Billy Morris' musical career is a lot like the time he met David Lee Roth and the stripper caught on fire. In 1993, the singer-guitarist's band, Kidd Wicked, was opening for Roth at the Agora. The night before the show, Morris caught up with Roth at Tiffany's, a gentlemen's club in the Flats (now Christie's). Morris introduced himself, and just as they started talking, a fire-juggling stripper fumbled her torch and burst into flame.
"It was pretty dramatic," Morris recalls, green eyes gleaming. "They covered her with the throw rug, they had to beat the flames out, and it smelled awful. That was the end of the conversation."
Like Morris' run in the hair-metal big leagues a few years later, the episode wasn't legendary, but it was memorable. Nowadays, Roth is working as a paramedic in New York City and occasionally plays some shows. But Morris' gig schedule for a busy week is the size of Roth's entire fall tour.
Morris still beams at the memory of meeting one of his arena-rock idols, the man he says embodies stone cold cool. Morris once embodied the same. He was the king of Cleveland rock for a while, and it's still easy to see why. Just under 40, he hasn't put on any flab. He has a healthy tan, and his brown hair has streaks bleached by the sun. His biceps are cut from lugging around a 200-pound motorbike on Sundays, and from gripping its handlebars, he has meaty workingman's hands.
But guitar-slingin' pretty boys don't get the love they once did, back when Poison was still headlining arenas. And by all rights, Morris ought to be working on cars for a living, having fallen back on his vo-tech training in auto-body repair and painting. He performed in Cleveland's biggest bands of his day, but they were never signed. Eventually he landed a gig with hair-metal kingpins Warrant, but it was long after they stopped topping the charts.
And so Morris applied a blue-collar mentality to his musical career, taking whatever work he could find, and now he's as busy as any musician in the city. Recently, Morris' bands have opened for Ted Nugent (playing to a crowd of 7,000 in Sandusky), coasted through dinner-and-dance music at a formal event at the Signature of Solon golf club, and provided the soundtrack to a pig roast.
Morris keeps busy offstage too: He's mixed contemporary radio stars at his studio, Lava Room Recording. He co-owns the Hi-Fi Club, a homey Lakewood nightspot. On any given week, he earns gas money by turning his talents to disco, heavy metal, oldies, and '80s hits. He works with world-famous musicians and then backs nobodies as they warble through hair-metal hits of yesteryear. Morris got into the music game early and broke into the big leagues late. And that might be the reason that he has a career at all.
"I know a million guys who can play guitar," says Jani Lane, Warrant's former frontman, who invited Morris to join the band. "But once you throw 'Can they sing real backing vocals?' in the mix, then it really starts to narrow down the competition. And I knew that a certain look was expected for the band -- you need presence. So at the end of the day, I called Bill."
Morris is the go-to guy if you need a singer, a guitarist, or a ride when your tour van breaks down in a snowstorm at 2 a.m. -- which is how he earned a place in Warrant's heart, years before he was a member.
"Billy is a genuinely good guy," says Stevie Rachelle, former singer for glam-metal favorites Tuff, who runs the popular Metal Sludge website, a bastion of '80s hair metal. "He's not a rock star -- and when I say he's not a rock star, I mean there's guys who badly want to be rock stars and act like dicks. The separation between what guys made it and sold millions of records and the guys who played in local bands for 10 or 15 years -- the separation is not very much. It's timing and luck."
Morris' timing was bad. But he's made his own luck.
For a hotshot heavy-metal shredder, Billy Morris is a country kind of guy. He lives behind his mom's house in the woods of Columbia Station, sharing a renovated barn with his girlfriend and his yellow Lab, Tank.
"That dog is a carbon copy of me," Morris says from his backyard, eyeing Tank as he jumps out of a creek near Morris' house. "If I didn't have work to do, I'd be in the woods. Even though I've been onstage with all these heavy-metal guys, I think of myself as a flannel-wearing, dirt-bike-riding kind of guy."
It's Monday, Morris' only real day off in the week, and he's spending it at home, carousing with Tank and working around the house. He takes a break from installing a washer and dryer, and looks across a four-foot pond he dug, staring at a 1979 yellow Camaro. He used to work on the car in the barn's garage, listening to cassettes of platinum-selling bands, dreaming of making it to metal's big show. He'd get there.
After all, music is Billy Morris' birthright. His father, William Morris Jr., has been a full-time musician for more than 40 years, and his parents met at one of his shows. Billy's mother is a singer, and before he was a budding guitarist on the nightclub circuit, he co-fronted the band Mudflap Mabel and the Hubcaps with her. Through high school, he missed out on football games, the prom, and underage drinking to earn horse-choking wads of cash, playing standards like "One in a Million You" and "Hurts So Good" at weddings with his mom.
"You've got to chop some wood to make it in this business," says Morris' dad, who's still a fixture in the local music scene, playing with his two brothers in oldies band Eddie and the Edsels. "People don't realize how much Billy practiced. He'd practice in the barn 8 to 12 hours a day. He did his own college education."
Morris hit the scene in '83 and spent the next 14 years in the city's bigger glam-metal bands. Clad in leopard-print boots, his mane dyed blond, Morris would rip solos at the Akron Agora and Club Café in front of 800 fans on a good night. He spent time with dolled-up rock troupe Fractured Image, which grew into Pivot, which became the Beast, which begat Spoyld. Cleveland's answer to Poison, Spoyld cracked the WMMS Top 10. When the band moved to Los Angeles in 1990, Morris stayed in town, fronting Kidd Wicked, which enjoyed a brief tenure as one of the city's biggest bands -- their first single, "Sledgehammer of Love," won the Rock Wars at Canton's WRQK.
"I've always been a firm believer that you make your own success," Morris says. "I hate when people say --" he drops his voice so it's deep and slow -- "'Cleveland sucks,' and they expect to move to L.A. and have record labels lined up. Every single Cleveland band that moved to L.A. never did anything bigger than they did in Cleveland. I loved going to L.A., but I loved leaving L.A. Home sweet home."
Morris' groups would travel to New York City to play label showcases, but he was always the youngest guy in a band that arrived a couple years too late.
And then grunge happened, sounding a death knell for pop metal. It was the end of the line not just for most of Morris' peers, but for many of the Aqua Net-abetted bands that were playing arenas. Hair metal ceased being cool instantaneously.
"When Nirvana came out, we hated it," Morris says, speaking for the glam-metal set. "It was the end of our fun era. And it's never been as fun."
Most metal guys still harbor a deep-rooted hatred for the harbingers of grunge. But while Kurt Cobain may have killed many headbangers' dreams, he inadvertently kept Morris' career afloat when it scraped bottom.
Throughout the '90s, the clubs where Morris' bands had drawn hundreds closed, one by one. By 1996, Kidd Wicked was happy to open for Kiss tribute band Strutter at the Odeon. Strutter's manager also handled a Nirvana cover band that had just broken up. He looked through Morris' blond hair, noticed the sparkling eyes, and saw a reasonable facsimile of Kurt Cobain. He offered Morris' band the surrogate Nirvana slot. Tired of being broke and hungry, Morris and two Kidd Wicked bandmates rechristened themselves Teen Spirit and learned 30 Nirvana songs on the 10-hour drive to Virginia Beach for their first gig.
Between increasingly rare Kidd Wicked gigs, Teen Spirit toured as a trio, playing college campuses, splitting $1,500 paydays three ways. In 1997, two other members of Kidd Wicked quit the group to concentrate on party cover band Disco Inferno. Morris followed suit, and the man who once played the World Series of Metal bit the bullet and started playing dance tunes, co-fronting La Freda Boogie and the Disco Dynamite, wearing DayGlo wigs and puffy shirts.
"After Nirvana ran its course, it was a natural transition to do the disco thing," says Morris. "The money was there. You'd get $1,200 a night. You'd get $2,500 to play a corporate party. And I lived with my girlfriend, the singer -- we'd take home a thousand dollars a night for playing music. To be successful, you have to humble yourself."
And Morris has done just that.
"Heavy-metal karaoke," Billy Morris announces, onstage in the front window of his club. "Let's go."
On Wednesdays, Morris hosts live-band karaoke night, letting anyone off the street sing vintage metal hits with his three-piece pickup trio. The bar makes money, and Morris gets to rehearse without straining his voice. Tonight, he's backing a smattering of regulars and college girls, adapting songs by Guns N' Roses, the Darkness, and Joan Jett.
A shorthaired, bespectacled guy in leather pants takes the stage to perform Ratt's "Round and Round." He sings it like a comic reading, headbanging maladroitly, moving his entire torso. The band follows Morris' lead as he brings the tempo up and down to keep pace with the singer's off-key delivery. Morris playfully drags the tune into a bluesy bump-and-grind, giving the singer a chance to catch up and figure out where he is. Morris has plenty of experience ripping through these tunes. He's played this kind of music in small rooms, and he's played it in packed arenas.
In 1999, Morris got his first taste of the big time. Mike Szuter, a fellow veteran of Cleveland's '80s metal scene in Outta the Blue, helped Morris land a gig backing Racer X guitarist Paul Gilbert on a Japanese tour. The following year, Morris joined Warrant. He toured with the band during the summer and on weekends from 2000 to 2004. He even produced Warrant's 2001 disc, Under the Influence.
"It was a payday," Morris says of recording the album. "It wasn't a great one, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of the record, not just a guy who toured with them.
"The touring was great," he continues. "I got to play with some of my heroes. In 2001, we played the Glam Slam Metal Jam Tour with Quiet Riot and Poison. People look down on all those bands now, because they used to play arenas and now they're in smaller venues. But if a band can go out and get a minimum of $5,000 and play three or four nights a week, how can you say they're washed up? That's success to me."
When Warrant and Lane parted ways, Morris stuck with the singer in his solo group. In 2004, Lane toured with former Quiet Riot frontman Kevin DuBrow, sharing his backing band with the singer for the Bad Boys of Metal Tour. Later, when a reunited Quiet Riot needed a fill-in guitarist for Mexico's Monterey Metal Festival, DuBrow called Morris.
"To be honest with you, there aren't that many sober people [in the music business], and there aren't that many people that can play well in this style of music," DuBrow says of Morris. "He's avoided a lot of the pitfalls that so many others have not. He's a really focused guy, and he's not lazy. He's like a shark: If he's not moving constantly, he's going to die."
Morris' years in a successful touring band set him up as a producer and bar owner, but they've also limited his prospects. The Hi-Fi has some cachet with the rock underground, but a few of the city's A-list scenesters avoid the place because of its loose association with the hair-metal crowd. Morris understands that the Kidd Wicked and Spoyld fans have families by now, and he can handle playing to small crowds. But what burns his ass is the people who stay away from the Hi-Fi for the wrong reasons. Warrant giveth, and Warrant taketh away.
"A lot of people come and are like, 'Wow, that's the guy from Warrant!'" Morris says. "And then I think the Warrant connection hurts the club in some ways. There are certain bands in the city that won't play the club because they think it's an '80s-Warrant-glam-rock club, when it's not.
"I've always had to fight the idea that I'm a glam-rock poseur because I was in the band that played 'Cherry Pie,'" he adds. "A lot of people think I don't play my instrument, and then they see us, we shred their faces off, and they're like, 'Wow, I didn't know you could play.'"
Morris could still be something close to a rock star, if he wanted it. He says he regularly turns down offers to tour; when he keeps busy at home, the money's nearly as good. And the living is definitely better; he'd rather be at home with his girlfriend and his dog than in a hotel room watching SportsCenter over and over.
"It's not worth it, [touring] as a hired gun," Morris says. "I remember doubling up in a hotel room with Jani Lane, being sarcastic, and saying, 'Yeah! On tour! What are we gonna do? CNN!'" He lifts his arm, pretending he's clicking a remote control. "There's not a lot to do on tour. A lot of those guys, all they do [on the road] is party and hook up. I call it sport drinking. I don't like the way it makes me feel.
"It was what I thought it would be," he continues, recalling his time on the road with Warrant. "We played a lot of packed 20,000-seat venues. But mostly it was a lot of clubs and a lot of long drives. It wasn't like going from Cleveland to Columbus, playing the arenas in every city and having press and photographers in our face. It was more like driving from Wichita to Oklahoma and hoping that there's a blurb in the local paper."
And so Morris walked away from the life of a touring musician. But he hasn't slowed down any, onstage or off.
"Metal 101?" asks Morris.
"Metal 101," affirms the man with the guitar.
Morris is manning the mixing board at Lava Room Recording, the Cleveland studio he has a one-third stake in. With a laptop computer on his left and a loaded Macintosh on his right, Morris sits at a control panel with dozens of knobs, overseeing a session with Joe Frietchen, a former bandmate in Kidd Wicked. They're working on tracks for a song called "How Do You Smile?", a lite-metal rocker with tones of Def Leppard and mid-period Van Halen. When it's time to give the track some teeth, they settle on a familiar guitar tone preset: Metal 101, for a deeper, rougher sound.
Lava Room's walls are lined with framed, signed CDs from local clients and projects -- alt-rockers Monkey Love, country singer Logan Wells, hip-hop compilation Tha Takeovah, and others. In recent months, modern-rock radio station 92.3 Xtreme has used the studio to host intimate performances by visiting rock stars, and Morris has mixed live sound for Alter Bridge, Papa Roach, the Used, and Social Distortion, to name a few. When Velvet Revolver came through town, former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland stopped in to record vocals here. Morris has developed a rep as a dependable, spot-on producer.
"In Cleveland, Billy sets the bar," says Jon Epstein, bassist for local hard-rock trio Fast Chester, which recorded its new album with Morris. "He was able to understand what we were trying to do, the type of vibe we were after, and help us get there without trying to fit us into some kind of mold or category. He really listened to us."
After the session with Frietchen and a quick game of Madden NFL 2006, Morris heads to the Hi-Fi, where he'll oversee the club's Tuesday-night Spitboxing competition, Cleveland's only live, weekly hip-hop event. Morris has long been involved in clubs. From 1995 to '97, he helped run the Red Eye Rock Club inside the Royalton Lanes bowling alley, working sound, booking bands, and handling day-to-day business. From 2000 to 2004, he was a partner in Parma's Revolution, trying to strike a balance between original and cover bands. Flush from a summer tour with Warrant in 2001, he bought into the Hi-Fi.
The club used to be closed on Tuesdays, but Morris saw it as a good opportunity to make some cash. As a business owner, he handles his money like a frugal bartender, spending small bills and saving the $20s. At the end of the night, he'll police the club inside and out, helping the staff clean up bottles in the parking lot until 3 a.m. or so.
"The club has a great feel," says Jake Blazer, singer of 2 Skinny Dorks, one of the Hi-Fi's more popular draws. "You can always tell if a venue is going to be successful by the people that run it. The club takes on the attitude of the management. Most dickhead bar owners care about profit and see bands as product. Billy seems to be in touch with the artist."
Having spent years playing clubs and booking studio time, Morris understands how musicians like to be treated. He's earned a rep for his willingness to help mentor local artists.
"Billy doesn't think he's better than anybody else," says bassist Craig Martini, who plays with Morris in two bands. "He isn't like 'Oh, I was in this band and that band, I've paid my dues. I deserve this.' He's helpful to people, instead of putting out somebody else's candle to make his shine brighter. Billy ends up being a successful guy because everyone draws on him -- as opposed to those guys who are has-beens, and nobody cares."
Plenty of hard-rock fans still care about Billy Morris, though their numbers have thinned. Morris' CDs make a good soundtrack for a Saturday night drive around Cleveland, but the Billy Morris Band only draws modest crowds these days. During a recent Friday night gig at the Hi-Fi, the band attracts a sparse audience that's a cross section of Cleveland nightlife. Groups of women with big diamond rings cluster at the bar. Carefully scruffy indie-rock kids circle the pool table. Morris hovers behind the bar, serving drinks when he needs to, stepping out to greet guests he recognizes at the door.
By Morris' count, 60 of the 150 people who showed up tonight are still in the club at midnight, when his band takes the big stage in the club's back room. Drummer Tim Burris plays hard and flashy, twirling his sticks as if he's auditioning for Kiss. Bassist Dave Adkins poses like he's carrying heavy artillery. Fingers flying, Morris makes his solos look effortless. They open their set with "Hard to Find," a song that's aggressive and modern, from Morris' latest batch of demos. It opens with the line "You don't know me/You don't know what I believe in/And it's obvious that you don't care." It's a theme that continues throughout Morris' new tunes.
The room attendance briefly swells as Morris rips into the buzz-saw intro to Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart." "We're going back to an original song," he says with a grin after finishing the tune. "So all you Mötley Crüe fans can leave the front of the stage now."
The next day, Morris feels a little let down.
"I was disappointed," he says, seated in his garage, where he's washing some racing gear. "Last night, friends of mine left before we played. Sometimes I'll help someone get on their feet, they'll find some success with some younger kids, and then they think it's not so cool to be seen talking to me. So [when I sing "Hard to Find"], it's at anybody. I don't hold grudges. But in the back of my mind, I might think, 'You don't know me, you don't know the things I believe in.'"
The garage is filled with racing trophies and a row of dirt bikes. Morris spends most Sundays competing in bone-jarring, two-hour endurance races. He's currently the overall points leader in the Competition Riders of America amateur league, where he consistently edges out riders half his age. Morris races the way he plays guitar. A bad night -- or a few bad years -- won't make him quit. Things come around.
"When I'm playing, I still envision myself playing to big crowds," he says. "I expect the highs and lows."
Morris gets a taste of both at Tequila Ranch. On a recent Thursday night, his party-hits cover trio Sunset Strip plays the western-themed joint, whose decor is a cross between Coyote Ugly and Urban Cowboy. By midnight, the downtown nightspot will look like the edited-for-television version of a Mötley Crüe video, with a line of smashed young women dancing on the bar, grinding their hips into each other.
But now, hours before the show, the club is just beginning to fill with barmaids who look like aspiring models and yuppies getting a jump on the weekend. As he prepares for the first of three sets that night, Morris talks about how his concept of success has changed over the years.
"You know who the most successful musician I know is?" Morris asks. "My father. He's played six, seven nights a year for 40 years. He's bought cars, houses. He put my brother through five years of college. When I call my dad, he's always working."
Morris never got a photo spread in Hit Parader, and he'll never get one in Revolver, but he did make some of his heavy-metal dreams a reality. And unlike the once-platinum former stars who have to stay on the road to make ends meet, Morris has a long-term plan. After he pays off the studio and has the club running itself, he'd like to move further into the woods and open the Billy Morris Dirt Bike Track.
"I'm very lucky that I did what I did and got what I got," he says. "I don't have to keep struggling to get that record deal. I'm not driving around the country. I'm completely happy."
As a kid, Morris never imagined a future where he'd be working the crowd at corporate parties and entertaining families at Jacobs Field after baseball games. But it's all good work. Producing small bands, selling 20 copies of his own CD on a good night, even fixing the plumbing at his club -- it's more exciting than painting cars. Morris just wants a small piece of the rock world with his name on it. Even if it's off in a corner somewhere.
"I'm not going to get on the radio and get played a lot," he says, gazing out the window. "But I'd like a song to get some radio play and get us some bigger gigs regionally. I like the fact that Michael Stanley gets invited to every rib fest and Party in the Park. He was the pride of Cleveland for a while -- I'd like to do that."