’t Work On You). Billy vamps his way through the track, showcasing his considerable talents as a singer and organist. He then drops the tempo on I’ll Wait For You Baby. Having blown a bluesy harmonica solo, Billy delivers a needy, hopeful and soulful vocal. All the time, his Hammond organ provides an atmospheric backdrop. 

I Got A Woman sees Billy kick loose and deliver another blistering performance. This he does against an understated, jazz-tinged backdrop. Billy’s vocal is a mixture of power and sass, as he vamps his way through a classic track, bringing new life to it. 

The tempo drops on Why Do Things Happen To Me. Slow, bluesy and moody, it features a despairing vocal from a heartbroken Billy. As the tempo increases on Let Me Love You Before You Go, the hurt and heartache is still present. A Billy heartbroken, needy Billy pleads “Let Me Love You Before You Go.” Very different is the understated and beautiful I Wish You Luck. It sees Billy change tack and deliver a tender, heartfelt vocal on one of The New Genius Of The Blues’ highlights.

On Mean Woman Blues, Billy sounds as if he was born to sing the blues. His weary vocal is a mixture of power, hurt and despair. It veers between tender to a roar. It’s akin to a cathartic outpouring of pain and hurt. Meanwhile, his band fuse a delicious brew of blues and jazz. This continues on another classic track, I Just Want To Make Love To You. It’s the perfect showcase for Billy as he plays blues harmonica and Hammond organ. 

Then Billy ups the ante. Billy delivers a sultry, sassy, vocal powerhouse, as he makes a classic track swing. 

As Every Time It Rains unfolds, Billy drops the tempo. He and his band mix their unique blend of blues and jazz. His vocal is a mixture of pain and sadness, as he makes the lyrics come to life. Closing The New Genius Of The Blues is the instrumental Hawk’s Blues. It’s the perfect showcase for Billy and his band. They enjoy stretching their kegs when the solos come around. Especially Billy, as he delivers a Hammond organ masterclass.

Despite the undoubted quality of The New Genius Of The Blues, Billy Hawks debut album almost sunk without trace. That’s a great shame. After all, Billy Hawks was a hugely talented musician and singer. He could play piano, Hammond organ and harmonica. Then there was Billy’s vocal prowess. 

Songs came to life when Billy sings them. Especially songs about love and love lost. Billy brings to life the betrayal, hurt, pain and sadness. Other times, he swaggers and strut his way through tracks, bravado and machismo oozing out of every pore. Billy Hawks it seems, had lived the lyrics he was singing. He sounded as if he’d lived through the hurt and survived the pain. Not many vocalists can do that. Billy could. So, it made sense to have Billy Hawks record his sophomore album Heavy Soul!

Heavy Soul!

After the disappointment of his debut album The New Genius Of The Blues, the pressure must have been on Billy to record a successful sophomore album. After all, if his sophomore album Heavy Soul! failed commercially, Prestige Records would most likely let Billy go. He’d be back playing live dates along the Eastern Seaboard. Billy didn’t want that to happen.

So, Billy had been busy. He’d written written seven of the nine songs on Heavy Soul! This included O’Baby (I Believe I’m Losing You), Whip It On Me, What More Can I Do, Heavy Soul,You’ve Been A Bad Girl, I Can Make It and That’s Your Bag. The other two tracks on Heavy Soul were cover versions. They were Henry Glover’s Drown In My Own Tears and Oscar Brown Jr’s I’ll Be Back. These nine tracks became Heavy Soul!

Heavy Soul! was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder’s at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Producing Heavy Soul! was  Cal Lampley. Accompanying Billy were drummer Henry Terrell, guitarist Maynard Parker and Buddy Terry on tenor saxophone. Once Heavy Soul! was completed, it was released in 1968.

On the release of Heavy Soul in 1968, lightning stuck twice. Heavy Soul never came close to troubling the charts. However, on closer inspection, Heavy Soul! is another hidden gem. 

O’Baby (I Believe I’m Losing You) opens Heavy Soul. It would become a club classic during the nineties, when Acid Jazz DJs rediscovered the track. It’s a hypnotic and irresistible call to dance. Billy and his band get into the groove and work their magic.

Drown In My Own Tears has a slow, spacious and moody arrangement. This is perfect for Billy. He delivers a soul-baring vocal. His vampish vocal is akin to an exorcism of hurt, pain and betrayal. The tempo increase on Whip It On Me, where Billy embarks upon another vamp. Again, the arrangement is funky, soulful and jazz-tinged as Billy heads in the direction of James Brown.

Jazz-tinged and soulful describes What More Can I Do? The arrangement supplies the jazz, while Billy’s hurt-filled, emotive vocal supplies the soul. Despairing and downhearted, he pleads his way through the lyrics.

Very different is Heavy Soul, an instrumental. It’s the perfect showcase for Billy and their band. They get an opportunity to showcase their combined talents. Then later, everyone gets their moment to shine. Billy like any good bandleader, doesn’t begrudge them this opportunity, realising that it’s for the album’s greater good.

You’ve Been A Bad Girl sees Billy move in the direction of soul, jazz and even rock, courtesy of the drums. His band lock into a groove and Billy delivers a despairing, needy vocal. He vamps his way through the tracks hoping, pleading and “you’ll come on back to me.”

I’ll Be Back has a much more soulful sound. Billy delivers an impassioned, hopeful vocal. He’s singing from the perspective of a soldier heading out to Vietnam. A braying tenor saxophone answers his call, adding to the emotion, drama and beauty of the track. This is a masterstroke and results in the definitive version of this track.

I Can Make It has a soul-jazz sound. Billy drops the tempo and sets the scene with his Hammond organ. Then when Billy’s vocal enters it’s needy, hopeful and desperate. He breathes life, meaning and emotion into the lyrics, against a mesmeric arrangement. The soul-jazz sound continues on That’s Your Bag. As the arrangement unfolds, it breezes along. Guitarist Maynard Parker unleashes some of the best guitar lines on Heavy Soul! It’s a jazz guitar masterclass. When his guitar drops out, Billy picks up the baton. He’s inspired to greater heights. So is drummer Henry Terrell. Together they ensure that Heavy Soul! ends on a resounding high.

Sadly, Heavy Soul! proved to be Billy Hawks final album for Prestige Records. It was also the last album Billy Hawks recorded. Never again, would Billy enter a recording studio. He spent the rest of his life playing at army bases, clubs and private parties. Billy traveled all over the Eastern Seaboard. Atlantic City, Jersey, New York, Philly and Virginia were home from home for Billy and his band. They played each and every one of those cities more times than they cared to remember. Billy was like a musical hired gun. Wherever someone was looking for an organist, he’d make his way there. He’d then entertain audiences with his unique blend of blues, gospel, jazz and soul. Audiences were won over by Billy and his three or four piece band. After that, they’d leave town and do it all again. However, this is what Billy loved.

For Billy, there was no greater thrill than playing live. Recording wasn’t the same. Maybe that’s why Billy never recorded another album. He didn’t get the same buzz out of playing in a studio. Whatever the reason, the fact that Billy Hawks never recorded any more albums was a great shame. This was music’s loss. We never got to hear how Billy matured and evolved as an singer and musician. That’s true in more than one way.

Aged just forty-one, Billy Hawks died of a heart attack. Ironically, given his profession, Billy neither smoked nor drank. By then, Billy had played more live dates than most musicians twenty years his senior. Sadly, his discography features just two albums, The New Genius Of The Blues and Heavy Soul! They’ve been recently released by Ace Records on their BGP imprint. These two albums are the perfect opportunity to discover or rediscover Billy Hawks’ two albums The New Genius Of The Blues and Heavy Soul! Both The New Genius Of The Blues and Heavy Soul! are a reminder that Billy Hawks could’ve and should’ve been a contender.








1 Comment

  1. Elaine M Hawkes

    Wow beautiful write up on my father in law… Never met him he died.
    Must be a family curse….. My daughter , his grandaughter is an awesome singer songerwriter, but just cant get it going anywhere!

    But thank you for the informative write up on him.

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