2017 Florida Folk Heritage Award
William “Billy the Kid” Emerson was born 1925 in Tarpon Springs, where he attended Union Academy, the school for African American children. Many of his family came from the Bahamas. He first sailed with his uncle George Hannah on a sponge schooner when he was eight years old, and earned money as a teenager by rowing sponge hooking boats. His mother, Esther Hannah Emerson, often worked for Greek families and spoke Greek. Following in the footsteps of his talented uncle, John Hannah, Emerson learned the piano and played in bands that performed in Tampa and St. Petersburg clubs.
Emerson joined the Navy in 1943, but resumed playing after WWII with Ivory Mitchell, Billy Battle Band, Alonso Brown Band and others in the Tampa area. He picked up the nickname "Billy the Kid" while playing with a band that dressed like cowboys. Emerson later attended Florida A&M University on an athletic scholarship, but left to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War. There he met Ike Turner and joined his Kings of Rhythm after his discharge. In 1954, he signed a contract with Sam Phillips, then wrote and recorded hits for Sun Records, including "When It Rains It Really Pours” (later recorded by Elvis Presley) and “Red Hot.” In 1955, he moved to Chicago, joining Vee-Jay Records, where he released "Every Woman I Know (Crazy 'Bout Automobiles)." Shortly after, he joined Chess Records and eventually became their recording manager. Emerson formed Tarpon Records in 1966, and continued to play in clubs and on European blues tours for many years.
In 1978, Emerson rededicated himself to his faith and left the music business. He became a pastor, and eventually returned to Tarpon Springs. Although he no longer performs secular music, the compilation album, Red Hot: The Sun Years, was released in 2009. Emerson was recently inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Today he continues to preach and to compose religious music in Tarpon Springs.