By Jeb Wright
Billy Greer is a good bass player who happens to be a great singer. He has spent most of his career in the shadows of other great singers, actually, one great singer…Steve Walsh of Kansas fame. Billy has been in two bands with Walsh, Kansas and Streets. In was Streets that ended up being the road to Kansas. In order to get out of the shadow, he started the band Seventh Key as a project with his Streets band mate Mike Slamer. Now, they have released a new CD titled I Will Survive that is without a doubt the best album Seventh Key has ever released. The songs are progressive in nature, and have a Kanas vibe, yet retain their own style.
In the interview that follows, Greer discusses Seventh Key, revealing how the band got its mysterious name, as well as how he joined Streets and Kansas…and how he reacted when Steve Morse flew him in his private plane to take him to an audition!
Jeb: Seventh Key has made the best album in their career. I am a big Kansas guy, in fact, my Grandparent’s house was next to Rich Williams’s parent’s house.
Billy: In Topeka?
Jeb: Yes, I grew up in Topeka right as Kansas hit the big time, so, I was there.
Billy: You did the Goldmine cover story on Kansas this year for the 40th anniversary. We appreciate you doing that. The only regret on the 40th anniversary was that Robby Steinhardt had a heart attack about a week before the concert. I was really looking forward to seeing and hearing the original band because I never got to see them. Before, when Steve [Walsh] was in the band, they never were in the area when I was in the area. I was playing a club gig or something and never got to see them. The only time I ever saw Kansas minus Steve Walsh was when John Elefante joined the band. They were doing their first dress rehearsal for the Drastic Measures tour. I thought, finally, I would see a song or two with all six original guys but then Robby got sick and he ended up in the hospital for 52 days. We’re lucky to still have that guy.
Jeb: What was it like in Pittsburgh when you did the official 40th anniversary?
Billy: I think about it now, and it was really a long, long day and it was a lot of hard work getting prepared for it, mostly on Phil’s [Ehart] part and on the crew, but really on all of us… but if you were a fan of the band, and you got to see sound check and you got to see the show, and then the band came out and signed autographs and met everyone…if you’re a fan of Kansas it was like a dream come true. They were able to get autographs. People have been trying to get Dave’s [Hope] autograph for years. Dave fell off the charts and has been a priest in Florida for years. A lot of people had albums with everyone’s autograph but Dave’s so they were thrilled to finally meet and get Dave’s autograph. It was the same thing with Kerry [Livgren]. They really put themselves out there and the entire band was accessible. People found out where we were staying and they showed up there. A couple of blocks away there was a Wheathead convention with the hardcore fans. We played two sets, one with an orchestra and then Dave and Kerry joined us for a couple of songs, and it was pretty special.
Jeb: For the last many years, you have been the emcee of the band.
Billy: Robby was the front man, and his shoes were big shoes to fill. He was a great front man and he was very eloquent and well spoken. Filling his shoes was difficult, both figuratively and literally, as he has very large feet; they are huge! I think he has size 14s, or something like that.
It took a while to get used to being the front guy. I was Elmer Fudd at first and then I turned into Mel Tillis and stuttered and stammered, but I finally got it down. I have been accepted for the most part but there are a few hardcore fans out there that think Dave Hope can be the only bass player for Kansas, and that I am an imposter. David Ragsdale has that too because the hardcore guys think Robby is the only violinist that can ever be in Kansas. That’s fine if they want to think that, I don’t care. I have been around for a few years…three decades or so [laughter].
Jeb: I was a big fan of Kansas and then I followed Streets, Steve Walsh’s band that you were in, and I like Seventh Key as well. I think the new Seventh Key is the best album that band has ever done, and I don’t think it is even close.
Billy: I won’t disagree with you, to be honest. A lot of people I have been interviewing with are telling me this is our best album. We took a hell of a long time to record this album. Some of the songs dated back to 2008 when Mike Slamer and I started working on material. We had a lot of distractions with health issues with our families. Mike’s dad passed away, and his mother in law passed away and his father in law had health issues during that time. I also recorded Native Window with the other guys in Kansas and that took about six months of my life. Mike was also busy mixing a few other projects. When time allowed I would go out to LA on different occasions. I probably went out there ten times. If Kansas had gigs out there I would just stay over and write and record after our gigs. It took a long time, but we finally got it made.
Jeb: The interesting thing is that this sounds like an album, yet it was created over many years and many miles of travels. It has to be tough to get that feeling of cohesiveness when you create the album in that manner.
Billy: That is the tough part. With Native Window, we had all four of us in the studio at the same time and we had instant feedback as we were writing and recording. Mike and I were challenged on this Seventh Key album. Mike was able to work his magic and make it sound like it was a group of musicians who were in the studio at the same time, even though that was not always the case. He makes a great sounding record.
Jeb: There is a very strong Kansas influence on this one. “I Will Survive” would be very welcome on a new Kansas record.
Billy: I have heard that a lot [laughter]. I have been with the band for 29 years almost, so I am bound to have been inspired at some point. I have worked in the studio with Kerry and Steve and I know how much they concentrate on the musical parts, the melody and having the right lyrics. Mike and I rewrote every song on I Will Survive a couple of times. I was done with the album two or three years ago, but Mike kept working on it. He would send me tracks and tell me where he changed a note here or there and he would tell me that I needed to add a new vocal here or there. I had to go out and get the same microphone configuration that we were using in Los Angeles so that I could make the changes when he would change a chord. He would tell me, “I changed this chord and now you need to sing these notes over for the vocal line.” I would then make the changes.
We also used David Ragsdale on this album and that added the Kansas flavor to it as well. David played on four tracks on the album. Mike and I both have a background of progressive music. I am a progressive guy at heart, and we kind of let it shine more on this record. Our basic market for the first two records was more the melodic rock people in Europe and Scandinavia, as that type of music is still really popular there. The US has not kept up with this type of music. At this point of our career we just wanted to make the record that we wanted to make, and this is what came out of us.
I do most of the lyrics and Mike, for the most part, does most of the music. We then collaborate on the middle sections and things. I will bring in a lyric and Mike will refine it and tell me where I need to change things to make the melodies work. The way we write is that we come up with the musical idea, and then we come up with a melody. I am singing nonsense syllables over the musical idea that we’ve recorded and we come up with the verse and chorus patterns. I will get into the studio and start singing into the microphone just scatting and all of the sudden a phrase will pop out of my head. Sometimes, that actually leads me to write a lyric around that phrase. It is pretty weird how it happens. Some lyrics seem to write themselves. Other times, you have to scrape your gums and pull your teeth to get them to come out.
Jeb: In that artistic endeavor you described, you ended up writing some meaningful lyrics.
Billy: I didn’t know what I was writing about and I got to talking about it with Mike and I didn’t have anything in particular that I was trying to convey, but things just came out sounding like what I was going through in my personal life and all of the problems that I was having. I just described everything I was going through, but at the same time I like to leave things open to interpretation. Even though it was describing what I was going through, I feel it still has to come from an imaginary place, because at this point in my career, I am pretty settled and pretty happy. We all have rough times in our lives as we are people, too. We have issues with our parents and our kids and we have rough patches of life like everyone else. I think that is what makes life what it is. It is not a straight line, it is hills and valleys.
I play off of life experiences, but I don’t like to tell people exactly what this song means. It can mean something to someone else and help them. Someone else can hear a different interpretation and it means something to them. I think song lyrics should be like that. I think people should hear them and be able to attach themselves to the song and attach a personal meaning to them and that is very important to me. Then again, there are some songs that are just ridiculously, blatantly schmaltzy and silly.
Jeb: “The Only One” is a good lyrical song.
Billy: That song is the closest one when it comes to the reality of both Mike and my real lives. We’ve both been married a long time. My 25th anniversary is coming up with my wife Kathy and he has been married to Sue for probably 40 years, almost. We are paying tribute to our wives for hanging in there with us and going through all the highs and lows of being married to a rock and roll player and all of the crap you have to go through to have a career in music. It is our ode to our wives. After all of these years and all of the crap, they are still here with us.
Jeb: You are a very strong vocalist. In fact, you sound like Steve Walsh and perhaps you have the best singing voice in Kansas.
Billy: I appreciate that. I will say this: My reason and impetuous of forming Seventh Key in the first place was that I had lived in the shadow of Steve Walsh for many years. Steve is one of rock’s best vocalists ever and he is one of my favorite vocalists. We just re-released the two Streets records. Rock Candy just put them out and premastered the two Streets CDs. I have been listening to those and, my God, Steve and I’s ranges were in the stratosphere and our voices really worked well together. Steve was always the lead vocalist in Streets. Out of frustration, I started Seventh Key. I did have a song that I wrote on the album Power, but I was pretty much told when I joined by Phil Ehart that I needed to run all stuff by Steve, and that kind of shut me down when it came to trying to write for Kansas. I needed my own outlet, and that is where Seventh Key came in. This is my outlet to showcase me as a lead singer and a songwriter.
Jeb: Not only is it an outlet, I will say it again, with I Will Survive you have made a great album.
Billy: If you listened to some of the early rough ideas then you would not recognize them. We had some really great singers on this record too. Billy Trudel and Terry Brock sang on this album. Bobby Capps was on there and he sang all of the really high stuff. He plays with 38 Special. He has got the highest range of anybody I know except for Mickey Thomas, and he rivals him.
Jeb: When you heard the finished record how did you react?
Billy: I was proud of it but I was proud of it a year and a half ago. I was like, “Come on Mike, just let it go and let’s release it.” He would not let it out of the studio until it was as it ended up. Mike is one of the nicest, kindest guys you would ever meet. He is English. He is very unassuming and he is so talented… he just takes his time and he takes forever, but he does it right. He’s got a lot of his production and engineering skills in his first band City Boy, because they did three albums with Mutt Lange producing and Make Shipley engineering. This is when Mutt first moved to England from South Africa and he did three albums with Mike. They still stay in touch. He got a lot of knowledge from those two when it comes to carving out the mix so everything is heard and not muddled up. He has that kind of training from them and he just has great ears. I have a constant ringing in my ears and that is all I can claim. I have tinnitus. But Mike has amazing musical ears.
Jeb: What is the hidden meaning behind the name of the band Seventh Key?
Billy: Well, there is no meaning. I could make up something if you would like. Everyone says, “Billy was the seventh member of Kansas. He was the key they found to fill the void.” I wanted to call the band Billy Greer. The record company said, “Well, you know it will come off more genuine if you have a project name and people think it is a band.” I said, “Call it Your Momma.” They said, “How about we call it Seventh Key?” I said that was fine. When Mike came in then it really did become more of a project and a band. We did a live DVD which was cool. Terry Brock has been on every record too.
Jeb: I like the seventh member of Kansas story.
Billy: Well, then you go with that. I don’t care. We really could call it Your Momma as far as I was concerned. I just really needed an outlet to get it off my chest and I really didn’t care. It did work out good. It is a cool name and it lends itself to a lot of visual things and things that you can imagine that it might mean. I hate to burst the bubble, but it really is just a name that the president of Frontiers record company came up with.
Jeb: Will you and Mike play live? Will you and Mike ever open for Kansas?
Billy: We talk about it all the time but it is a matter of logistics and financing. Mike lives 2,500 miles away from me. David would be easy to play with as he is in Kansas. The drummer we would use was the guy in the video, Eric Holmquist. We would need a guitar player that could sing as well. I have a friend named Barry who lives here in Savannah that could be the guy. Everyone asks me that and it could happen. My obligation and my bread and butter are with Kansas so I can’t tell them that I am taking two months off. I could tell them that but they could also say, “Goodbye.” I could have Seventh Key open up for Kansas like Native Window did. There are some options there. We could do it with guys in the Kansas crew and Mike Slamer and another guitar player. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. I would like to do that.
There was one point back in the ‘90s where Phil thought Kansas would pull the plug in the year 2000 and that gave everybody a wakeup call that this thing will not go on forever. Now, we are in 2013 and that obviously didn’t happen. I have not talked Mike into it yet, and I have not approached Phil about it.
After Streets broke up, Mike ended up in California and started a life out there. His wife had worked for major labels and she had experience in that area. She is a vice president at Sony Publishing. Mike stays in the studio and writes music. He spends 12 to14 hours a day in the studio. He is a very dedicated musician. He makes a good living doing what he does. He produces albums and he has some movie soundtracks and he has collaborated with people. His music is in several different libraries where TV shows go to in order to get background music for their shows.
His wife worked on American Idol as the Musical Supervisor. She cleared all of the publishing so the contestants could sing the songs on the show. They didn’t have any music for when the contestants were voted off…they call it tension music. She told them, “Mike might have something that you might like to listen to.” Mike found this piece of music that just gives you the willies and they ended up using it for five or six years in a row. Music in Prime Time TV makes a ton of money, so he made a small fortune for five or six years. They finally changed the music a few years ago, but he had it for a while. It was just simple little synthesizer and a drum or two that build tension in the air and that is what they were looking for. When the contestants got the yellow cards to go to Hollywood…Mike wrote a two minute song with lyrics and singing. We were in the studio one day and he said, “Would you sing this for me?” We sang this little song about “I’m going to make it” or something like that. He pitched it and they played it in the background…you could barely hear it when it was on the show, but it was there. I made four thousand dollars for a tiny little spot that you could barely hear on this show. It is a very lucrative business. He has a sports channel that uses these little ditties that Mike has written. The theme to the Speed Channel is a song that Mike wrote. I get little royalty checks for this song “Only the Brave” and it shows where the song has been used and it turns out the Atlanta Braves were using that song on their TV show, so I get royalties for that. I got like five dollars when they used it when it went to commercial break. Mike constantly updates his library and does that sort of thing to great success.
Jeb: How did you meet Slamer?
Billy: We met when Steve came to hear my band in Atlanta. Mike was over from England and he was with him. He had drummer Tim Gehrt, who played on Schemer-Dreamer. Tim was from where Steve was from and they were friends from way back. He had gone through a string of bass players. He tried out all of these different bass players and stuff. Mike didn’t sing and Tim could be a third part in a harmony but he was not a strong vocalist. Steve needed a strong backing vocalist and I think that is why I got the job. I have never proclaimed to be a great bass player. I am a decent bass player who has a really good voice and that is how I have always got the job. I was able to sing the high parts and back him up. When I got into Kansas it was the same thing. We were playing in a club in Atlanta with Streets and Phil and Rich came out to see us as the band lives in Atlanta. They knew what I could do, so I didn’t even have to audition.
Jeb: Streets did not get all the respect due.
Billy: I know what it was now. When they interviewed me for the new CDs…I was the only one who was accessible. Steve is pretty much a private guy. I have a website and I have an email there for my fans to get in touch with me. The guys at Rock Candy records wanted to redo the liner notes. They got in touch with Beau Hill who produced the Crimes in Mind album and he did an interview and they got in touch with me through my website. I told them everything the way that I recalled it and as it turns out I didn’t recall it exactly how it really was [laughter]. Beau called me after they got in touch with me, as I had not talked to him since we did the record. Beau corrected me on a few things. I said that he was dating Nina Blackwood who did a cameo in our video. He told me that it was not him, that it was someone else. I asked him what happened with Atlantic Records and he told me that our manager had pissed off the president of the label, Doug Morris, and he said ‘screw this band’. If he didn’t like the manager, then he was known to do that. We kind of got dropped through the cracks.
Jeb: I had no idea.
Billy: I didn’t either, till Beau told me that. He was the favorite son at Atlantic Records at the time. When he came in to do Streets, he was fresh off this multi-platinum record by Ratt. We got our deal with one manager and Doug Morris came to see us and we did a showcase, and he signed us. Steve decided that he didn’t like this manager and we got Derek Sutton, who used to be Styx manager. As it turns out, from what I understand, Derek got into it with Doug and the rest is history. We got pretty much canned. We did the album and there was no push behind it. There are so many people who wonder why that band didn’t do better. I thought we had a good album.
Jeb: You had some radio play with “If Love Should Go” despite that.
Billy: It was Top 40 on AOR. I thought the second record had some commercial tracks on there. We had enough to keep on the label and to keep moving forward. Steve was a big name, but they dropped us like a hot potato.
Jeb: What was the time line between Streets and Steve and you coming to Kansas?
Billy: We did the record and it came out, and there was no tour to speak of. Everything just kind of fell apart and then Steve went off and started touring with Cheap Trick. I moved back to Atlanta because I was depending on a weekly income that had been set up, and then it was not there anymore. I moved back home and started playing with my old club band, who graciously offered me my job back. Around six or eight months had passed and Phil called me and told me that they were putting Kansas back together. He told me Steve Morse was going to be the new guitar player. ..That was a good call. The really unbelievable thing was when they told me that they were sending Steve Morse up to get me. Steve is a pilot and he has an airplane. I lived in this little town of 2000 people and we have a little county airport and Steve flew in and picked me up and we flew to Atlanta to rehearsals.
Jeb: Walsh was one of the best.
Billy: He was, man. He has moments of brilliance and he struggles at times. It is not his fault as we are aging. You lose range and you lose stuff that you used to have in your youth. I guess some singers are able to retain it better than others. Fucking Mickey Thomas is one who has an amazing range and tone. Starship will open up for us sometimes and I see him backstage after this amazing vocal performance and he is lighting up a cigarette. I’m like, “How in the fuck do you do that?” Paul Rodgers is another one, but you can’t smoke anywhere near him. I quit smoking ten years ago, but I was once called out for smoking backstage where he was. I was smoking outside a trailer that was his dressing room and Dave “Bucket” Caldwell was freaking out because I was smoking near the trailer. I understand now how disgusting and horrible it is, but then I could not believe it. Now that I have not done if for ten years, I get it. Sorry Paul!
Jeb: It was awesome that Morse joined the band.
Billy: Steve was a Kansas fan. I was intimidated by Steve. I was into the Dixie Dregs. I was like, “Oh my God, I am going to play in a band with Steve Morse.” They were an Atlanta band and I knew a few of them a bit to say ‘hello.’ I remember when Andy West got his first Steinberger bass. He saw me in the parking lot and he said, “Check out this new bass.” He started beating it on the ground because it was made of graphite. “You can’t break these things.” I was like, “Jesus.” I was well aware of Steve Morse and at first it was very intimidating for me. Steve had to be that third backing vocal in the band and that was something that he had never done before. When we started working on vocals, then I saw that little bit of insecurity in Steve and that made him human to me and that made me able to sit back and relax a little bit. If you could not do something or you could not play 47 notes in a second and half, like he could, then he was very patient with you. He remained that way. He appreciated people for what their strengths were and not for their weaknesses. We ended up co-writing a song together which ended up on the record. It was a Kansas demo for the Power record that ended up not being on. We used it on the first Seventh Key record and it’s called “Every Time it Rains.” Steve and I are good friends. At one point I was doing carpentry to make ends meet and I went out and helped him build an airplane hangar on his farm. Steve is very intelligent. His parents are both clinical psychologists and he is a behaviorist guy. Without fail he would rehearse three to four hours a day on guitar. He would do scales to keep his muscle tone up. He would do it to the point to where it would be irritating as hell as all you hear were these tackity ticks while he would do these fast runs. He would do this while you were talking to him. When he answered you then he would stop and answer, and then go right back into the tackity tick. You would have to talk over his scales [laughter].
Jeb: Steve and Rich were very unique.
Billy: Steve was jealous of Rich’s tone. Rich is the King of Tone and he has that Meat Wall sound. To this day Rich is still the biggest knob dicker I have ever met.
Jeb: Were you a fan of Kansas before you were in Kansas?
Billy: I discovered Kansas when I was a freshman in college. It had to be after that…I guess I was like a junior in college. It was 1974. Somebody turned me on to the first Kansas record and we immediately started doing a Kansas song in my cover band. We ended up doing “Down the Road” and we later did “Carry on Wayward Son.” We were a working band and I was with them for about ten years and we could go out on the circuit and make a half way decent living. I had kids when I was young so I had to keep working and making a living. I ended up saying, “Screw this, I’ve got to give this a shot or I won’t forgive myself.” I moved to Atlanta and I threw caution to the wind. The first time it didn’t happen for me and I had to move back home. I tried again and that is when Steve found me and offered me the spot in Streets. It was just being in the right place at the right time.
Jeb: Last one: What was the difference playing “Carry On” in a cover band and then playing the song in Kansas?
Billy: The difference is that it sounds like the record that you tried to learn in that cover band. No matter how hard we tried, or anyone else tried, they can’t quite make that song sound like it does when Kansas does it.
The views of the comments below are not necessarily those of Classic Rock Revisited