If you ask most musicians what their idea of success is, it’s usually just to be able to make a living playing music. In this day and age, it seems the only way to have a shot at that is to diversify. The more you can do, the better chance you have of evading the day job. The results may not make you a household name but, as with Billy Vera, it could lead to a wonderfully rich, lifelong career.
Born in 1944 in Riverside, Calif., and raised in New York by parents in the entertainment industry, Vera was bitten by the music bug early on. While still a teen, he released his first singles and soon thereafter was writing chart hits for the likes of Ricky Nelson and Barbara Lewis.
He had minor success teaming up with Judy Clay and as a solo artist, but his R&B- and soul-influenced style was out of favor with the revolutionary late ’60s music and culture. Vera seemingly disappeared in the ’70s, but when Dolly Parton’s surprise recording of his “I Really Got the Feeling” hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1979, it brought Vera to the attention of the industry once again, this time as a songwriter, not a performer.
With the single’s success, Vera relocated to Los Angeles to focus on songwriting full time but decided to put a band together with old friend Chuck Fiore, if for no other reason than “to have some fun and meet some girls.” The band, Billy Vera and the Beaters, in a short time became a staple of the early ’80s Los Angeles club scene. Its large, horn-driven sound was completely alien to the new wavers, but it solidified a rabid L.A. area fan base. Signed to a small label, the band’s second single, the passionate breakup ballad “At This Moment,” briefly reached the bottom of the charts, but the label folded soon thereafter.
Then fate, in the form of a TV sitcom, threw Vera’s life pleasantly upside down. The mega-hit show Family Ties used “At This Moment” in two different episodes detailing teen heart throb Michael J. Fox’s breakup. A chord was struck with millions of viewers, and the network was flooded with requests for the name of the artist. A new label, Rhino Records, quickly rushed out a rerelease of the song, and against all odds, the song went to No. 1.
Soon enough, Vera and company were on a major label, and Vera received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though he was largely ignored by the MTV generation and the band’s chart success was short-lived. Always the savvy showbiz man, Vera wisely began to branch out into multiple aspects of film and TV. He and the band were featured prominently in the Bruce Willis film Blind Date, and he had guest spots in shows such as Baywatch and Boy Meets World as well as a recurring character on Beverly Hills 90210 playing a bookie.
While the band remained a Los Angeles favorite, Vera’s distinctive voice was put to work on songs for shows such as King of Queens and Empty Nest. He also did voiceover work for several cartoons.
These days, nearing 70, Vera remains just as active. He’s heard nightly on national television, voicing intros to George Lopez’s talk show; and “At This Moment” was brought to the attention of a whole new generation of music fans when Michael Bublé recorded it on his No. 1 charting record Crazy Love. He’s also been the voice of the AM/PM guy in radio and commercials for more than10 years.
At the end of the day, though, Vera remains, at heart, a performing musician who regards himself as “the luckiest son of a bitch in Hollywood.” He plays monthly in Los Angeles in a duo, but he also performs from time to time with the original Beaters.
The key to having such a long and diverse career according to Vera?
“Be trusting that things will come. Don’t expect anything, but keep plugging away so you’re ready when it does happen. It’s always seemed to be that way for me. Knock on wood,” he laughs.
So is the Billy Vera career model the ideal blueprint for a new audience? The man himself is quick to admit, “I’d hate to be starting out today.” But in the eyes of a musician starting out today, to have had half of Vera’s accomplishments would not be considered a success as much as a dream.
Billy Vera and the Beaters will perform at Yolie’s in Ventura on Friday, Oct. 15. For tickets and more information, visit www.hihatentertainment.com.