Interview with Billy Morris of Tuff (Part 1 of 3)
Date: October 8, 2015
Interviewer: Greg Troyan of Lipstick
BILLY MORRIS MAY BE THE CURRENT GUITARIST FOR TUFF, BUT THE MAN IS MUCH MORE THAN JUST THE LEAD GUITARIST FOR THE BAND. BILLY’S LONG AND ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER BOASTS AN EXTENSIVE AND IMPRESSIVE RESUME THAT INCLUDES STINTS IN WARRANT, QUIET RIOT, LIPSTICK, PAUL GILBERT’S BACKING BAND AND FRANK DIMINO’S (OF ANGEL) BACKING BAND. MOST RECENTLY, BILLY’S GUITAR PLAYING ON THE DEBUT LIPSTICK ALBUM HAS BEEN GETTING RAVE REVIEWS, HE’S STARTED A SUCCESSFUL FOOD TRUCK BUSINESS, PLAYED A FEW TRIBUTE SHOWS TO JANI LANE AND HAS BEEN PLAYING FESTIVALS WITH TUFF, AND HE DOES ALL OF THIS WHILE RAISING TWO KIDS. THE MAN IS A CLOSE FRIEND OF MINE WHOM I’VE KNOWN FOR ALMOST A DECADE, AND HE HAS A LOT OF GREAT STORIES TO SHARE. SO, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, HERE IS MY INTERVIEW WITH BILLY MORRIS. THIS IS GREG TROYAN REPORTING FOR SLEAZE ROXX.
Sleaze Roxx: Okay, Billy, do you wanna introduce yourself to the readers of Sleaze Roxx?
Billy Morris: Sure. My name is Billy Morris. I’m the King of the Night Time World [laughs]. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio and I’ve played guitar for some bands in the past. I’ve got some upcoming shows I’d like to talk about, and if there’s anything you’d like to talk to me about or ask me about, I’ll tell you the truth and give you the dirt. So, Greg, don’t be a pussy and ask me some good questions.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Fair enough. Let’s start with your early years and talk a bit about growing up in a musical household.
Billy Morris: Well, my father was a lead guitar player in a rock n’ roll band in the mid ’60s. The day I was born, he pat me on the head and drove in his car to Las Vegas for a gig. He stayed around when I was born to make sure I was okay and that all my toes and fingers were there, and then he went back on the road with his band. Even before that, my grandmother was a clarinet player and a saxophone player, and before that my great-grandparents had radio shows in Cleveland and were piano movers and musicians, so music was in my blood. I was a young kid in a house being raised by a guitar player, so I started fiddling around on the guitar when I was three years old. When I was six years old, I performed at the local carnival. I performed “Johnny B. Goode”, lead guitar and lead vocals at age six. I continued to play guitar, taught by my father, big Bill Morris, and when I was 14, I joined my mom’s all occasion wedding band. She’s the one who really taught me how to perform onstage. She taught me about volume and dynamics and how to make the set flow. She was a keyboard player that played bass with her left hand, keyboards with her right hand and also did lead vocals. I backed her up as a 14 year old kid.
When I got my driver’s license and I discovered Judas Priest and Def Leppard and MTV in 1982 or 1983, whenever I got my license, I left my mom’s band and joined a high school heavy metal band. And I’ve been playing rock n’ roll my entire life. I’ve never had a day job, although I have had several unsuccessful attempts at an alternative to music lifestyle. It’s not completely removed from music. I’ve owned a couple nightclubs and a couple recording studios throughout my life, but I’ve always played music alongside that to carry me. I’m just doing music now, no clubs, no studios, just my music. But, I will tell you this, my latest endeavor, as long as we’re doing the complete history of Billy Morris, is my food truck that I just started. It’s called “Smokin’ Rock N Roll” and you can find us on Facebook. My partner in that is Todd Chaisson of the ’80s hair metal band Tuff. So that’s what I’m doing right now. And my local band in Cleveland is called Sunset Strip, and we do a tribute to the ’80s, and we’re also on Facebook.
Sleaze Roxx: Cool. Well, you saved me the trouble of asking you to plug those things at the end of the interview, so go team go! So, I’d like you to go through some of the bands you were in and touch on them, and I feel a good place to start is Kidd Wicked.
Billy Morris: Well, the band started off when I decided that I wanted to front my own my band. I wanted to be the lead singer and frontman, so I left the band I was in and partnered up with a guy named Mike Szuter. He was the guy who helped convince me to quit the successful metal band I was in and go out on my own and he was my guitar player for Kidd Wicked. He’s actually the one who came up with the name Kidd Wicked. He said, “You’re Billy the Kid! You’ve got to call this band Kidd Wicked!” And I went, “That’s a GREAT name!”
So he’s the one who came up with the name Kidd Wicked, and then I found out years later that Sebastian Bach had a Kidd Wicked in Canada. But we didn’t know that. There was no internet back then. There were a few hard feelings from Sebastian later on in the Kidd Wicked career, but anyway, that’s how the band started. Mike Szuter and I got up in my parent’s barn, wrote 12 original songs, came out and took Cleveland by storm. And that was 1989.
Sleaze Roxx: So, talk to us a bit more about the thing with Sebastian Bach.
Billy Morris: Well, that was a few years later in the mid ’90s. Sebastian Bach had quit Skid Row and was doing a solo tour. So, the local concert venue here, the world famous Cleveland Agora, called me up and asked me, “How would you like to open for Sebastian Bach?” I’m like, “Hell yeah! I’m a huge Sebastian Bach fan and a huge Skid Row fan!” So, we promoted the show and made flyers. That was back in the day of passing flyers out and making phone calls. It was word of mouth, flyers and phone calls, you couldn’t just make a Facebook post like you do today. We did everything we could to promote that show.
Anyway, early the day of the show, I got a phone call from the promoter and he said to me, “Hey, Sebastian Bach just got here, and he’s got a problem with you playing with him because he thinks you’re trying to ride his coattails.” So, I went down there to try and talk it out with him, and he would not come off the bus to try to discuss it. His band members were telling me that it was a “dick move” and they were basically primadoma little pricks. I ended up not playing the show, and just went home. I felt bad, ya know? I was never trying to ride Sebastian Bach’s coattails. I really would’ve liked to have met the guy and tell him what a huge fan of his I was and how much I loved his singing and what an honor it was to share the stage with him. So, all in all, it was a bad night for me and I was bummed out. But I still love listening to those Skid Row records, and I got a chance to meet Scotti Hill from Skid Row and we’re very good friends now. Whenever Skid Row comes through Cleveland — ironically they did the Cleveland Agora last time — my band opened for them and we get along really well, so I guess that it all worked out in the end.
Sleaze Roxx: I know that you have some other memorable stories about flamboyant frontmen you’ve been asked to open for, so I’d like you to tell me about your experience opening for David Lee Roth.
Billy Morris: [Laughs] So, like I said, Kidd Wicked was very popular, and it was the Cleveland Agora and David Lee Roth was booked in the theater. You know, I got the call that said, “Hey, we want you to open for David Lee Roth.” This was in the early ’90s. So, it was the night before the big Kidd Wicked/David Lee Roth show at the Cleveland Agora, and I said to myself, “I’m gonna go find this guy. He’s like my rock hero — Van Halen, David Lee Roth. I’m gonna go find this guy.” So, I went to Cleveland’s high price adult entertainment bar, at the time it was called Tiffany’s, and I walked in, and holy shit, there’s David Lee Roth. So I waited for the time to be right, and nobody was around except for his big security guy, and I walked up to him and said, “Dave, my name’s Billy Morris. I don’t wanna bother ya, I just wanna say I’m opening for you tomorrow night. It’s an honor, I wanted to shake your hand and introduce myself.”
And right when I said that, we both looked at the stage, and this girl was doing this fire entertainment show with lighter fluid and flames, and she spilled it on her and she was on fire. This chick was burning up on the stage and the security guys are up there beating her with carpets and stuff to put the fire out. And David Lee Roth and I are just looking at this with our jaws wide open and it smelled awful. Burning flesh does not smell good. And she was really hurt bad. And, I tell this story the same every time: I bet if you ask David Lee Roth, “Have you ever met Billy Morris?”, he’d probably ask who that is. But if you asked him, “Did you ever see a girl in Cleveland go up in flames onstage?” he’d definitely remember that, because there’s no way you can forget that.
Sleaze Roxx: So, a lot of people know you primarily for your work in the ’80s hard rock and metal scene, and a lot of people look at you as an ’80s metal kinda guy. I know that you’re also into a lot of pop punk stuff. I also know that a fun fact that many people don’t know about you is that you were in a Nirvana tribute band for a bit in the ’90s, so I was hoping you could talk about that band for a little bit.
Billy Morris: So, Kidd Wicked was playing gigs around Cleveland, doing our thing, and we got a call from a local place called the Odeon asking us to open for a regional KISS tribute band called Strutter. It was a chance to play in front of 1,000 people and play our original music, so we opened for Strutter. So, we went up onstage and did a great job. You know, we did what we do, and after the show, we watched Strutter. I was friends with the guys in that band and it was great to see them play, and after the show we got to meet their booking agent. His name was Greg St. Charles. And we said to him, “Man, we want you to book us regionally. We want to go out on the road!”
And he said to us, “Well look, your original music’s great, but that’s not what I do. I can’t book your original band anywhere. But, you, Billy, you look just like Kurt Cobain, who just killed himself. If you guys would consider putting together a couple sets of Nirvana music, I can book you all over the midwest at all the college bars on a circuit.”
And we were like, “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s get out of town.” So, we decided to do this. The guy booked like a week of shows. We called the band Teen Spirit. I got a sweater from my grandfather and bought a Fender guitar like Kurt’s, and on the way to the first gig, I started learning the songs. No lie, I started learning the lyrics on the way to the gig. The very first show was a bunch of lyric sheets out on the floor and me reading the lyrics. That’s how little time we put into this. But we killed it at all the college towns. We would play a city that didn’t have a college in it, and nobody would show up, but we’d go one hour down the street to Alabama University, and it would be sold out, line out the door, slam dancing, making a ton of money and ultimately that gig end up changing a lot things for me. Before that gig, Kidd Wicked was my first priority, but the Nirvana gig shifted that because the guys in the band got a little taste of the road and a little taste of some money, and it was hard to come off the road and go back to playing original music for basically not a lot of money.
And I didn’t know that at the time. I still continue to write songs and make CDs and try, but now that I look back at those days, that was the end of an era of how the ’80s were to me, because they carried over into the early ’90s. To live that ’80s glam rock, go out and play original music and party all night and sleep all day thing kinda was over at that time now that I look back at it, so that kinda signified a different angle to my music career.
Sleaze Roxx: Speaking of other angles to your career, let’s talk about Paul Gilbert for a bit.
Billy Morris: Well, I have to owe it my good friend Mike Szuter, who started Kidd Wicked with me. He was in a very popular local band called Out Of The Blue that later changed their name to The Szuters. His brother CJ gave a cassette to Russ Parrish, the lead guitar player for Steel Panther, who goes by Satchel now. Back then, Russ was living with Paul at the time, and Russ got this cassette from CJ Szuter and listened to it, liked it, and set it on the kitchen table and then Paul Gilbert grabbed it and absolutely LOVED it. So Paul started producing the Szuters and got them a Japanese record deal and that was my first connection to Paul, and the Szuter brothers moved out to Vegas. In the past, the Szuter brothers had recorded all of their demos and most of their stuff in my studio, because we were friends and back in the day I had 16 track analog tape machine, and we spent hours down there recording and singing and playing lead guitar. But anyway, that’s how the Szuter brothers got to know Paul Gilbert.
Down the line, Paul was gonna do a Japanese tour for his album ‘Flying Dog.’ It was more poppy. It wasn’t like Racer X. It was double lead shredding solos, and sometimes there were five part vocal harmonies, but if you go back and listen to that ‘Flying Dog’ album, it was really poppy and really commercial, which is the kind of music that Paul likes. It was a lot like Out Of The Blue and The Szuters. So, he did the whole album, the record was done, and he went to Mike Szuter and said, “Hey, I need a second guitar player to go out on tour with me. But he’s gotta be able to play all the guitar parts, he has to be able to sing the harmony parts, and he has to have long hair.” And Mike instantly said, “I’ve got the guy! Billy Morris!”
So Mike gave Paul one of my original Kidd Wicked CDs. Paul listened to it and I got an email from Paul that said, “Hey, I’m going out on tour in Japan and Korea. Would you like to play guitar with me? But, the stipulations are that you have to wear a really wacky suit.” And he was being really wacky Paul, but imagine that, getting an email saying, “Hey, I’m Paul Gilbert, would you like to go to Japan and Korea with me?” Yeah, I’m on my way [laughs].
So yeah, I got that gig and I lived with Paul for about three weeks. We practiced everyday. Sometimes, there were five part harmonies. There was another lead guitar player named Scotty Johnson. We did like three way guitar harmonies and guitar battles and all kinds of stuff like that. And Paul’s mother-in-law made us these really crazy wacky suits out of this stupid material that I have to describe as something you would make drapes out of. It was brown and metallic silver. I still have the suit to this day. I’m thinking about putting it on eBay. It’d probably get me about fifty bucks [laughs].
So that was the Paul Gilbert thing. I got to tour in Japan and Korea, which was awesome. Then they decided that they were going to do a live record, so I signed contracts for them and I got paid very nicely to perform on the live record. A couple months later, I’m back in Cleveland and I get a letter in the mail from Paul’s management, and it was another hefty check because they decided to do a DVD, so they paid me to be on the DVD. It was a part of my life that I am very proud of. To be able to perform with Paul Gilbert and be on his live CD and live DVD was amazing.
Sleaze Roxx: Awesome. So, I want to touch on the Warrant thing, and your tenure in that band.
Stay tuned for Part 2 which will be posted on October 9, 2015.