Although it was months in the planning the uncertainty that preceded Sunday night’s show at the National was understandable. After all, most of the vocalists had learned songs just for the show. And, while the freezing rain had mercifully changed to ordinary rain, as the stage was being set up the weather was still threatening to sabotage Sunday night’s tribute concert.
The good news is the show went on without a hitch. (Photos of the event can be found here.)
The better news is the Billy Ray Hatley Tribute Concert was show business at it best: the music was joyful and uplifting. The experience of being in that refurbished downtown theater will not easily be forgotten by anyone who was there on Sunday. No doubt that will be especially true for Billy’s wife Sara and their two children, Sierra and Sam.
After the last song was sung by Robbin Thompson, the emcee, Chuck Wrenn, stepped to the microphone to sum up what the musicians had just made happen, “Wow, what a night!”
Although the stage was filled by 24 performers (with a stage crew of eight), the entertainment offered was no jam session and the show ran smoothly. No covers of rock ’n’ roll classics were played. Every song was written by Billy Ray Hatley, who can no longer perform them. In all, one corny old show biz word well describes how the concert went over -- "boffo!"
Why and how did this show happen?
A few years ago longtime Richmond favorite Billy Ray Hatley had the bad luck to have his career ended by a condition (Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia) that can be traced to an operation he had in 2005 and his four years in the Navy (1965-69). Eventually, his friend and sideman/collaborator Jim Wark convinced Sara Hatley that putting a tribute show together, made up of Billy’s music, would be the right thing to do. A team was assembled. Velpo Robertson, Rico Antonelli and Dave Owen, also fellow bandmates and close friends of Billy’s, joined Sara and Jim to produce the tribute.
“We got together to discuss the possibility in March,” said Rico. “The hardest part was deciding what songs to do.”
Decisions had to be made about who to include and who would sing which songs, to play the role that had always been Billy’s. It was decided the musicians who had been the sidemen in Billy’s two bands, Big City and The Show Dogs, would back up the invited singers. As each vocalist would only sing a couple of songs that meant handing small roles to people who were all used to being the stars of whatever gigs they played.
Brad Tucker said, “Egos were checked at the door.”
Space won’t allow a recap of all the material presented, but three highlights include: Bill Blue’s gritty performance of “Elvis’ Motorcycle.” Bill traveled from Key West to be there. Michael McAdam’s soulful performance of “Roll the Dice.” Mike traveled from Nashville to be there. Susan Greenbaum’s stirring performance of “Promised Land,” which provided what was maybe the biggest goose bumps moment of the night.
Appearing in addition to those performers already mentioned were: Charles Arthur, Steve Bassett, Jody Boyd, Junie Carter, Craig Evans, Chris Fuller, Eric Heiberg, Janet Martin, Gayle McGehee, Mic Muller, Li’l Ronnie Owens, Drew Perkins and Jim Skelding. (Bruce Olsen was scheduled to be there but was prevented by a cold that stole his voice.)
After the sound checks, two hours before show time, Wark had reminded the performers, “There’s nothing sad about this [show]. It can’t be about what Billy has been through. It’s about what he gave us.”
Those friends and fans of Billy’s who braved the weather to be in that room shared a one-of-kind experience. Throughout the show the spirit of camaraderie flowing from one song to the next was warm and palpable. Perhaps the peak of that feeling occurred mid-show, when Sara stood behind a microphone and thanked one and all for being there.
Proceeds from the tribute show and a CD anthology of Billy Ray Hatley recordings will benefit the Hatley family and the Daily Planet.
A video of the whole shebang was recorded and will eventually be presented by WCVE in 2014.
In case anyone missed it the first time, Chuck said it again, “Wow!”
1. Sponsors that provided support were: Brinks; JAMinc; Million Air Richmond; Euroclassics Porsche; Dr. Joe Niamtu; Mamma Zu.
2. To read more about Billy Ray Hatley see Brent Baldwin’s “For the Sake of the Song.”
3. Anyone wishing to donate to The Billy Hatley Fund can send contributions to: Middleburg Bank, Attention: Keith Reynolds, 315 Libbie Avenue, Richmond VA 23226.