About The Artist
Bessie Mae Willoughby was born in Winchester, Kentucky to Ora Lee and Nellie Branham Willoughby. She was the third of 12 children. Two of her sisters died in infancy. Several of her brothers served the country in the military. One brother had multiple sclerosis in his late 20's; he was unable to walk, talk or move for his remaining life. His mother took care of him until she passed away in October of 1992 at the age of 85.
Billie Jo was a tomboy growing up and did not take any bullying from the boys. Her family was quite poor and worked in the fields to make ends meet many times she recalls her mother working the fields with a baby strapped to her back. From the stories was told due to their Cherokee Apache and Italian heritage there was a lot of bullying she and her siblings endured as children but Billy Jo would have none of it and often got in physical fights with boys at school if they would make fun of her or her family.
She recalls that when she was young, the government appropriated their property and turned it over to the boys scouts. Her family was part native American Indian. When that happened, it only made their poverty they were living in, worse.
She recalls on one occasion that her father got into a drunken rage and tried to choke his mother; young Billie Jo (as she was known then) saved her mother's life by hitting her father over the head with an iron skillet with such force, it knocked him out. It was a difficult childhood for her, but she cherishes those memories and was always close to both of her parents.
She took to music at an early age. But while she was named Bessie Mae, after an aunt, she never accepted that name because there were cows on the farm that were called "Bessie." She was close to her father, and he called her "Becky." Her father played the banjo and was in a band locally. He took her to play in a talent contest. In fact, she was the only one of her nine living siblings that showed any interest in music or had the talent for it. A young Billie Jo began to enter talent contests and winning, too. This was the start of her musical journey. She was self-taught musically; she taught herself to play the guitar by ear and never took a lesson on guitar or singing.
Cowboy Songs featured Billie and Elaine Sloane (known as the Frontier Girls) in a December 1953 column, "Women in the News." In that column it was reported that Billie had started in the Renfro Valley Barn Dance show and felt the urge to go to New York and try her luck. It took her a bit of work, but she found herself on the NBC series, "Country Style," working with Pee Wee King. The Frontier Girls were being heard over WAAT in Newark, New Jersey with Shorty Warren and his Western Rangers. The two girls could not have been so different in their backgrounds. Billie was born in Winchester, Kentucky and a full blooded Apache Indian. Elaine was from Long Island, New York and was studying Grand Opera at Carnegie Hall when she heard a yodeling record at the Tannen Music Center and after meeting the music publishers, Nat, Don and Phil Tannen, she started singing country music.
In March 1955, Billy Willow started an engagement at the Scandia in Garwood, NJ; she was replacing Merv Shiner who had started a new engagement at the Bombardui Cocktail Lounge in Hoboken, NJ.
The A-Bar-C Ranch opened in May 1955 just outside Lakewood, New Jersey. It was owned by former entertainer, Al Coombs. The opening weekend would feature Merv Shiner of RCA Victor, Billy Willow of Rita Records, Lee and Terry Edmond, Rusty Starr and his Western Ramblers. Doing weekly regular appearances at the park would be Smokey Warren and the Palmer Cowboys. In addition, radio station WTTM in Trenton, NJ would be doing a half-hour remote radio show direct from the ranch.
Billy was also a part of a popular show called the "WATV Garden State Jamboree" that was seen over WATV out of Newark, New Jersey. The show was 45-minutes long, 9:15pm to 10:00pm on Tuesday nights. Popular? In less than a year being on the air, it was awarded the New Jsersey State Blue Ribbon Award by the New Jersey State Fair Committee. It is given to outstandihn radio and TV programs and personalities. Shorty Warren and Don Luftig were producer and director of the show. Regulars on the show back then were Elton Britt, Whitey Carson, Rusty Starr and his Ramblers, Shorty and Smokey Warren and his Western Rangers, Billy Willow, Mickey Evans, the Sunshine Trio, Coy McDaniels, the Polka Dots and local acts s well. Comedy on the show was in the hands of "The Toothless Twins" wo were COy and Smokey.
In the summer of 1956, Billy was part of Merv Shiner and his Country Gentlemen's show at the Olympia Tavern in Toronto, Ontario. Merv's group included Stoney Stevens on drums; Merv on vocals and guitar, Major Simpson on steel guitar and Billy Willow on the bass. It was also in mid-1956 that readers learned that Billy had cut two sides for Columbia Records with Frankie Yankovic.
Shorty and Smokey Warren and thier Western Rangers along with Billy Willow started a week long engagement at the Brown Derby Tavern in Toronto, Ontario on August 12, 1957. Smokey had arranged a tour of one-nighters that would take them throughout Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland. Also appearing with them would be Marvin Rainwater, Betty Foley, The Polka Dots, Elton Britt and the Ramblin' Hoedowners.
The Shorty and Smokey Warren review set off on a summer tour on July 29, 1958 in Whitney Point, NY and would take them to Maine, New York, Vermont and Canada through September 5, 1958. The traveling party included Del Barker, Nickey Nastros, Billy Willow, Dottie Mae, Whitey Murphy, Tex Cast along with stars such as Justin Tubb, Gordon Terry, Floyd Tillman, Jimmie Skinner and Ray Lunsford. Billboard reported their tour stops in its July 21, 1958 issue:
Shorty Warren reported in his magazine column that his "Garden State Jamboree Show" had a successful tour through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The traveling troupe included Billy Willow, the Polka Dots, Betty Foley, Elton Britt, Rambling Hoedowners, Shorty Warren and his Western Rangers. The group had a coupe of special guests, Marvin Rainwater and Wanda Jackson.
In November 1958, readers learned that the Arizona Sweethearts (Dottie Mae and Billy Willow) were going to appear on Ernest Tubb's show (presumably the Midnight Jamboree at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop) on WSM on November 22.
In March of 1959, she was part of a reunion show. Smokey and Shorty Warren had a get together of the original Western Rangers at the Copa Club in Secaucus, New Jersey. Performers included the Arizona Sweethearts (Dottie Mae and Billy Willow); Lee (Utah) Forrest; Eddie Wayne, Jimmie Dale; Lucky Joe Antol; Cy Swed; Larry Burda; Coy McDaniels; Frank Neves; Chet Tyler and Dick Richards.
Billy traveled quite a bit with the Smokey Warren troupe. The Cash Box reported they had a successful three weeke engagement at the Concord Hotel in Toronto, Ontario in the summer of 1959. Smokey and his Arizona Trail Blazers included Dottie Me, Billy, and Frankie Nues. It was reported they played to SRO crowds each night.
It was in the late 1960's, she met and married a serviceman who was persistent in his pursuit of her. The couple met in a 'honky-tonk' and it was love at first sight for him when he heard her sing Loretta Lynn's classic, "You're Not Woman Enough To Take My Man." At first she took no interest. But he was persistent in his pursuit. Finally, she relented and began to see him. She recalls he was one of the only men she had met in her career that treated a show business person like her with respect.
Finally they were married. But he was being deployed to Germany. She put her career on the back burner and moved overseas to be with her new husband. Her last singing engagements were in Germany at some NCO clubs.
Billie Jo later became a nurse. She traveled around the United States to various locations where he husband was serving.
Billie Jo (or BJ) was married to Jerry Hemmes for 49 years when he passed away in July of 2017 at the age of 84. He was a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She did have a bit of a fighting spirit within her and was quick to defend her family. She was at a baseball game where her husband was in the role of an umpire. Evidently one of the female fans in the stands did not take kindly to the calls by her husband the umpire. That led to a bit of a phsyical altercation.
We had the pleasure of talking with Billy on the phone in July of 2022 as she shared some of her memories. That phone call included an impromptu bit of yodeling by Billy. She could still yodel up a storm even though she was over 90 years old.
Credits & Sources
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