Mississippi-born Billy Ball and various incarnations of his backing band, The Upsetters, released a slew of singles on Starday affiliated labels. “Tighten Up Tighter,” their most widely distributed record, saw separate promotional and commercial releases on King Records. Based in Indianapolis, Ball and his cohorts toured the country, backing acts such as Rufus Thomas and Dee Dee Warwick. Clint Jones, guitarist on Ball’s solitary Apollo Records release, recalls, “We had a good live show, especially with Roosevelt. He was crazy, but on stage he was a real professional. He weighed about two hundred and thirty pounds, but he put on a show! He would do no-hand flips and everything.”

“Tighten Up Tighter” also deserves note as the recording debut of drummer Robert Dycus, who later went on to drum with The Rhythm Machine. “I knew who he was, I went to check him out,” Dycus remembers of his first meeting with Ball. “We did a couple of regular gigs, an after-hours joint and the Surfside Seven. I got into funk with Billy.”

Below Jones, who gigs with Ball to date in a new incarnation of The Upsetters, reflects on his fledgling years spent with Indy’s toughest band. E: You’re from Indianapolis?
C: No, I was born in Cincinatti, Ohio in 1950. E: So you were a young cat when you were playing with Billy! “Popcorn ‘69” would have had you at…
C: …I did Billy’s stuff at age 19 or so. I got into music through my uncles. They were from Mississipi; they were into the blues. I grew up on the blues and jazz. E: So you were into the electric blues…
C: Well, I was into BB King and John Lee Hooker, but the tunes that my uncle played were like plantation blues. The old, old blues like “Catfish Swimming in A Deep Blue Sea.”E: Were you always a guitarist?
C: No, I started on sax, in junior high school while I was still in Cinti. I was in the marching band for a while, then I dropped out. I moved to Indianapolis in 1965 and went to Tech High. I focused on both sax and guitar in high school. E: In high school you got into funk music.
C: By listening to the radio, listening to James Brown - the main one. I was checking out rhythm guitar, the guitar playing. It was (JB) on one hand, and Wes Montgomery on the other hand. In grade school I was listening to John Coltrane. One of my uncles, from New York, loved jazz. I thought it was noise at first. But the more I listened, the more I liked it. I liked the freedom. So on one hand I have an uncle playing Mississippi blues, and on the other hand I have an uncle that is sophisticated and is playing John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. And he had some great Django Reinhardt discs.E: How’d you meet up with Billy Ball?
C: Billy needed a guitar player. I was in a local group, doing talent shows. We were called The Hotshots. This was around 1966, ‘67. Billy was already recording by this time. I remember when I was 17 seeing them at The Place To Play on Indiana Avenue. E: Was this around the time they recorded “Tighten Up Tighter?”
C: I hadn’t heard “Tighten Up Tighter.” I remember seeing them - about a year before I played with them. I had a beard, so I looked older than I was. I could get into the club. Actually, there was another band I liked better – The Moonlighters. With Clarence Roach on guitar. E: Tell me about the Upsetters live.
C: They had a good live show, especially with the singer, Roosevelt. He was crazy! I didn’t know that much about “Big Rock.” He was about Billy’s age. On stage he was a real professional. This guy weighed about 230 pounds. He had a gut and he put on a show! He would turn no hand flips and everything. Plus he had a really nice voice. A natural soul singer’s voice. E: Billy needed a guitar player, and you fit the bill…
C: At that particular time, I wasn’t very good at all. Billy asked me to play. I said, “Sure, you have to ask my dad.” My dad said, “Cool, he can play but (Billy) you’re responsible for him. We about drove the poor man crazy! We were young. And he took the drummer that was with me, who happened to be my best friend. Carl Shaw. We were in high school together - Carl was all city orchestra. Billy took us both. E: This was the post-Robert Dycus Upsetters?
C: Carl replaced Dycus - actually by that time Mamie Tolliver was there. He replaced him. We got in in 1968, while we were still in high school. E: Do you remember the personnel of the band that you joined?
C: Yes, the band had “Huck,” William McClendon, on Bass. Darnell Dawson was on sax, Carl was on drums, Billy was on Sax, myself and Roosevelt Matthews on vocals. We started rehearsing at my house. My father had bought a double and converted it. We rehearsed in his living room - one side of the double was the living room. Dad would much rather have had us there in the house than in the streets.E: How much younger are you than Billy?
C: Let’s see… Billy was 63 when I turned 50. Most of the guys in the band were around my age, except for Roosevelt. He was Billy’s age. E: Your solitary release with Billy was the “Popcorn ‘69” / “Sissy Walk” seven inch on Apollo. Do you remember what lead to that release?
C: My father lead to it. Anything I was interested in, my father put money in. He and Billy got to be pretty tight. He said to Billy, “You guys ought to be recording.” My father had his own business. He’s a mason. Like myself - I’ve only done two things to make a living and I don’t consider either one of them work. Music and masonry.E: Do you remember where you recorded those songs?
C: We recorded the songs at a studio on 10th St. Maybe at Ohmit’s. It was in the basement. We pressed it in Cinti. Billy Ball & the Upsetters circa 1966.
E: Billy said that all of his records were released on Starday-King affiliates.
C: I’m not sure. I didn’t know the business end of it.E: You’re featured heavily on both songs, but you absolutely KILL “Popcorn ’69!”
C: At that time I was the wa-wa king! It wasn’t hard to play that fast. We alll recorded in one take. We were all in there, then they dubbed in the horns. E: How about the B side?
C: “Sissy Walk?” It was the same thing. E: Both of those dances – the Sissy and the Popcorn were big at the time.
C: The “Cissy Strut.” The Popcorn was a big thing too. I used to dance; I used to love to dance. We were just sitting around and jamming and we came up with (those versions). We had dances that went along with the songs. E: Do you remember them?
C: Well… (Laughs). Yup. “Tighten Up Tighter” too. At that time a band had to put on a show. So you needed to know how to dance. And if you had a record, an audience needed to know how to do it while you played.E: The Highlighters had out “Poppin’ Popcorn” by this time – was your dance similar to theirs?
C: Ours was like a Popcorn, but with a couple of added moves. I don’t remember doing the “Sissy Walk.” E: I love that horn solo on “Sissy Walk.” Was that Billy?
C: No, Billy got somebody to come in – it wasn’t Darnell. It was an alto solo and we had two tenors in the Upsetters. E: I remember the first time I mentioned that song to you, you remarked how out of tunes the horns were at the end.
C: But a lot of the songs at that time, they were out of tune. Sometimes the guitars were too! I was really shocked to see that the younger people haven’t heard that type of music. I guess the 45s are collectibles now. E: How were the live shows that you did with Billy?
C: We did a lot of live gigs. Every chance we got! We played a combination of originals and covers. We covered Tyrone Davis, James Brown - “I Got The Feeling” etc. At that time everybody had to do James Brown! We traveled all over the US. We played at Small’s Paradise. We backed Rufus Thomas. At that time, most of those singers would just take their musical director (on the road) with them. E: How long did you stay an Upsetter?
C: I was with Billy for five or six years. ‘Til about ‘71 or ‘72. Then it got weird. I started liking psychedelic music - Hendrix, King Crimson. We had started playing stuff by Chicago, but the bass player and drummer wanted to record it. So we quit. So we could play what we wanted to play. I recorded some things with a fusion band. But those are just on tape.E: What other bands were you in after Billy Ball and The Upsetters?
C: After Billy, I was with The Implements. The band was called the Incredible Pushers Funk Revival. In that band there were lots of people - 8 or 9 horns. That was with Carl Shaw as well. We never recorded though.E: In the 80s you moved to LA, then took a hiatus from music. When did you start playing again?
C: I started with Billy two years ago. Billy talked me into playing - I was playing acoustic guitar around the house. He stayed on me, and I talked to my aunt in Louisville. She said, “God gives you a gift, if you don’t lose it he’ll take it away.”E: Now we look back on those songs you recorded with Billy way back when and remark on how incredible they are. But what were you trying to accomplish?
C: I was just trying to learn how to play. I used to sleep with my guitar. I got my nose broke by my guitar - in a hotel room in Buffalo (NY) with Billy!


Finally, an audience with the one and only Billy Ball - the catalyst behind three monstrous funk songs, including "Tighten Up Tighter," as included in The Funky 16 Corners. Having sat down for a spell with Billy at his now defunct Rain Check Bar, I can attest that his personality - at least those aspects of it that I witnessed - comes through in this interview. Thanks to Indianapolis based archivist Jason Yoder, you can all bask in all of Billy's unabashed glory. This is top reading, I've gone back through it again and again and again.–Egon.

How did you become the Upsetters Band?
My first job as the Upsetters Band was Oct 14, 1957. We were playing in Houston, Mississippi in a little café and the owner asked us what the name of the band was. Like most kids, we just said, "We'll I don't know" This wino was walking down the street and he said, "Ya'll gonna upset them tonight in there aren't ya?" The owner of the café said, "Billy, you got yourself a name. Billy Ball and the Upsetters."

How did you end up in Indianapolis?
I had a sister here I would visit when I was in the Military. When I would come home during furlough she would take me around and we would see the different bands. But I didn't see anything that interested me because it was a Jazz city. There was one band that played in a club called Ezz's. They were what you would call an R&B group. They were the only group that was playing anything similar to the style I was used to in Memphis. They were called the Cantrell Mitch Combo.

What years were you in the Military?
I was stationed in Germany in 1955, 56, 57. I was in Tank Outfit 306.

Was that first show in 1957 your earliest experience in music?
No. I had already been started with my father and the Ball Quartet. Every time they practiced I would get up with them and play. My uncle Andy Ball told my father, Grady Ball, "That kid sounds pretty good!" They asked me if I knew the songs and I said, "I dunno." Well, they asked me to play the Ball reunion a few weeks later. I did pretty well. But that wasn't my intention, because I got stuck playing with them every Sunday, which I didn't like. I had no intention of playing in church every Sunday.

Your dad was a musician?
No, he was just a singer. My grandfather, Richard Ball, was a guitar and fiddle player, and he taught music.

This Ball Quartet, Tell me more about it.
We traveled all across the south. We were one of the strongest non-recording groups around that time. We were booked on those Christian shows every Sunday and that's the part I didn't like, because I was stuck with grown people and I didn't get to play with the kids. Not only that, but all the kids laughed at me. "(Billy) can't play, he has to go with his daddy!" they would say. So that wasn't a good part of my life.

When was your big break?
I think it was 1952 or 53 with Bally Smith in Tupelo, Mississippi. This is how it happened: (Smith) came to school to play for a dance and he said, "Is anyone want to get up here and play?"
Everybody said, "Go ahead, Billy, go!"
But I said, "No, no, no!"
So Bally Smith said, "Do you know any of our songs? Do you want to play?"
I replied, "Yes."
"Do you want to play them?"
I said, "Nope!"
So he said, "Name one of the songs you know that we play."
At that time Lloyd Price, out of New York, had "Lawdy Ms. Clawdy." So he said, "You come up here and show us how you play it"
I didn't realize I had been tricked. So I looked around and everyone was clapping for me. I was probably in 8th grade.
He asked after it was over if I wanted to play with them. I said, "Yeah." So he came up and asked my mother that Monday if it was possible for him to pick me up to practice on Thursdays. He would give me five dollars.
My mother said, "Sure, he can play, but he's going to church on Sunday."
So Bally replied, "We only play Saturday nights and we come home.

Where did you play?
We played every Saturday night in Ripply, Tupelo, Batesville and Greenwood. I made five dollars. By playing with those older guys, they taught me the keys. So that's how I became a piano player.

How did you learn to play the saxophone?
I helped a guy clean up a hay barn and I saw this case hid in the barn. So when he got ready to pay me, I had already sneaked in and seen it was saxophone. When he got ready to pay me, I said, "I don't want any money."
He was a white fellow and he said, "Grady would kill me if I didn't pay this boy."
So I said, "I don't want no money I want that there."
And pointed to the saxophone.
He said, "You can have it, but don't let my wife see it. It belongs to my son who was a pilot." He had one son who was shot down.
"I keep it hid from her. Take it and go! But I still got to pay you."
Boy, was that a mess. I was terrible at the saxophone. I had no way of knowing how to play it.

How did you learn to play the saxophone?
It was the white teacher, Gene Sullivan, over at the white school, that hooked it up for me and gave me a reed. He said he would start giving me lessons.
"This is what you have to do. Every night you have to come over to the white school like you're cleaning up. "

You weren't allowed to go to the white school.
So every night, here I come. I had to put on a jacket and put on a cap and put a broom and set it between my legs and then I would practice. Then if someone came in, he would take the horn and pretend he was practicing and I would start dancing. So when they walked by all I had was a broom, like I was cleaning up. That's how I learned to play the saxophone.
How far was the white school from the black school?

In New Albany, the white school was on one side and the black school was on the other side.

Wasn't that strange?
No, because in New Albany everybody new everybody. We had friends that were white and we would walk to school together.
My mother worked for a white family named Billy. They both named their kids Billy and we would walk to school together.
I came from an upper class family. What you would call a rich family. We weren't poor. We owned a store, a café and drug store and a thousand acres of land. We didn't think anything about it. As kids, we didn't really understand, because we didn't think anything of it. We didn't quite understand what was going on, because we played together all the time anyway.
Because I came from a family with a good name I could do things the other black kids couldn't do. You have to understand that about the South.
For instance, I never owned a driver's license when I was in Mississippi. Never! I didn't even know what a driver license was. If anybody pulled me over, which they did, they would say "Let me see your drivers license."
I would say, "I don't have one, sir."
They would say, "What's your name, boy?"
I would reply "Billy Ball."
"Billy Ball, of the Balls in New Albany?"
"What's your daddy's name."
"Grady Ball."
"You'd better tell Grady I stopped you and go ahead on."
You would go into a store and someone would say, "Hey nigger, move back a little bit!"
Then they would say, "Hey, what is your name?"
I would say, "Ball"
"Aw! Ok."
That would often happen, but we didn't think about it that much about it in the South. . The problem was, I was young, but the blacks that didn't have a good name caught it hard.

When did you first learn to play Piano?
I had a first cousin named Hugh Souter. Everything we did in music we did together. His mom and my mom were sisters. He lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin. I think we taught each other 50-50. He played piano and guitar.

Tell me about Bally Smith.
We called him Bally Smith because he was bald-headed. But his real name was George.

How long did those gigs last with Bally Smith?
Three or four years. I learned how to run a band during those travels. He had his meetings and he was a strict disciplinarian. When I went into the Army those guys dispersed.

Tell me about the first Upsetters Band?
The first Upsetters band was Willy Joe Edwards on Guitar, Jessie Louis Dykes on drums, Eugene Kemmer on bass and myself on piano. And I was singing. Boy, that was a mess!

Did you play while you were in the army?
Yes, I played with the 55th Field Marching Band TDY. We played all over Germany and in England. Wherever the army soldiers were we had to go and put on a parade. We formed a band with a guy from Hartford, Connecticut. His name was Countwright. He formed a little band in the unit, because he was head of the marching band. We played downtown at the Charlie Star Bar every Friday and Saturday night. Plus we did shows at the Army clubs.

What kind of music did you play?
"Shake Rattle and Roll," "Honey Hush," "Lawdy Ms. Clawdy," "Stagger Lee," "Hound Dog" and "Blueberry Hill." Same songs we did with Bally Smith.

So this was about the time R&B was starting to be formed?
To black people, there wasn't but two kinds of music in those days. Blues and Gut-Bucket Blues. B.B. King and those guys did what you'd call blues. Lightening Hopkins and Muddy Waters - that was Gut-Bucket Blues. Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino and Little Richard. At that time, that was R&B. Black people didn't have any Rock and Roll.

Why did they call it Gut-Bucket Blues?
In some instances, this guy had a thing on him with a harp, a foot pedal and an old guitar. Then they sang songs like, "Lord have mercy, my baby's gone away. She sounds just like that Rooster, howling ohh all day."
That was Gut-Bucket Blues.
"That cotton patch is wearing my back, making me look North and think about my baby,"
THAT was Gut-Bucket. Then the BB King type was with the horns and that was blues.

So how did you get to Indianapolis?
I was visiting my sister one time and I wound up playing with some guys at the Flame - I played with some guys called Harvey and the Blue Tones. They got to fighting and I backed up. So the owner of the club said the band is fired! Harvey Anderson owned the club.
"You didn't do anything, so I'll tell you what. You want a job?" asked Anderson.
"Nope. I'm leaving at 6 a.m. tomorrow and going back to Mississippi," I replied.
"Why don't you stay here a couple weeks? I'll give you the job if you form a band."
"What? OK, I'll do that"
I went searching in the city. I thought the kind of music I wanted to play, they didn't know how to play. They told me there was a bass player called Charles White. He was a good R&B bass player. Then there was a guitar player named Sonny Spells and I got him. Then there was a singer named Little John. By this time, Cantrell-Mitch had broke up. Well, he was a pretty good drummer so I went and got him.
We practiced for 14 days from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Because I'm changing their style. We would practice some of those records I brought up from Memphis then.
Later we got another drummer called Jamie and we called him "Freeze." When you saw him you would say "FREEEEEEZE."
"Hey Freeze, you know the beat I want?" (We called it the Memphis Beat.)
He said, "No, how does that go?"
Then I demonstrated it for him and he said,
"No! That's the Motown Beat!"
"Well, it's the same thing!"
In different parts of the country, they were calling it different names. In California they were calling it the Popeye Beat. Young people, when you started playing it, really got on the dance floor, because it fit the kind of dancing they were doing at the time.
Freeze taught the beat to Robert Dykus who recorded for us. Then I recruited a saxophone player called Mike Brown from Shortridge High School. Charles went into the Military and I got Richard Corbin out of Attucks (High School) to play bass. When Mike Brown went away, I got Darnell Dawson to play saxophone. Then I recruited a guitar player from Cincinnati called Clint Jones. Also, from St. Louis I recruited a singer named Roosevelt Matthews. Bobby Banner came after Roosevelt.
 So what was the lineup for most of the recordings you did for King and your own label, Apollo?
Mike Brown.
Robert Dykus on drums.
Charles White on bass.
Chuck on guitar.
Pedro on guitar.
Billy Ball.
Ron Hetrick on trumpet. And Clint Jones on guitar ( on some recordings). We had a lot of stuff that never did get released. Clint Jones came in on some of them when we were finishing it up. Some of those musicians... I bet we had another 12 or 14 songs, but they just put them on the shelf.
 Tell me how your first recordings came about?
Lewis Ennis and I were in a tank outfit together. He indicated that if I ever wanted to get into any music, I should look him up. But that didn't mean anything to me because I was from Mississippi and he was from Cincinnati.
But then, down through the years, the band got good enough where we thought we could do some recording. I tried to get on Stax, because I knew all those guys on the Stax label. Then we tried to get on the Hi label, with Willie Mitchell. Willie Mitchell didn't want me on the Hi label because he was instrumental group and had Bill Black and he was instrumental. Stax label was more or less sticking just to the family then. So I tried to indicate that I spent more time in Memphis than I did in New Albany, Mississippi, which was just across the line. I was sitting around thinking and I said to Roosevelt Matthews, "You know, I was in the army with a guy that told me whenever I needed to do recording to give him a call. He said his parents owned King label. Back then everybody thought James Brown owned King label, because back then it was good to think of black people owning something.
So I called Ennis and told them that "Old Mississippi" is on the phone.The next thing I hear is "You son of a bitch! This can't be 'Mississippi!' "
I said, "Yes it is ‘Mississippi' "
He said, "Man, what are you doing"
I said, "Man, what did I do in the Army?"
He said, "Play basketball and football and music! What can I do for you?
So I said, "Believe it or not, I have a pretty good group and we want to do some recording."
He said, "Anytime, anyway! You got it."
So that's how I got on King label. Back in that time, to get on a label as an unknown person… Hell, there were a thousand bands around, so that tells you I must have had some inside pull to get onto the King label.

So "Tighten Up Tighter" (on King) must have come out after Archie Bell and the Drell's version!
Believe it or not, we had ours out before the rest.
We were in Huntsville, Alabama and we got a job from this white guy.
This guy says, "My brother's got a club. I don't know if he'll let you play."
Anyway, these girls were dancing and doing the twist. So I said, "Hey lady. What is it you're doing?"
So she said, "I don't know. We're just tightening up."
I said, "Oh yeah? What is that? I don't know what that is either."
So she said, "You asked me, and I just said it."
So we started putting our words to music. When we played that and went to Nashville, Tennessee the floor collapsed.
Back then we just said, "Tighten it up." We didn't have breaks in it or nothing. Every so often we would say, "Tighten it up!" When we got back home we put some words to it. We actually tried to get on a label, because we hadn't thought about the King label yet.
Bob Riley came to see us play at the Fred Douglas social club. We played that Tighten Up and man, the floor collapsed. At that time, we had nothing more than "Tighten Up, Tighten Up, just Tighten Up. Go down to the floor and Tighten Up." We would just throw junk on it.
The next thing we know, Archie Bell came out with it.

What about the record you put out on Apollo?
That was distributed by Westin, out of Atlanta, Georgia. I think we pressed 15,000 copies of that and split the profit 50-50

Where was it recorded?
It was recorded on Jefferson Street in Nashville, TN. Welt's Studio.

I read in the Indianapolis Recorder that you were supposed to put out a 45 on (Herb Miller's) LAMP Records. "Soul for Sale" b/w "Carmel Corn." Did that ever come out?

Did you record it?
Yes, we recorded it. I got a lot of stuff laying around here, but I have no idea where this stuff laying around here. I'm being honest with you. When I was travelling on the road I just threw stuff everywhere. That was a fast life back then.

When did your sound change from "Lawdy Ms. Clawdy" style R&B to the heavy funk we all know you for?
The sound changed in the 60s.

Was that James Brown's influence?
Truth of it is, he didn't! All the local Memphis guys were already playing it. Here's a guy with a big name. All he had to do was recruit and record what was already out there. Nobody seems to know how it got so big. It just kind of eased in. The local guys were already doing it. We can't pinpoint how the Memphis Beat came about. We can't seem to nail it down. It would be like asking who started rock and roll!

What other clubs did you play?
We played at the Fred Douglas Social Club, every night after hours from 1 to 7 a.m. 6 days a week. I had a book one time that listed, in alphabetical order, all the groups we played behind. Everybody I ever played with I made sure to shake hands with and snap a picture.

You opened for lots of acts, and sometimes backed up big name singers who were on the road. How did that work?
Most of the time their booking agent would send the music ahead. Most of the time, they would send us a live tape and say, "Forget the record, here is how we are going to do it live. Just like we did this show in Buffalo, New York, we're going to do the same show, so learn it." So we would learn the live version, which would be longer, because they are going to do little acts in it.

Was it hard to learn those intricate live shows?
Sometimes, sometimes not. A lot of times we had a little tape player. When Tyrone Davis came here, Roosevelt already sang all his songs. When we had to go down and play for him - because his band was snowbound - he asked if we knew his songs. Well, Roosevelt knew them all, because he was a Tyrone-style singer.

What was the strangest show you remember?
In Jacksonville, Florida. A guy booked us for Kool and the Gang.
He said, "What do you have?"
I said, "Four horns. A trumpet, a trombone, an alto and a tenor. "
He said, "I'm going out to get you some outfits. Do you want to make $1,500?"
I said, "Yeah!"
He said, "Do you want to be Kool and the Gang?"
I said "Oh no! You ain't gonna get me sued."
He said, "Who's going to get you sued? Leave it to me and I'll take care of it."
So he went out and got us outfits just like Kool and the Gang. We had been in Rochester, New York and played a few shows with them. We knew their songs, so when we got down there, we turned the place out. Most of the major black groups… well, people had never seen them. Back at that time you couldn't see black bands on T.V.

You dropped out of music for a while to go back to college, right?
Yes, I finished college at Indiana State and started teaching at Lawrence North in 1974. I taught drafting, vocational and industrial arts. I taught at Lawrence North for 25 years. Sometimes, like during Black History Month, I would go down and take over the school band for a while.

You reassembled the Upsetters in the early 90s and started playing shows again. What is the lineup of today's Upsetters?
Arnold Banks - Guitar
Tony Davis - Bass
Keith Jordan - Bass
Big John - Drums
Billy Ball - Sax/Piano
Bobby Banner - Vocalist
Clint Jones - Guitar
Jeff - Guitar
Walter Webb - vocalist.