Billy Harlan: Bopmaster Deluxe

Billy Harlan cut a rockabilly masterpiece in 1958. Fifty-eight years later the Muhlenberg County hepcat is still keeping the bop rockin’.

RCA Studio B 1959 (L-R) Chet Atkins, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Billy Harlan, Don Everly & J.D. Loudermilk

by Randy Fox

When Billy Harlan stepped up to the microphone at RCA’s Nashville studio in the spring of 1958, he had no idea he was cutting a record that would be moving feet and making him a star almost six decades later. “I Wanna Bop” seemed to be an afterthought, a bouncy rocker, hastily written and recorded to provide a B-side for another song that Harlan was pinning his hopes on. Now considered a stone rockabilly classic, “I Wanna Bop” is a perfect two minutes and six seconds of rockabilly magic.

The first steps on the road to that moment of rockabilly mojo occurred years before. The son of a coal miner, Harlan was surrounded by music in the hills of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. At the age of 12, he met Don and Phil Everly, musical brothers who were radio stars in Chicago but just neighborhood kids when their parents returned to Muhlenberg County each summer for an extended vacation with their kin.

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(L-R) Phil Everly, Billy Harlan, Tommy “Redtop” Payne & Don Everly – Summer 1949 

As Harlan moved into his teenage years, he pursued his dream of hillbilly stardom, working as a bass player and singer with another star struck Muhlenberg County teen, Dave Rich. In 1955, Rich signed with RCA Records in Nashville, and Harlan followed him to the Music City. Harlan found work in Nashville’s studios and on the road backing Dave Rich, Jim Reeves and the Wilburn Brothers, and spent his off hours hanging out with his old friends Don and Phil Everly. Harlan soon began searching for his own path to stardom, and the movie Jailhouse Rock pointed him in a new direction.

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Dave Rich, Joe Penny & Billy Harlan – August 1955

“I hadn’t cared for Elvis at first,” Harlan says. “I just didn’t think he was going to last when I first heard him, but seeing the movie Jailhouse Rock really turned me on to rock’n’roll. It inspired me to write ‘School House Rock.’ It was pretty much about where I went to school. There was a restaurant called the Cardinal Café right across the street from Drakesboro High School. Since the school didn’t have air conditioning, we would open the windows and you could hear the music coming from the Cardinal Café’s jukebox. I just put that into the song.”

Harlan took the song to music publisher Buddy Killen who saw potential rock’n’roll dollar signs. Killen booked time at RCA’s Nashville studio, and Harlan and his friend Royce Morgan quickly wrote a second rocker, “I Wanna Bop.” After cutting the two sides, Killen sold the masters to Brunswick Records. Released in May 1958, the single got high marks in Billboard magazine, but sales were lackluster. Harlan remembers eventually getting a royalty payment for only 600 copies sold.

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Billy Harlan recording at RCA Studio B – 1959

Harlan got another turn at bat when he recorded a rock’n’roller for RCA Victor. The single was never released, and ended up as just a log entry in the tape vault. With that disappointment, Billy drifted away from music and focused on his family and a career in computer technology. Over the years, he dabbled in music without the focus and intensity of his younger years.

The story of that hastily written B-Side had another chapter. In the 1970s, “I Wanna Bop” was rediscovered by record collectors. As with many “forgotten” rockabilly records, it became a classic to a new generation of fans and has endured into the 21st century. In 2002, his lost RCA single finally saw the light of day when it was released on a rockabilly compilation. In the liner notes for that collection, it was noted that little was known about the mysterious Billy Harlan. That aura of mystery was about to dissipate.

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Royce Morgan & Billy Harlan at RCA Studio B – December 2015

After Harlan retired from his career as a computer technician, he moved back to Muhlenberg County and began playing music again, often with his old friend Royce Morgan. In 1999, he reunited with Don and Phil on stage at the Everly Brothers Homecoming Festival in Central City, Kentucky, and in 2008, he was inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame as a Supporting Musician. With his music career back on track it couldn’t get any better, and then a message arrived from Las Vegas.

“In 2010, I started getting these emails from Tom Ingram wanting me to perform at Viva Las Vegas,” Harlan says. “I kept wondering why he wanted me, I hadn’t performed my rockabilly songs in over 50 years, but he kept emailing and calling.”

In 2012, Harlan finally reported for boppin’ duty with a triumphant set at Viva Las Vegas, leading to appearances at Rockabilly Rave 2013, and Nashville Boogie 2015. In December 2015, he returned to RCA Studio B to record the six songs that comprise the double 45 set Boppin’ at Studio “B” on Muddy Roots Records, followed by a rockin’ sockin’ performance at Nashville Boogie 2016. In addition to his regular appearances in Muhlenberg County, Harlan will be headlining the Hot Rock! All-Dayer in April 2017 in the UK, followed by a not-to-be missed appearance at Nashville Boogie 2017, sure to amply prove that bopping desire and schoolhouse rockin’ power still burns bright in the head hepcat of Muhlenberg County, Billy Harlan.

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“Mudfather” Jason Galaz, Rick Bryant & Billy Harlan in the RCA Studio B Control Room – December 2015

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Randy Fox writes about music, the only profession that actually pays less than being a musician. His work has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, The East Nashvillian, The Journal of Country Music and many more fine publications. He can be heard every Tuesday night, 5 pm to 7 pm Central Time, on the “Hipbilly Jamboree” on radio station WXNA-FM Nashville.

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