Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bill Hayes: A Conversation

Earlier this week I discussed "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and how it was covered by several different singers in the 1950's.  The most commercially successful version was the one sung by Bill Hayes, and it stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for an entire month.  Many people know Mr. Hayes for his longtime role as Doug Williams on Days of Our Lives, but he has also had a long career as a musician, including an album he made covering various Disney songs.  It was my great pleasure to talk to him by phone, and he couldn't have been nicer.

Oh, and if you want to listen to him singing Davy Crockett, click here!

NS: How did you first get started on Davy Crockett?

BH: It was an amazing day.  It all happened in one day: December 16, 1954.  I was at my home in New York when Archie Bleyer, who had recently begun Cadence Records, gave me a call around 8:30 in the morning and said, "Can you come by the office?  I've got a song."  I went to his office in Manhattan around 12:30.

The night before, on December 15, Bleyer had seen the beginning of the Davy Crockett film on ABC.  They had shown it in thirds, and that song was used as a background song. Bleyer called the Disney publishers and asked, "Who's recorded that?" and they said, "Recorded what?"  He said, "That Davy, Davy Crockett song."  They said, "That's nothing. That's a background song.  That means nothing to anybody."  They had no faith in it at all.

Back in his office, I sang through the song and he said, "Do you like that?"  I said, "Man, I love that song.  It's wonderful.  That's a great song."  He said, "Do you want to cut it?"  I said, "Absolutely."  He said, "Do you want to do it tonight?"  I said, "Yes I do."  So he went off and wrote the chart for it and I went off to study the song.  

We met at 10:00 that night at an RCA recording studio in Manhattan.  We had two acoustical guitars, played by Arty Ryerson and Al Caiola, that weren't enhanced at all. They put one microphone in front of the two guitars, and they put a microphone in front of a bass player. We also had a Jew's harp player and three voice singers.  It took about an hour and a half to set everything up.  This was the days of one track, not multiple tracks. We sang it once -- one track, one take.  It was incredible.  We then did another hour and a half to record the other side of the record, "Farewell", which was also used in the Davy Crockett film.

Today you do 98 tracks with multiple changes and additions, and you can add elements later on and re-up the cello, for instance. But ours was just once through on one track -- incredible.

It was a big day in my life.  It was so fast -- I had about four hours to study the song.  It just all came together so perfectly.  It was like a skyrocket -- an immediate hit.  What you did in the 50's was you got it played by a few disc jockeys, and if it took off then, it was ok.  Well, Archie Bleyer sent about a hundred copies to disc jockeys around the country, and it was gone.  It was just a skyrocket.  There are very few songs that have had that kind of an immediate rise.  I have it on a gold record -- it's right up there on the wall.  I'm looking at it.

I went around for about a year with a coonskin cap and singing that song.  And everybody knew the song.  I would sing a set of songs and then sing it at the end.  I'd invite the kids onto the stage, and there'd be a thousand kids up there that knew every word. 

NS: It's amazing to me how quickly it came together.  Do you know why Bleyer picked you to sing the song?  

BH: Archie Bleyer was an arranger and a musical conductor.  He worked for Arthur Godfrey for years and then one day Arthur Godfrey fired everybody on the show.  And then Archie went off and started Cadence Records where he had several number one hits in a row.

I had recorded with MGM for about three years.  Archie had a record store, and I happened to be in there one day.  He said, "Do you still record with MGM?" and I said, "No, we just stopped working together last month."  He said, "If I get a song, would you like to record it?" and I said, "I sure would."  And then there it was.  My Davy Crockett record sold about four million copies, and then there were others.  They released a record by Fess Parker that sold over a million copies, and The Wellingtons put one out.

NS: Did you know Fess Parker at all, or did you ever get to meet him?

BH: I knew of him, certainly, but never met him.  

NS: Do people still bring the song up to you today?

BH: Yes, a lot of people remember it.  If I ever sing it, I can go somewhere now and the audience would know it.  It's a phenomenon.  The song just sticks with you.  And people buy it today.  I get a royalty check about once a year for about three thousand dollars.  I don't know who buys it, but somebody does. 

NS: I read online that you're a direct descendant of President Rutherford B. Hayes.  Is that true?

BH: I'm told that, but I have not been able to substantiate that.  Could be.  My Hayes relations came into this country through Virginia in the 1700s, and then they moved to Kentucky, but some of them could have moved to Ohio.  I think that's where President Rutherford Birchard Hayes is from.  

NS: Unfortunately I'm not up on my soap operas, but I was reading about your experience on Days of Our Lives.  Do you still make appearances on that show?

BH: Yes.  I started on it in 1970 and have been on it for 45 years.  I was under contract for fourteen years and then away and back, away and back, away and back.  The show started in 1965, and this November it will be its 50th birthday -- that's 50 years of one story.  An amazing thing to me.  I still play the same character.  For a long time, I sang on the show -- my character had a nightclub and sang all through the 70s and 80s.  You could get a song then for a license of about 300 dollars.  Today it just costs too much -- the license to do a song today is about 10 or 20 thousand dollars, and they just don't have that kind of money.  It's still a good show and I enjoy working on it.   

NS: If I see you're coming on, I'll check it out!  And is it true you met your wife on the show?

BH: That's right.  She and I met on the show and got married in 1974.  And then our characters married in 1976 using the same words we got married to in our living room. Instead of 16 people present, we had 16 million people.

NS: And what are you up to now?

BH: I've been doing singing gigs until this year, and I think I'm probably going to quit.  I'm 90 now, and I think maybe that's enough.  

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