It's hard to say just where Billy Vera went wrong.
It might have been that name—Vera—taken from a childhood girlfriend. "It sounded like a rock 'n' roll name to me," shrugs Billy. Or maybe the rumpled image Billy projects. "I've tried to spiff him up a little, but to no avail," sighs a PR man from his record company. "It's like he gets his trousers out of a time machine." Most likely it has something to do with Billy's attitude toward music. Yield to fads? "I'd rather open a deli," he says.
Whatever the reason, Billy has had a dry spell between hits. Twenty years dry. Dry enough to make him jump when a producer from TV's Family Ties approached him in L.A.'s At My Place after hearing 42-year-old Billy sing one of his old songs. Michael J. Fox's Family Ties character, Alex, was going to fall in love in a future episode, and Vera's At This Moment might provide the perfect piano-and-teardrops background music, said the producer. Billy readily agreed, then ran to Rhino Records, a small Santa Monica-based company, and asked them to reissue the six-year-old recording. "You might get lucky," he said.
They did. Vera's love ballad was eventually used on three Family Ties broadcasts, generated 9,000 phone calls from viewers and by the end of January had become the No. 1 single in the U.S. It has also pulled its accompanying album, By Request: The Best of Billy Vera & the Beaters, into the Top 20. "There's no payola on this record; it only did what it did because people heard it on the air," says Billy of his hit. "That's what makes it all the sweeter."
That and, of course, the long drought that preceded it. Vera's dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom began in his teens in New York's Westchester County. His father, William McCord, was a game-show announcer for NBC-TV, his mother, Ann, a former backup singer for Ray Charles and Perry Como. As a would-be songwriter, Billy Jr. had his first success at 16, when Ozzie Nelson chose a song he had penned, Mean Old World, and gave it to his son Ricky to record. ("I was a little mad at first," says Vera. "I had written the song with Dionne Warwick in mind.") Then in 1967 Vera had a hit of his own with Storybook Children, a duet he recorded with Warwick's cousin, Judy Clay. He followed a year later with another popular single, Country Girl-City Man—then dropped off the charts and into his wilderness years.
Vera joined the oldies circuit as musical conductor for the Shirelles and Ronettes, took up acting—and kept cutting records. By 1985 he was almost $500,000 in debt, thanks to salary advances from Warner Bros., where he spent four years (1979-1983) as a contract songwriter, and from the production costs of his failed LPs.
Vera's sudden turnaround has allowed him to start paying back some of those bills and to buy the $156,000 Hollywood cottage that he now shares with his collection of 35,000 records. Soon new fans will be able to see him in Blind Date, a feature film starring his pal (and sometime harmonica accompanist) Bruce Willis
, and to hear him on a second "new" six-year-old single, I Can Take Care of Myself. Figures Billy: "The trick now is to get another hit. If I make three of four bombs in a row, or maybe one or two, then it's back to the clubs for Billy."