The world of independent music darkened a little bit more Nov 6, 2016 with the death of Norton Records head honcho Billy Miller. To say the secret caverns of garage punk, rockabilly and r & b have lost a shining light would be an understatement.
His infectious grin and manic passion for raw, wild undiluted rock and roll will live on with the hundreds of records he ushered into existence. Because we mined much of the same earth for raw heart on your sleeve punk and garage music, our paths crossed many times over the years.
His curly brown mop of hang hung above twinkly eyes as he gave me a hug and greeted me each time we met, happy to connect with a fellow music freak.
I was always a little tongue-tied around Billy and his lovely wife Miriam, a former drummer for one of my favorite bands, The Cramps. They were my heroes. It was through Norton that my mind was first blown by some of my other favorite bands: The Real Kids, Bobby Fuller, The Sonics, Link Wray, and the awesome compilations of garage punk from the early 60s.
These were the records that lit the passion for raw crazy-wild rock and roll bubbling through my veins back in the mid-80s when I was first dipping my toe into the sludgy garage-punk underground.
In 2001 I was hired by Valley Music/DNA Distribution to set up an independent distribution branch called Emerge Distribution. The company was looking for independent labels to distribute and I excitedly went to bat for Norton Records, lobbying my bosses to bring them on for distribution. At that time, this sort of music was still ridiculously underground, not heard yet on the airwaves and really only supported by in-the-know mom and pop records stores and music geeks. But the marketplace was catching on and sales of “indie” records were skyrocketing as the mainstream started to discover the secret world of DIY rock and roll.
Billy and Miriam were humble, delighted that I thought their label deserved to be supported and promoted alongside other better-known labels such as Bear Family and Sugarhill. At that time, I was a firm believer in the “bigger is better” distribution model and I knew I could help spread the gospel of Norton Records with the vast resources that I had at my fingertips.
Much to my horror, just nine short months later, 9-11 came crashing into the comfy world of record sales and shortly later the parent company of Emerge, Valley Music, filed for bankruptcy, stiffing labels big and small for thousands of dollars and records.
I frantically called the labels I was responsible for bringing into the fold, trying to give them a heads up before it all got rolled into the bankruptcy. I felt horrible, but Billy and Miriam were gracious and supportive and never blamed me for what happened.
My own label Gearhead was also mixed up in the mess and they were empathetic and encouraging that everything would work out, despite my utter devastation at the shocking turn of events. They lost thousands of dollars and inventory but never held it against me, instead grateful that I helped shine the spotlight on the emerging marketplace for garage and punk rock.
Billy, Miriam and Norton Records soldiered on, despite numerous set-backs over teh years, saving many musicians and amazing tracks from obscurity by steadfastly and passionately documenting the raw and wild side of music. Billy was The General in the war to save rock and roll from the bland insipid side of the music industry. I was happily part of the infantry, supporting his vision by playing those records on independent radio shows and writing about them in DIY fanzines.
Few in the corporate towers knew his name but to those of us in the trenches, he was a hero, digging one obscure gem after another out of the dusty recesses of anonymity.
My heart goes out to Miriam. I have no doubt she will continue the legacy she and Billy started back in 1986. They were an unstoppable team of passionate music collectors and revivalists. My heart is broken with the news of his passing but the music Billy championed will live on one record at a time, spinning round and round feeding my soul, inspiring me to keep going on my own journey of documenting and recording the sounds and words that ignite my soul with excitement.
Rock on Billy; host an endless dance-party in the heavens with the fellow musicians and record enthusiasts who have gone before you. Make the heavens shake with that wild foot stompin’ rock and roll you loved so well.
Jan. 1, 1954- Nov. 6, 2016
Stories about cars, pop culture, music, art, and other related topics written by GEARHEAD owner Rev. Michelle Haunold. Guest writers are also encouraged to get in touch to share content that might be of interest to GEARHEAD customers.