In 1977, an irreverent prankster named William McLean Wirths, a special education major at James Madison University, became an ordained minister via a mail order certificate from what he recalls was “The First Universal Life Christian Kingdom.”
“My professor said that ‘we’ll just have to call you Reverend Billy” and that sort of stuck;’ says the jokester from Aiken, S.C., who soon became singer/songwriter and boogie-woogie/blues pianist the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz.
Wirtz never had a church, but he gathered a flock of followers for his First House of Polyester Worship, a spoof of TV preachers. Playing the keyboards with Jerry Lee Lewis gusto, he turned out a dozen albums of humorous and clever rockabilly and blues songs rooted in Southern redneck culture.
The album titles alone reveal a twisted sense of humor from “Salvation Through Polyester”(1982) through “Deep Fried & Sanctified” (1989) to “Backslider’s Tractor Pull” (1990), “Confessions of the Hillbilly Love God” (1994) and “Best of Wirtz: 15 years on the Road with a 77-inch Piano” (2001).
Among his songs: “What I Used To Do All Night Long Takes Me All Night Long to Do,” “The Waffle House Fire,” “WWED (What Would Elvis Do),” “Stairway to Freebird” and-“Lookout! Grandma’s Behind the Wheel.”
Wirtz gained a Tampa following through frequent appearances at the annual Halloween Freaker’s Ball at Skipper’s Smokehouse and through airplay of his songs on community radio WMNF (88.5 FM).
Now, after more than 30 years on the road, playing clubs, pubs and dives from Florida to New York and from the Carolinas to California, Wirtz says he settling down, dividing most of his performances between Tampa and Ocala. And he’s still writing new comedy songs.
“At 59, going up and down that road from Waffle House to Waffle House takes its toll,” he says. I’m battling a six millimeter kidney stone inside me as we speak. I’ve got a few dates in California and the mid-Atlantic this year but I’m wanting to make Tampa part of my base.”
He has a regular gig on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. at Ella’s Folk Art Café in Seminole Heights and has joined WMNF (88.5 FM) as a host of Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival (blues, gospel and rockabilly) from 2 to 4 p.m. on Fridays. He performed at the Ringside Café in St. Petersburg last week and is scheduled again for Tuesday night and July 29. “I do the full on old-school Rev. Billy at Ringside,” he says, “At Ella’s, I mix my stuff with some Ray Charles, Johnny Cash or Floyd Cramer. It’s a challenge because I’m playing for people who may have never heard of Rev. Billy.”
In Ocala, he plays The Infinite Ale Works and The Braised Onion, a high-end food-and-jazz restaurant.
“I’m coming back from a crash and burn that took a toll on my health,” says Wirtz. “I was on and off pain pills for several years and got addicted.” A lung infection in 2006 resulted in surgery and time off. In 2010, he slipped and blew out a knee.
“Being a self-employed traveling musician, I was without health insurance until the Affordable Care Act was passed,” he says.
He sought temporary treatments such as injections of chicken fat. “It didn’t cure my knee but I got (excited) every time I passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he jokes. A Texas doctor that he met while performing on a blues cruise offered a free knee replacement, and in 2012 he got the operation. He also credits medical marijuana with getting him off narcotics and tobacco.
Ernie Locke, also a musician and co-owner of Ella’s, says he has known Wirtz for years, going back to the 1980s when Locke was working at a used record store in Kansas City. “We’re both music freaks and share a love of music history,” says Wirtz.
“I think Rev. Billy is a treasure, and he deserves to be heard,” says Locke. “I was happy to get him in here on a regular basis.”
Wirtz is more than just a comedy act. He calls himself “a person of interest.” He’s been a special education teacher, a wrestling manager, a music critic and magazine columnist, a radio disc jockey and an author (check out “Red Headed Geek: My Short and Painful Career as a Rasslin’ Manager” on Amazon).
Wirtz had a brief stint on World Championship Wrestling as a “manager” for “Median” Knight, the Nasty Boys, Gigolo Jimmy Backlund, and Diamond Dallas Paige and was the house musician for the WCW’s Monday night telecasts. He says he learned “rassling may be fixed but it ain’t fake.”
“On the WMNF radio show, I try to educate and entertain,” says Wirtz, who brings in music from his personal collection. “I’m a big fan of rhythm and blues and gospel is my specialty. What a lot of people have heard is the second and third generation of songs. I want to play the originals going back to artists like Muddy Waters and Hank Ballard. I love sharing this music. Between playing at Ella’s and WMNF, it’s a dream come true for me”