Songwriter, playwright and painter Billy Edd Wheeler isn’t a household name, but the 87-year-old Whitesville native has left a big impression, both in West Virginia and beyond.
Wheeler’s songs have been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (“Jackson”) and Kenny Rogers (“Coward of the County”) to Elvis Presley (“It’s Midnight”) and the Kingston Trio (“The Reverend Mr. Black”).
A new CD from the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame paying tribute to Boone County native’s music is out now, and Wheeler said he couldn’t be more pleased.
Speaking over the phone from his home in North Carolina, Wheeler said, “This tribute record is very important to me and I’m very grateful to Michael [Lipton] for doing this, and he did it on a shoestring.”
The album, “Courting the Muse,” features a variety of West Virginia musicians, among them Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien and Larry Groce with Bob Thompson.
The tribute record has some of the hits, including Wheeler’s best-known song, “Jackson,” which won a Grammy Award for Cash and Carter.
The song took a winding path to be written.
Wheeler was born and raised in Whitesville but went to Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina, and then Berea College, in Kentucky. Through the late 1950s, he developed into a poet, folksinger and playwright.
By the early 1960s, Wheeler had recorded a folk record and was studying playwrighting at Yale. On a trip to New York, he met lyricist Norman Gimbel.
“He was a big-time songwriter,” Wheeler said. “But I didn’t know who he was.”
Among other things, Gimbel wrote the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Gimbel didn’t know Wheeler, either, but Gimbel’s wife had Wheeler’s folk record and introduced them. Later, Gimbel introduced Wheeler to writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis, as well as hits for other artists including “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak” for The Coasters.
Gimbel got Wheeler a meeting with Leiber and Stoller and he played them his songs.
“Just a verse and a chorus,” Wheeler said.
About half a minute into each song, one of them would yell, “next,” a signal to move along to the next composition. The duo didn’t like anything Wheeler had, but liked him well enough to invite him to try again when he came back to New York in a year.
At Yale, living in a one-room apartment, Wheeler said he started working on a song about a gunfighter.
“That was a big deal in the 1960s,” he said.
But he was struggling.
A friend from college sent him a picture of John C. Campbell sitting atop a horse. Campbell, an educator and traveling preacher, founded the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, a school that studies and preserves contemporary and traditional Appalachian arts, like blacksmithing, storytelling and writing.
The picture and the letter from his friend inspired the words, “There’s a Bible in the sack of the Reverend Mr. Black.”
“And wooo-wee, I had my song,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler built a cumbersome nine-verse song around that image ,then called Leiber, who listened to Wheeler recite it to him. Leiber told him to bring it to New York, and the song became a hit for The Kingston Trio.
Wheeler said Leiber also helped him pull out the phrase, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,” the opening line of “Jackson,” which was buried in a song inspired by the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“We were studying it at Yale,” he said. “And the play was about this couple that was just fussing and fighting. I wanted to write a song about that kind of an argument.”
Leiber had him go back and rebuild the song from that line — and then took 25% of the publishing rights, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he was grateful for the chance encounter that led to him meeting Leiber in the first place.
“Every step of my career was an accidental meeting with someone who helped me on to the next step,” Wheeler said. “Without the help of so many people, I wouldn’t have amounted to anything.”
He also said he was glad people were still interested in what he had to say.
“Courting the Muse” is available at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame store at the Charleston Town Center mall, at Taylor Books on Capital Street, or through Hall of Fame’s website, wvmusichalloffame.com.