Harmonica Master and Blues Impresario Bill Lilley: An Appreciation

By Richard Skelly

Billy Lilley

Bob Carpenter, one of the senior-most caddies at the famed Baltusrol Country Club in Springfield – and a great amateur golfer himself – once told me: “After all, we will all be dead for a very long time.”

Indeed. Yet, with some personalities, a legacy lives on. Harmonica player and blues impresario Bill Lilley is one guy whose legacy lives on.

Lilley, a longtime blues harmonica playing fixture on the Garden State blues club and festival scene, passed away at 70 on Memorial Day weekend at his home in New Port Richey, Florida, after a long struggle with liver cancer.  He and his wife Theresa were active volunteers at the first half dozen Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festivals.

I first got to know Bill Lilley at a Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater Festival out at Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, where they used to be held.  The Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festival began as a fundraiser for Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater, an offshoot of the Hudson River Friends of Clearwater organization founded by folksinger Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi and hundreds of environmentally conscious volunteers.  I recall a sunny day in August on the side of the chapel near the main stage, still in college at Rutgers, drinking Budweiser with Lilley and Big Danny Gallagher, himself an old school blues shouter.

Guitarist Billy Hector had just formed the Fairlanes and Lilley, as a vocalist and harmonica player, was a big part of the band’s sound.  Lilley had founded their previous incarnation, the Renegade Blues Band.  Later that fall, I headed to Mrs. Jay’s in Asbury Park to hear the Fairlanes on a rainy night. As a young, dumb college kid, I knew not what to make of these characters hanging around Mrs. Jay’s, many of them motorcycle enthusiasts, but a few blowing off M-80’s on the back patio, just for kicks.

Like one of his heroes, Mark Wenner from the Nighthawks, Lilley looked rough and tumble with a few tattoos, often sporting a goatee or mustache, but in reality, he was extremely bright, a former Eagle Scout.  Lilley was a really well-rounded guy who knew a lot about many subjects. [Most people don’t know Wenner, the longtime leader of the Nighthawks from Washington, D.C. is a graduate of Columbia University.  Shortly after graduation, he decided he wanted to work for himself, so he founded the Nighthawks.]

Lilley had other harmonica playing heroes too, like Charlie Musselwhite. One year, we were able to have Musselwhite and his crack backing band in Marine Park in Red Bank for our early June Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festival. It was a high point of our time in Marine Park.  

By the time he’d settled in Asbury Park from Bergenfield, he was working with his brother in the tree removal business. That kind of work will give you new muscles you didn’t know you had, as well as all kinds of aches and pains.  I am happy to say, having used his services, Bill’s brother Ken Lilley proved the consummate safety man. While it is often a profitable line of work, it takes its toll on the body. 

I recall gigs the Hounds shared with the Fairlanes and many gigs up at Wallace’s in Orange, NJ. It did not take long with two major talents on stage – Lilley on harmonica and vocals and guitarist Billy Hector on guitar and vocals – for the Fairlanes to establish themselves in the upper pantheon of blues rock conglomerations based here in the Garden State in the 1980’s and 90’s. They expanded their touring base to venues in New York City, bountiful in those days, and New York State, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.  The Fairlanes also did a tour in California in the fall of 1989. The last day of the tour ended with the Bay area earthquake that interrupted the World Series and caused the Bay Bridge collapse, so one could say the Fairlanes left the state of California all shook up.

Lilley and his wife Theresa had a house on Bridge Street in Asbury Park. Their dining room served as a meeting place for early Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Festival meetings, prior to the founding of a formal, 501-c-3 non-profit foundation.  I recall meetings around Lilley’s dining room table and loads of ideas being discussed by the likes of Theresa Lilley, Donna Buddleman, Bob Santelli, Tony Palagrossi, myself and Eileen Chapman.  We were a tight-knit bunch in those days. Thanks to some anonymously donated money from people in high places, we were able to eventually take our festival out of the hands of sometimes fickle club owners and into Marine Park. Through it all, Bill Lilley was a supporter.

Then in the mid-90’s, working with Tommy Patten and his wife, Lilley helped to launch Crossroads on Main Street in Asbury Park, a bona fide blues and roots music bar.  From the get-go, it was a club with an identity, not unlike what Mel Hood built at Jason’s in South Belmar. Lilley worked closely with Patten to set up a good sound system, proper stage and good lighting system.  He began a second career in blues as a behind-the-scenes guy, yet he would often jump on stage with Wenner and the Nighthawks. Lilley did a yeoman’s job of booking great national acts into Crossroads, carefully figuring out cover charges that would be reasonable for patrons yet allowing the club to make some money by the end of the night.  Aside from the Nighthawks, I recall shows there by Barbecue Bob and the Spare Ribs, Big Danny Gallagher and the Lost Leader Band, Stringbean and the Stalkers and dozens of other local acts.  Through it all, Lilley always had his stuff together, calling me weeks in advance to tell me, “Hey Richard, I just nailed down a date with Hubert Sumlin for such and such date, do you want to do a story?”  He knew my answer would always be yes, because I appreciated who he was and the classy way he presented acts at Crossroads, as well as how organized he was, always giving me more than a month’s notice that a national act was coming in to the venue.  As a correspondent who was paid by the article at the Asbury Park Press, prior to becoming a columnist there, it was a win-win situation.

National acts Janiva Magness, Anson Funderburgh and Jimmy Thackery were coming to Asbury Park and I was fortunate to be there to write advance stories for these shows. Most of the time, I would be there to meet these artists myself.

Bill Lilley was also a guest on my radio show, Thursday nights at WRSU-FM, four or five times over the years, including several shows after he began collaborating with Patten at Crossroads. Shortly before Crossroads opened, he brought Tommy to New Brunswick one Thursday night to talk about their vision for the club.  In the end they had a good run – WBJB-FM DJ Rich Robinson was a popular bartender there – and the club was a venue known for good blues and blues rock for just about a decade.  

This is why the legacy of good people, serious fans and impresarios of blues and blues-rock, like Bill Lilley, will live on in Jersey Shore popular music history. So many good memories from so many memorable shows. In the end, as life grows precious, what else do we have, except memories?

  • Richard Skelly