While thumbing through the current issue of Rolling Stone
, a small but disturbing story caught my eye. Alongside the tragic tale of Boston
vocalist Brad Delp’s suicide was a (much) shorter piece about the death of Billy Chinnock
. A rock & roll lifer whose career spanned Asbury Park, New Jersey; Nashville, Tennessee; and Portland, Maine, Chinnock sadly took his own life on March 7th, 2007 after a long bout with Lyme Disease.
Chinnock launched his career on the Asbury Park boardwalk during the late-60s. Chinnock’s Downtown Tangiers Rockin Rhythm & Blues Band included musicians like future E Street Band members Gary Tallent and Danny Federici, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez and David Sancious. Although Chinnock was plagued throughout his career with unfair Springsteen comparisons (much like Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky), the fact is that both artists were products of the same era and place, subjected to many of the same cultural and geographic influences and listening to a lot of the same music. Whereas Springsteen leaned more towards early garage rock and the one-hit-wonders of ‘60s AM radio, Chinnock’s music was influenced more by roots-rock and blues.
When A&R legend John Hammond recommended that Chinnock work on his songwriting, the artist broke away from his heavy touring on the Jersey shore rock scene and moved to Maine in 1974, where he honed his craft while continuing to perform and record. Chinnock later migrated to Nashville during the early-80s at the prompting of musician and producer Harold Bradley. Bradley had received a cassette of his material and got in touch with Chinnock, and the two subsequently became friends. Chinnock was interested in the renewal of country influence on rock music and was impressed by the energy of the Nashville music scene, so he decided to come down and check it out for himself.
Chinnock integrated himself in the local music scene by jumping in headfirst, playing frequently at local clubs and WKDF-sponsored riverboat shows, as well as outdoor shows at Hermitage Landing. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Billy for The Metro magazine in 1985, and witnessed firsthand his dynamic performance at that year’s “Rock For The Animals” show, which included Afrikan Dreamland, Walk The West, The Paper Dolls, Raging Fire, Hard Knox, Roxx and Bill Lloyd and the December Boys – a veritable “who’s who” of the mid-80s Nashville rock underground.
While living in Nashville, Chinnock recorded two landmark albums with producer Bradley – 1985’s independently released Rock & Roll Cowboy, and the 1987 CBS Records release Learning To Survive In The Modern Age, which yielded a minor hit single in the song “Somewhere In The Night.” Chinnock later won an Emmy for “Somewhere In The Night,” which had been used in a daytime soap opera. Chinnock later recorded a chart-topping duet with Roberta Flack which was used as the theme for The Guiding Light television show.
Like many non-country musicians in the “Music City,” Chinnock found a great deal of frustration in Nashville and the local scene. Already a veteran of 20 years of performing and recording, he was more polished and experienced than any of the rockers playing Nashville’s club scene. Although he had a loyal following – mostly blue-collar WKDF listeners – he was dismissed as too slick and mainstream by the local underground. Truth is, Chinnock’s roots-rock style was easily a decade (or two) ahead of its time, and was edgier and had less “commercial potential” at that time than most of Nashville’s more acclaimed “alternative” rock bands.
While I was managing a Nashville pizza delivery restaurant in the late-80s, I noticed an order going out to Chinnock’s Belmont Avenue area home. I hadn’t seen Billy in a couple of years and since I was getting off work, I paid for the pizza and drove over to make the delivery and say “hello.” Chinnock seemed happy to see me and we ended up talking for a couple of hours, off the cuff and mostly “off the record.” He expressed a lot of anger over the way that CBS had been messing with his career…Billy had a new album in the can and was ready to have it released and launch a supporting tour. Considering that Chinnock had just won an Emmy and had the highest profile of his career, I can see why he wanted the album released. However, CBS didn’t think the album “marketable” and, after a prolonged battle, dropped Chinnock from his contract.
The CBS debacle, inexcusable as it was, was not the first time that Chinnock’s work had been obstructed by small-minded label executives. Signed by Paramount Records, the label released his debut album Blues in 1974, but shelved his sophomore effort, Road Master, which was produced by Tom Dowd at the legendary Bell Sound Studios in Los Angeles. To the best of my knowledge, the album has never been released. In the wake of fellow Asbury Park rocker Bruce Springsteen’s success, Atlantic Records signed Chinnock to be their Springsteen and released his album Badlands in 1978. When Badlands went nowhere, the label decided to call it a day (after already recording most of a second album); Chinnock evidently got the rights to his masters back and released the 1980 album himself as Dime Store Heroes.
After spending the better part of the decade fighting the system, by 1990 Chinnock had left Nashville in his rear view mirror as he headed back to Maine, where he would enjoy almost 20 years of creativity and performing. 1990’s Thunder In The Valley, released under the name “Billy & the American Suns,” would be Chinnock’s last major label album. He would continue to record until the end of his life, releasing material on his own indie label, East Coast Records. Chinnock also began to dabble in graphic arts and made a name for himself as a filmmaker and video producer, creating the award-winning film The Forgotten Maine.
Chinnock had suffered from Lyme Disease for eight years, the result of a nasty tick bite. The disease defied treatment, ravaging his immune system and leaving him in a great deal of pain. His mother, who lived with Chinnock and with whom he was very close, died ten days before Chinnock. Consumed with grief and suffering from chronic daily pain, Chinnock evidently saw no other way out than suicide. He was 59 years old, still young by today’s rock & roll standards.
Chinnock’s sister, Caroline Payne, remembers that her brother was never envious of the success enjoyed by the artist many critics unfairly compared his work to. “I never saw him have any of that,” she told the Portland Press Herald. “I never saw any frustration in him, any jealousy like that. He thought Bruce Springsteen was phenomenal.” Although his vocals could often times sound like Springsteen’s, Chinnock’s music was always original, heartfelt and genuine, and over the course of a mostly unheralded career that ran almost four decades, Chinnock released 13 albums and entertained a hell of a lot of people.
As usual, John Hammond was right on target when he called Billy Chinnock “the real essence of American music.”
Labels: Billy Chinnock, Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band