Renowned blues-rock guitar virtuoso Billy Hector, known for his versatile style, joins forces with lifelong partner and collaborator Suzan Lastovica to unveil their highly anticipated album, Now and Then. This 11-track album invites listeners on a captivating journey through the history of Billy and Suzan’s remarkable career, showcasing their deep-rooted passion for the music that has shaped their lives.
Musicians: Billy Hector (guitar, vocals), Suzan Lastovica (vocals), Tim Tindall (bass), Chris Plunkett (bass), Winston Roye (bass), Dan Hickey (drums), Lee Finklestein (drums), Van Romaine (drums), Ernest Carter (drums), Sim Cain (drums), Larry Crockett (drums), David Nunez (B-3, piano), Arne Wendt (keys), Steve Jankowski (trumpet), Tommy LaBella (saxophone)
Cristy Benvenutti, President of the North Jersey Blues Society, interviewed Billy Hector on September 22, 2023. Below is their conversation.
NJBS: Well, thanks for joining me today. I appreciate it. You have a new release, "Now and Then" featuring three original tracks and eight covers. Talk about how you put the concept together for this album.
Billy: Well, it’s not really a concept album, we've been in the studio on and off for the last 15 to 20 years….we record stuff as often as we can, some stuff gets used, some doesn’t. And so we had a lot of material lying around unfinished. Basic tracks are from now and some time ago, hence the title, “Now and Then”. We had just released “Rock Night in Jersey” a year ago which was a more conceptualized effort, so this release was actually not planned, it was more like there were a bunch of crumbs that fell off the table; we just picked them up and used them to make a new CD.
NJBS: I love the three originals. “Tell Me Baby” I thought had an Albert King influence in there.
Billy: Yeah, maybe so, Albert certainly has influenced my playing, but really it's a bunch of guys. The harp player, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Caledonia triplets are fun, [laughter] James Brown used them, we use them too! And Dan Hickey and Tim Tindall just played very well on that. We play those kinds of shuffles all the time and they just really nailed it. So that's really why it sounds so much fun. [laughter]
NJBS: I thought the “Justice Is a Slow Train” was definitely your sound.
Billy: Thank you. That's a little bit of Allman Brothers, and little things going on there…some folk music. Put it all together, you know, little pieces from here and there. I once heard a newscaster say that “justice is a slow train coming and when it gets there, it's right on time” and I thought that was a great title. This is an example of some of those crumbs left from 15 years ago, or so…..turned out nice, I’m glad you liked it.
NJBS: Appropriate for today, too. [laughter] I see the album was recorded at Jankland Studios. Have you recorded with them before?
Billy: Yes, I have. Steve Jankowski’s place. Steve is the trumpet player for Nile Roger’s band Chic so he is often out on tour but when he is home we try to get in there and get stuff done, there’s much we can do!
NJBS: How long did it take to put the release together?
Billy: Since it really was like fixing your broken toys, putting new ones together, etc. There are basics that were recorded a decade or so ago. So the final song list took a couple of months to come together. This is probably our, at least, 20th release. We’ve seen many changes in the recording process from our little home studio in the garage with ¼ tape on a 388 to ADAT light pipe to DAW recording to pro studios such as The House of Music or Lakehouse or Jankland. From vinyl to cassette, CDs to streaming. And with that transition to digital, and the move to streaming music, the opportunity for musicians to make meaningful revenue from the music they create is compromised. Things need to change to a more equitable solution for the musicians who create the music that is streaming on platforms such as Spotify and the like.
NJBS: Who would you say were some of your biggest influences for you to get into blues?
Billy: Freddie King. The Allman Brothers were big, and Clapton was big. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, and Leon Russell ….. Basically, any music I was hearing from 1966 to 1973 had a big influence on me. People who played blues-influenced guitar were on the cutting edge of music at that time. It was a very exciting time.
NJBS: How would you say your sound has evolved over the years?
Billy: Well, aside from being a more mature player, I’d say it has changed from playing
in every musical situation I’ve been in, every band, every player. From garage bands to horn bands to a new wave band to the blues bands I’ve been in. All those experiences have led me to be the player I am today. I walked the line between rock and roll and blues, and now it comes to a point where I care, but I don't care. The thing is to play. And play what's in your heart basically. If you can read the crowd, try to play what they're doing and create the energy. That is so much fun to be in.
NJBS: Well, you're good at it, too. You were very fortunate.
Billy: Yes, that don't mean a thing. [laughter] That don't mean anything. [laughter] You got to go out there and sell yourself. Somehow, we did it. When the Renegades folded, we got Billy Lilley, Timmy Tindall and Steve Schraeger . And we were playing as The Fairlanes band because we didn't want to have blues in the title, as that would guarantee you will not be able to find work. We were just The Fairlanes, maybe we could sneak in and see what happens….. make the folks dance. And then we got Suzan in the band.
NJBS: The Queen
Billy: Yeah, the Queen was playing with us. We started to see more women coming out to the shows and that brought more guys out to the shows and soon, in the mid-80’s this is, The Fairlanes became pretty popular. It was an interesting line-up with Ernest Carter on drums, Tim Tindall on bass, Billy Lilley on harmonica and vocals and Suzan on rhythm guitar and vocals. We were turning over the house at the Stanhope House to do two shows on a Saturday night ‘cause
there’d be too many folks that couldn’t get in. We were doing well at the Stanhope House and we
were doing well at Wallace’s. Mikey, the manager of Wallace's started hiring a few blues masters from Chicago, Otis Rush being one, and then a blues scene started happening in New
Jersey. Frankie Lee and Sonny Rhodes came to Jersey. Asbury Park started a blues society, JSJBS. There was a renewed interest in the blues in the air and we were right there bringing the party to wherever we played. We kept the party going but we didn’t just play fast shuffles that people could dance to; we could hit them with Suzan singing a slow blues like “It Hurts Me Too” with a groove so low down in the basement that you just wanna stay there forever……They couldn't define the genre. They would just dig it, you know. So, that's what I was hoping for.
NJBS: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Billy: Find a good parking space, order the food, and load in. That’s basically it.[laughter] Get there an hour and a half before showtime. That's the big pregame thing. Make sure you have the players on the gig. Make sure you give them the right date. Those little things. Get any one of those wrong, there’s trouble.
NJBS: I see that you play a vintage Fender Stratocaster. Can you tell us how you got that and what the story is behind it?
Billy: When I was in a band with my friends Joe Formata and Tony Pickerel, I had a Harmony Stratotone that my father got for $25. It was a great guitar, actually. But it wasn't a name guitar. It wasn't a Gibson or a Fender, and at that time those were the guitars to have. My friends told me, “If you don't talk to your father and get a real guitar, you're out of this band.” So, I talked to my father and got him to go down to Rondo's Music with me and we got a Stratocaster for $230 with a vibrato arm, $300 with the case. That was 1973 and I've been playing it ever since. When I was about 24, I broke the headstock on it while in Hot Romance, the new wave band. I was driving for an auto parts store during the day and playing music at night. So, I’d get really tired. I was working day and night. So, we’re playin’ this place called the Dutch Mill Inn in Seaside. A go-go stage, which means the stage where we played was inside the perimeter of the bar which encircled the room. In order to set up the PA we had to carry it over the bar to the stage where we each had an elevated platform, each separated by a cash register station and the stacked bottles of liquor. It was just really a tight space and three things converged on my 24-year-old self…number 1; I was completely fatigued from working day and night; number 2; we had to lift all our equipment OVER the bar; everything: drums, amps, etc… and number 3; my MXR distortion pedal was messing up and I was on caffeine pills and liquor which was making my stomach ache and I just lost my cool and threw my guitar on the ground and broke the headstock. Unfortunately, it hit the bottom of the microphone stand and I immediately felt remorse….I knew I fucked up. That's how that happened. Of course, I fixed that guitar and have been playing it for 50 years. And the frets started going. Guys wouldn't even re-fret it. But I had one of my guys re-fret it and I got another neck. So that's my main guitar. I play it all the time.
NJBS: We were talking about albums before. If you're stuck on an island and you can only bring three albums with you, which three albums would you bring?
Billy: Let me see. Well, I guess the first Freddie King record – Just Pickin’ - the Ray Charles box set, and maybe Exile on Main Street, I'm not sure. Maybe ZZ Top’s Rio Grande … That's a tough one. Listing the Ray Charles set is kinda cheating cuz it’s 3 discs….but that’s a thing. What do I listen to mostly? Mississippi John Hurt, I like him. He’s mellow. I listened to him a lot when I was a kid. Bought his Last Sessions record as a curiosity buy when I was 13 and got hooked. But there was no one I knew that was into him like I was. He was too country for my hardcore blues friends. But now, more and more sounds have melted into the “Americana” genre.
NJBS: It's almost like they're trying to relabel everything as something generic
Billy: Yeah, people have their views of what it is. And now there's so many genres, so many channels to choose from. There are so many facets or diamonds in there from EDM to blues. Blues is taking more things in. Just because it has to happen. I mean just look at the artist line-up in the Vegas Blues Bender. That's a wide range of artists on the bill, say from Samantha Fish to Eric Gales is a very different thing. Totally different. And if I was playing like that in the 80s, they would not call that blues, right? Actually, I WAS playing a little bit like that [laughter]. They would never call Hendrix blues at that time. Now they do.
NJBS: Do you have any words of wisdom for any up-and-coming bands trying to make it in the music business?
Billy: Just build your following. Really get that happening. Go out there on your gigs and shake hands with people, get them on your mailing list. Get people to love you. You got to engage them. When I started out I went to every table with a clipboard signing people up on our mailing list. We grew that list to several thousand people and that was our way of building an audience which is essential to any band’s success. Today’s tools are a bit different of course…
NJBS: Marketing is much different now.
Billy: Yes, marketing is much different now. You can hit more people, but still, you have to get them to come out and support you and the venue. Because whatever venue you are working in, you are partners with them. You have to make them money. It's a tough thing and it's a tough thing to realize. When you have a talent, you think that maybe the world owes you everything. But it doesn't work like that. You have to partner with these guys. Make sure that you're not hurting them, they're not hurting you financially and have everybody come in and spend their money and make it a scene. The main thing is to get people that want to hear you play. You need an audience. I went to a seminar and Dizzy Gillespie was there and he says all you need is an audience that'll listen to your music and that want to hear you the rest of their life. I said, yeah, that sounds simple. [laughter] That's how he simplified it and really that is what it is. You have to know your audience and know what they want and hopefully, they like you and what you're selling. Keep them in your loop. Engage with them because now you can do that. Right now you can. It's unreal. Before we were putting stamps on postcards and just praying that the folks would show. When you do your shows, get their email. Set up a little table to sell your product and/or get contact info. I walked around with a board and asked people sitting at the bar. Or if you had a friend that would do it. Street teams, you really need that stuff. I met a young sound man way back who told me to get a bunch of Billy Hector cassettes made, go to a Black Crows show and hand them out to the people on line. That was a way of doing it before streaming. You're gonna take it on the chin for at least five years.[laughter] Something like that.
NJBS: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?
Billy: I ride my bicycle. I ride to keep myself healthy. I play a little piano. I also draw a bit.
NJBS: Well, those are all the questions I had for you. Thank you for your time.
Billy: All right. Well, what else do I have to say? Come out and enjoy our show whenever you can. If you want the band's music, buy it from them. Buy their CD, even if you don't have a CD player, just to help keep them going, or buy a t-shirt rather than buying them a drink. I mean you can buy them a drink too, but that’s icing on the cake. I thank everybody for supporting us all these years. You guys and gals are great. This is just what I wanted to do. I got what I wanted. I wanted to make a living playing guitar and so far it’s been a good plan and we're still going forward with that plan. Thank you everybody. I love you. Thank you so much.