If you've spent time haunting Broadway-corridor dives like the News Room and Fitz's Blarney Stone, there's a good chance you've run across Billy Beale playing a gig. The 58-year-old has pierced ears and a white pompadour that he tends to cover up with a fedora. He favors a loosely buttoned shirt with a pack of Lucky Strikes in the chest pocket. Among the decorative ink stains that blanket his body are the words HARD TIME, tattooed across his knuckles.
But Beale is reluctant to publicly discuss just how much hard time he's done and what offenses might have landed him in the clink. For him, the real story is the blues. He refers to himself as a "blues preservationist," having watched the local scene evolve over the past 40-odd years.
"The beginning for me was Club Mardi Gras at 19th and Highland," Beale recalls on a late Monday afternoon at Broadway Café. "The smoke is so thick in there, you can cut it with a knife. The booze is runnin' like a river. Everybody's drinkin' and dancin', and it's like the heat of the moment — everybody in the bar is gyrating, filled with the blues. It's religious."
In conversation, Beale's memories and ruminations flow from his nicotine-coated throat like classic blues lyrics. He's nostalgic in tone, evocative in phrasing and highly unverifiable in facts. Here's his description of his childhood, north of the river in Kansas City. "When I was 11 years old, my mom sent me down to old One Wing's, who was this old black man that raised chickens and yardbirds. He'd lost about this much of his arm in a corn picker, and he had an old military telescoping cup that he would put on his arm with a slide welded to the end of it, and he's the one who taught me how to play the slide."
Beale continues: "Mom sent me to One Wing's for a bucket of brown eggs, and as I was coming back, the Reddington boys come off of the creek and said there were some hobos camped out about three-quarters of a mile away, and they had guitars and were singing. I took my wagon up there. A lot of the early music I heard was from vagabonds, homeless people that lived on the river and by the tracks. I wanted to play like them. I ended up tradin' mama's eggs for this old guitar. I got a willow because I lost the eggs, and the guitar wasn't even playable, but my dad saw my desire, and he got me my first guitar, which I still have today."
It's no surprise, then, that Beale's heroes are the kind of traditional bluesmen who might have made some egg trades of their own: Hound Dog Taylor, Elmore James, Elvin Bishop. He's developed his own signature sound using his "nasty ass slide": a 1949 hollow-body Kay with a P-90 pickup that he plays with a 50-caliber machine-gun shell casing on his finger. (He also plays a 1953 Silvertone lap steel with a traditional Stevens brass slide.) Beale's blues is the kind that roared from the old midtown speakeasies that now house the gritty bars he plays.
"He's like a living piece of local history," says Jason "Digg" Walstrom, a former bartender at Fitz's Blarney Stone who used to book Beale. "People love watching him. It's his age, his story and his charisma. And his guitar skills are through the roof. That's all he has, his guitar, and he makes it work. He lives simple, and I really respect that."
Beale's old-school style has attracted a number of local musicians, such as Matt Alvarez (also known as "Mati Mat"), for whom he has taken on a sort of mentor role, and cowpunk act Them Damned Young Livers, who recently recruited Beale to play slide guitar on their upcoming album.
"We recorded the whole album before deciding that we wanted him to play on it, and then he came in and played every song with us as though we had written it with him," says Livers frontman Jody Hendrix. "His contribution was really just him being a good accompaniment. He knows that less is more sometimes."
Beale also recently recorded his 12th album, produced by Hendrix. It's finished, but Beale doesn't have enough money to press and distribute it. He's been playing more shows, everywhere from Platte County to Warrensburg, to raise money. And he has found himself in some peculiar situations as a result. A Lee's Summit-based nonprofit recently hosted a benefit featuring an open bar, an all-you-can-eat barbecue, and a "special appearance by KC blues legend Billy Beale." Though he's glad to raise money for "underdogs," Beale admits to feeling out of his element at the wineries and art galleries that now sometimes want him to perform.
"I scare some of them old people to death. Some of them look at my old tattooed, scarred-up body, and they hear my songs about blood, guts, gore and prison, and they just don't know what to think," he says. "I live in a world that yuppies don't know exist: 'Who's knockin' at my door? Is my electricity going to be on?'"
The way William Beale Woods tells the story, he's just a simple man with simple pleasures — a man who wants only to play the blues. "I don't want to be a star or climb that ladder. But if I could just go the rest of my life and play the juke joints and have a place to live and a pack of Lucky Strikes, then I'll be all right," he says, and then he winks.