It was June 1983 in NYC and Steve Satterwhite had just spent the last of his savings on a fantasy: a recording studio with an eight-track Scully (now on display in the Stax Museum in Memphis) that he had jimmied into a vacant storefront on Fourth Street in the East Village. Studio done, Steve now needed someone to record. He put a small ad in The Village Voice and, three days later, came home to find by his door a wild-haired man holding a notebook. The man was Billy Marlowe, and the book was filled with songs.
At the time Billy was about forty, but it was a hardscrabble forty. He had been born into difficult times in Oklahoma (we think), and the tracks on his face pointed to years of struggling with things not always under his control. He had started out with his Gibson J-50, playing music in bars and small clubs in San Francisco, and later in places like Louisville and Baton Rouge, and even Amsterdam and Brussels. But hard times were never far away. Over the years, and like so many others in those days, Billy battled alcohol, drugs and the draft, battles that brought about some broken relationships and some time in prison. But through it all Billy wrote beautiful songs driven by a raw, stinging poetry.
In the East Village during the early ’80s there were scores of talented musicians just walking around, some famous and some who would be. It seemed like Steve knew them all and, once they met Billy, it wasn’t hard to bring everybody together on Fourth Street to work hours and hours for little more than the satisfaction of making something good. The most easily recognizable (by her haunting harmonies) is Shawn Colvin, but there was also the keyboard inventions of Stephen Gaboury, the guitar mastery of Jeff Golub, and a violin in the hands of Kenny Kosek that could bribe its way into heaven. Read the list; it’s a “Who’s Who” of New York musicians from that era. Everyone involved in recording Billy thought they were witnessing the birth of an American classic.
The arranging and recording went on for over a year. The finished album was titled SHOW ME THE STEPS. It was dubbed onto cassettes and a few LPs, but there really wasn’t a plan for a lot of big-time distribution or promotion after that. It ended up being an elaborate demo tape. If you wanted to go to the prom in those days, you had to be invited; the music business was a private party. So the basic hope was that by bringing Billy’s songs into being, someone in the music industry—someone with smarts and market muscle—would shepherd Billy to his proper place in the pantheon of American poet-songwriters. It didn’t happen. The music was extraordinary, but no one called back. And the variety of indie routes that we now take for granted, didn’t exist. Time went by and the project gathered dust. Some more time went by and Billy died. That was sixteen years ago.
There is no one alive today who could write Billy’s biography. Just where he went and what he did is lost to time, but not lost are the extraordinary songs that Billy wrote during his life that were recorded during those special sessions that summer on Fourth street. Thirty years later, Show Me the Steps is finally being released. We are all the better because of it.