My husband is a huge fan of “The King of Queens.” So he watches at least three episodes of it each night on TV Land. That means I hear the smooth sounds of Billy Vera and the Beaters singing its theme song at least three times a night—that is, if my husband doesn’t drown it out…
So after several weeks of hearing Billy Vera’s voice, I decided to see if I could track him down and talk to him about “The King of Queens” theme, as well as some of his other TV moments. It didn’t take much tracking since Billy’s pretty accessible. And he’s a pretty great guy that I really enjoyed talking with…
You can read the story behind “The King of Queens” theme in today’s “Stay Tuned” column. But we talked about several other things including his #1 smash, “At This Moment,” the TV theme he pitched in a restroom and what he’s up to now…
Before we walk down memory lane, tell me a little bit about what you’re up to now.
I just finished making my dream album with a big 18-piece band at the legendary Capitol Studios where Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole and Dean Martin recorded their big albums. I’m hoping to get it out by the end of May or June. It’s basically a salute to the great black songwriters of the 20s, 30s and 40s. You know, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and people like that.
You’re so accessible to your fans through your website and Facebook, That’s different than it was when you started out.
It sure keeps your name out there and keeps people aware of you. And it’s really good. It saves you a lot of money in PR people.
I know you’ve told this story billions of times, but if you don’t care to indulge me, tell me the story of “At This Moment” and “Family Ties.”
We had recorded the song in 1981 on an album that was the first Billy and the Beaters album. We had a little hit record off of that called “I Can Take Care of Myself.” And “At This Moment” was the follow-up single and there were some internal problems at the record company. The head of promotions quit, he had a fight with the boss and so the record only went to the low ends of the charts. And that was it. The record company went out of business not long after that and I was without a record deal for about five years, scratching out a living acting and doing things like that. One day, one afternoon, I got a phone call and this guy introduced himself over the phone and said he was the producer of a show called “Family Ties” and that they had been to the club the previous weekend to see the band and he said I heard you do a song I think would be great for an upcoming episode of the show. We figured out what the song was and they used it on the show when Michael J. Fox meets the girl and it got a bagful of mail. Which was unusual. I had had songs on television shows before that a number of times but never got any mail from it. It’s just usually background and that’s it.
So that gave me the idea to see if I could get somebody, a record company, interested in letting me record the song again and nobody was interested. So finally one day I’m having lunch with Richard Foos, the guy that owned Rhino Records, and I said hey Richard—you know they were in the business of reissuing records—and I said how many records do you need to sell to break even, albums? He said we have low overhead here, probably a couple thousand. I said what if I guarantee you 2000 records that I could sell in the club if necessary and you license it from whoever owns the company that went out of business. And he said sure. He basically did it as a favor to me because he liked me. I don’t think he thought anything was going to come out of it. By the time we got it out, we missed the reruns of the show, but as luck would have it, the following season, the girl breaks up with Michael J. Fox on the show and they used the song again. And this time the story of the song, boy loses girl, is the same as the story of the episode. And America went nuts. NBC told us that they got more requests, more phone calls, more letters than anytime in the history of the network. This time they were armed with the information. This is the name of the song, this is the name of the singer. And people started calling radio stations themselves, so without any promotion, because Rhino wasn’t in the business of putting out contemporary records so they didn’t really know how to promote a record. It was really that rarity. A grassroots hit. Little by little the thing ran up the charts and went to #1. And that was it. That’s the story.
There’s a story that’s been floating around Huntington for quite some time that a DJ here was one of the first people to play “At This Moment.” Do you know if that’s true?
It could be. The first one we heard about at that time, there were two. One was in Hawaii of all places and the other one was out in Colorado. People jumped on it pretty quickly. Rhino did hire a promotion guy who had me come into the record company every day and make a million phone calls to radio stations. They want you to come on and say, “Hi, I’m Billy Vera and I listen to KRAP everyday.”
Now you can just use Facebook and say, hi there. I had eggs for breakfast today.
Yeah, this tuna fish sandwich is really good.
What does “At This Moment” mean to you?
It changed my life. I was 42 years old by the time it came out. I had already had a bit of a career in the 60s with a few hit records both as a singer and a songwriter. And then the 70s music just radically changed and I couldn’t figure out where to fit in. So all throughout the 70s, I thought it was over as a performer. And then when that little hit came in the early 80s, I thought well I’ve got a shot again and then that fell through when the record company went out of business. It was just up and down and up and down. But “At This Moment” was so huge of a record, it finally, I felt like I was in the club. After all those years and all kinds of offers came from everywhere. More television, more acting jobs and gigs for the band and me. It just made me part of, I was now a full fledged member of show business. We did “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” nine times. We were a big favorite of Johnny’s.
Tell me about singing “At This Moment” on the TV Land Awards.
That was fun. That was a big surprise that they asked me and I just had a ball. It was really well organized as those shows go. They gave us the full star treatment. I flew out there business class and they put us in a big Park Avenue hotel. They had a limousine and you even had your own wrangler to tell you where you were going next. It was quite fun.
And it must have been cool to serenade the “Family Ties”cast.
That was very cool. I got to talk to them. They of course knew the song. It had been a big part of their show. It was really cool. I got to meet a lot of people from “Family Ties” and other places. Get my picture taken with Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby, all these cool people. I had a ball.
So how did all of your other television work come about?
A few years earlier [prior to “King of Queens”], I had done the theme song to a show called “Empty Nest,” which lasted about four years. Because about halfway through, somebody got the bright idea to do a newer version of the song, although I preferred the way they did it the first time, the original version. You know, TV executives always feel like they have to improve things that need no improvement.
And then I did another show, the first one I did was around the time “At This Moment” was big. I got a call from a producer who had been the producer of a show I had acted on. He said do you feel like writing a song for this new show we’re doing? Corey Haim and Burt Young. Burt Young playing a marine of many years who gets out of the service and goes back to college and his roommate is Corey Haim and the show was called “Roomies.” So, my old songwriting mentor, Chip Taylor, who had written “Wild Thing” and “Angel In the Morning,” he was out visiting and we had been writing songs together for an album I was going to do. So I said, let’s do a—We always were big Ricky Nelson fans because I had had a Ricky Nelson hit when I first started my career. So we wrote this sort of Ricky Nelson type song. We wrote it in about a half hour, but we had to wait another half hour so they wouldn’t think it was just something that we had laying in the can. So we waited and we said we’ve got a song for you. Can we come play it for you and he said yeah, get over here. So I made them all go in the men’s room so we could get that old echo. And we played the song for them in the bathroom. And they liked it, and then I got Ricky Nelson’s original guitar player, the legendary James Burton, to play on the session. And we recorded this really nice little song and the show came on and the public didn’t like it and it only lasted for three or four episodes.
I have to say, it is not a chore to hear your voice every night. Now when my husband starts acting like Kevin James, that’s another story.
Uh-oh. [Laughs] That seems to be the formula for a successful sitcom. Going back to Jackie Gleason, Ralph Kramden. You take a dopey husband and a wife that’s much smarter and you put them together and stir the pot and you’ve got a hit sitcom. If you look at it there’s tons of those like that. “Married With Children,” “King of Queens.” That seems to be THE formula.
So the formula we don’t have anymore are these great TV themes. As somebody who has recorded great theme songs, that must be a little sad for you knowing that those songs just don’t exist anymore.
Boy they’re really quick, aren’t they? What’s that show, “Mike & Molly”? I mean, it’s like 10 seconds long.
And it sounds like it would be a really great song if we heard the rest of it.
Yeah, it does. Maybe he wrote a whole song and maybe it was good. But they only wanted 10 seconds. Oh well.
Like you say, TV executives make these decisions and think we don’t want to sing along to theme songs anymore.
My favorite TV executive story. I had a friend who was an art director at CBS. He was in charge of doing the print ads for the television shows. Back when they did print ads. And we used to have lunch a couple of times a week. I’d go over to CBS. And he said, man you’re not going to believe what I just heard. I was walking down the hall and so-and-so, I can’t remember his name, but this really top executive at CBS, was yelling at one of his underlings. And he said get it here quick. I don’t want it good, I want it now. To me that was typical TV executive thinking. I don’t want it good, I want it now.
That explains a lot of stuff.
So you’re on the road quite a bit…
Not really. With a nine-piece band, the economics of traveling without a current hit record, forget about it. We play locally, Southern California.
What else are you hoping for 2012, you know, before the world ends and we’re all gone.
Somebody said if the Mayans are that smart, why are they gone?
That’s an excellent point.
I have had for quite a few years now a voiceover career. And I do a lot of commercials and just talking. So, that’s what I mainly do. And then I also do reissue work. I go in the vaults of record companies and I’ll compile CDs of stuff from a period of music that I’m most familiar with—the 50s and the 40s and the early 60s. And I’ll write notes, the essays for the booklets. I just wrote the essay for the new Ray Charles boxset that just came out. And I did a B.B. King one that just came out a little while ago. That’s the thing I do that’s the most fun, although it pays the least. And Michael Buble recorded “At This Moment” on his last album, which has been selling like crazy. In fact, the most recent check I got from that paid for my big band album. Thank you, Michael Buble.
He’s a very talented guy. That’s got to be pretty flattering.
Yeah, he sure is. And boy, he did a studio version of it and he also did a live version of it. So I get paid twice.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
No, there is not. It was a total surprise. It wasn’t like they came to me and said hey, we want to do your song. They just did it. They contact the publisher and that’s that. Get the license. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful surprise.
Billy, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you and walking down memory lane with you. And I hope to hear your voice every night for many more days to come.
I hope you’re right. I hope they keep playing that show.