LOVE, BILLY ''RED'' - Billy Love was a serious talent, as a solo artist, a session pianist, and sometime leader of Rosco Gordon's road band. But
he spent his life in and out of the armed forces, in and out of employment, in and out of jazz clubs, and in and out of the attention of law enforcement officers.
Love led a full, short frustrating and strange life. Sam Phillips remembered him as ''a super-good musician'', but one who didn't focus on his musical gifts.
Love (aka Billy ''Red'' Love) was born on December 8, 1929 in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Morse Love, senior and Lizzie Elliott. They were living on Florida Street just south of downtown Memphis in the summer of 1944 when Milton was fourteen years old and
about to start work at the St. Louis Warehouse in Memphis.
Love joined the Army in February 1946 when he was a year under age, but by the late 1940s Love was back in
Memphis gaining a good reputation as a piano player and teacher. He met budding saxophonist Richard Sanders just in from Yazoo County, Mississippi and they formed a band. Lillie Sanders remembered living on Florida Street near Milton Love and Rosco Gordon:
''Around the year of 1948 through 1951 musicians including my older brother Baby Richard Sanders Jr., Johnny Ace, Billy ''Red'' Love, Earl Forrest, Little Milton, and Rosco Gordon used to rehearse almost every day at Rosco Gordon's family home across the street.
While walking home from school daily, I had the opportunity to hear great sounds of blues singing and music... This fair-skinned, freckled-faced, slenderframed, handsome blues singer from across the street used to whistle and wink his eyes at me every time
he'd see me. He was Billy ''Red'' Love. He seemed to be a nice, quiet and very mannerable person - but I never forgot the music he'd sing''. Years later, she encouraged her daughters, the Jubert Sisters, to record some of Love's songs.
By the end of the 1940s Love was a formidable singer , pianist, songwriter, arranger. Rosco Gordon told John Floyd, ''Love and I we lived about two blocks apart... my mother got rid of the
piano (from our house) so I would go to Billy Love's house periodically, two or three times a week, and I would learn from him. He had so much talent. If you couldn't learn from him you couldn't learn from anybody. He would show you note for note how to make
Much of the music scene in those days was across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas where there were a number of clubs and other drinking and gambling houses
centered an 7th and 8th Streets and all of them helped support a number of blues musicians. Many of the players who recorded for Sam Phillips worked at Jack Brown's club while Joe Hill Louis held sway at nearby Suggs cafe. The Be-Bop Hall was where the ''better''
musicians played, according to local musician Bo Pete, who gave as examples the likes of George Coleman and Billy ''Red'' Love.
In 1951 Sam Phillips was very busy in
his part-time studio (the Memphis Recording Service), recording as much of the local blues and rhythm and blues talent as he could. He had not yet started his Sun label and leased most of his product to Chess and RPM/Modern. Billy Love did some session work
for Phillips, backing Walter Horton, Rufus Thomas and Willie Nix, before he got the chance to cut his own record as a singer-pianist. This resulted in the storming drinking song "Juiced", probably cut on July 24, 1951. Phillips was under pressure from Chess
to come up with a good follow-up for Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" (a number 1 rhythm and blues record, produced by Phillips, his first big success), after "My Real Gone Rocket" had bombed. It was decided to issue "Juiced" under Jackie Brenston's name (Chess
1472). Brenston was a better sax player than a singer and hardly had time for recording, as he was in constant demand on the road. Love was a better singer, wrote his own songs and played a mean piano. "Juiced" was the finest record that Jackie Brenston never
made - and that Billy Love was never credited with making. But it did not chart. Love's next session took place in October or November 1951 and yielded three songs, two of which, "Drop Top" and "You're Gonna Cry" were issued as a Chess single (1508), this
time credited to "Billy 'Red' Love and his orchestra". "Drop Top" was in the same uninhibited style as "Juiced", an attempt to follow in the slipstream of "Rocket 88". There were four sessions in 1952, but only one single was released, "My Teddy Bear Baby"/"Poor
Man" (Chess 1516, now very rare). These two singles seem to have received very little promotional support from Chess and sold poorly. Through 1952 (the year in which Sun Records was launched), Love continued to work as a session pianist at Phillips's studio,
but Sam's files are completely silent on Billy Love for the whole of 1953.
On January 19, 1954 Love returned to the Sun studio with a new band and cut five titles. He
must have had a real expectation of seeing his first Sun record out in the spring, and so must Sam Phillips, who scheduled "Hey Now" and "Way After Midnight" for release on Sun 205, registering their copyrights with BMI that May. Sam assigned Sun master numbers
to the two titles (U 118 and U 119), but the record did not appear with the May batch of Sun discs. By July, the first record by Elvis Presley had been released on Sun 209 and Phillips was too busy promoting his hot new property to release Love's disc. It
was the beginning of the end for most blues and rhythm and blues singers at Sun and particularly so for Love who had a reputation for unreliability. Phillips told Martin Hawkins: "Billy Love was a supergood musician but he didn't have the gut desire to succeed.
Not that he didn't want to, but I didn't have time to waste and I think Billy's problem was lack of patience and devotion to what he was doing. He played well but there is a kind of dedication and belief in your music that extends beyond the doors of the studio.
He did not have that."
One more session was recorded at the Sun studio, resulting in "Blues Leave Me Alone" and the promotional record "Hart's Bread Boogie" for the Hart's
bakery in Memphis (released on Harts H B-66). Pat Hare played guitar on that session; Billy played piano on Hare's "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (recorded May 14, 1954, originally unreleased).
Around this time Love had joined Rosco Gordon's band and he spent a good part of the 1954-1956 years travelling with Gordon, who re-signed with Sun in 1956 (that's Billy playing piano on "Shoobie Oobie"). In 1957 Love disappeared from Memphis
and nobody knew where he had gone. It later turned out that he had relocated to Colorado Springs, playing at Duncan's Cotton Club. He was still living there when he got in trouble with the law in January 1974, accused of selling heroin and possessing an illegal
weapon, but apparently this did not lead to a jail sentence.
Love's luck ran out the next year. Milton Morse (Billy ''Red'') Love passed away on Friday May 2, 1975 and
was buried at the Memphis National Cemetery. "Drank himself to death", according to Rosco Gordon. (MH)
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