Bill Yates Biography
Bill Yates belonged to the final wave of Sun recording artists, the acts that comprised the very last singles released by Sam Phillips’ legendary label in the early ’60s. Memphis-based Yates was a piano player and a soulful singer, so it’s not surprising that his closest antecedent was Charlie Rich, who left Sun not long before Yates signed. None of Yates singles were hits but he did wind up with some of the better singles Sun released during this closing act.
Yates was born on December 21, 1936 in Columbus, Georgia, the son of an evangelist. Bill sang in church as he grew up and, as a teen, he and his brother Vance started to seriously pursue music, planning to earn a living as traveling musicians. They began by touring in Georgia and Alabama and, at some point in 1958, it appears Bill Yates wound up making his recording debut playing piano on the Phantom’s rockabilly cult classic “Love Me.” Around this time, Bill relocated to Memphis, where he became friends with drummer and bandleader Billy Adams, who became a close associate of Yates’ for a number of years. Memphis led him to a loose association with Elvis Presley and he headed out to Hollywood in 1961 as part of the King’s entourage, working as a bodyguard. This was irregular work and Yates often came back to Memphis to gig, often working with Adams, usually at the south Memphis club Hernando’s Hide-A-Way. This Yates-Adams band also featured a number of players who became fixtures around Memphis, playing regular gigs and sessions for a variety of labels. Soon, Yates and Adams were both cutting sessions at Hi Studios that wound up being released either on the upstart Home of the Blues or its sister imprint 1st Records in 1961. “All I Need Is You”/”Mojo” was Yates first release, which didn’t do much, then the label folded so the next Yates singles culled from Home of the Blues sessions — “Fool Around with Love” and “Blues Like Midnight” — were licensed to King Records in 1962.
At this point, Sam Phillips brought Bill Yates and Billy Adams into Sun Records. Yates and Adams did their first Sun session in May of 1963 with Yates as vocalist, then came back for another round of recording that December, only this time with Adams as singer. Further Yates-led sessions arrived in 1964 and they slowly crept into the market over the course of the next year (one, “Carleen”/”Too Late to Right My Wrong,” was credited to “Gorgeous Bill”), and although Yates was slowly moving toward a soulful sound reminiscent of Charlie Rich, nothing much was clicking commercially. Yates continued to record for Sun into early 1966, leading his last date that January then playing on various other sessions for a little while longer. After this, Yates gradually slipped below the Memphis radar, surfacing in 1969 on the new label Pixie with “Albuquerque,” then beginning to play a lounge and Holiday Inn circuit in the early ’70s. Yates then drifted away from Memphis, working with his brother Vance out of Nashville for a while before heading out to Las Vegas, where he settled in the late ’70s. He played clubs regularly, sometimes appearing as an extra in films, and cut a couple of records, then left Vegas for Wyoming in the early ’90s. He stayed in Wyoming for years, leaving when his health started to fail in the 2000s. Yates died on December 8, 2007 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He finally received a long-overdue retrospective in 2013, when Bear Family Records released Blues Like Midnight: The Sun Years, Plus (all the Memphis Sessions for Sun, Home of the Blues, IST, and Pixie Records), which contained 33 tracks, including unreleased cuts, and a detailed biography by Martin Hawkins. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi