I first saw the madcap laugh-riot antics and good news hijinks blues sermons of Reverend Billy C. Wirtz in the late-1970s. He preached a brand of religious freedom through his music and one-liner punchline pulpit sermons extolling the blues. He ministered at unlikely churches. Dark places of worship like the Marble Bar, the 8X10 club, and the Fat Chance Saloon in Baltimore. The Rev. wasn’t a typical pious hellfire and brimstone proselytizer of parochial patois. A long-haired, freaky-dyed bloody red, beatnik-bearded, heavily tattooed, sharp-dressed unholy man of the Pentecostal cloth.
At the heavenly height of six-foot-five, he thumped a keyboard in lieu of a Bible. His pointy-toed snakeskin boots bordered on the fetishized totem and taboo of parochial fashion through divinely stylish design. There’s no method to his glad-handed, good-foot Christian madness. A musical magic melee of gospel-tinged blues, bebop, and country western rockers. Reverend Billy’s song lyrics tell tales of resurrection and redemption.
My friend Hoppy Hopkins was once upon a time the drummer for our punk band Da Moronics and later played gigs with the T. T. Tucker Bum Rush Band. He originally hipped me to the holy man himself, aka William Wirths. Hoppy sat in, playing drums on pickup gigs here and there with Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, a cousin. It’s in the blood, I reckon. Hoppy retells just one tidbit of too many decades of crazy gigs he shared with Rev. Billy; this one was at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, accompanied on the bill by his good friend Sideshow Bennie.
A fish-eyed view and a sideways glance into his world of freak show depravity from the throne behind the drum kit. Sideshow Bennie is no slouch himself; he's a gargantuan, hairy wild man. As part of the act, he simultaneously belched six-foot flumes of fire breathing while they played Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” At the same time, Bennie had three Sears and Roebuck steam irons. They were attached to and dangling from his swaying, behemoth scrotum sack with hook chains. Great Balls on fire. Talk about having testicular fortitude. Pass the collection basket. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story was a mantra somebody told me somewhere.
It always gets weirder. Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, not to be confused with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping based in NYC, where they proclaimed Mickey Mouse was the anti-Christ, crucified the cartoon mouse on a cross, and screamed the evils of consumerism, environmental destruction, boycotting Starbucks, protesting racist sweatshop labor, and the gentrification of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s New York. It was the anything-goes 1990s. Nothing was the same again. Reverend Billy C. Wirtz is still going strong. Though, like his song, “Things I Used to Do All Night,” it now takes all night to do just one thing.
I speak as a senior citizen. Rev. Billy’s songs have titles like “I'm a Senior,” a feel-good fun parody of The Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her.” There’s a choice cut from The First House of Polyester Worship, a DVD/CD of The Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, Sermon from Bethlehem. Sponsored by the Women’s Auxiliary of You Go Go Girls. Grandma versus the Crusher, a rare chestnut about wee Billy and his granny watching the wrestling matches on TV. A short sampling of song titles runs the sanctimonious social satire set list with “Songs of Faith and Inflammation,” “Pianist Envy,” “A Turn for the Wirtz,” “Confessions of a Hillbilly Love God,” “Backsliders Tractor Pull,” “Deep Fried and Sanctified,” “Unchained Maladies,” available on Hightone Records.
The Reverend has gone full circle in a musical career that spans almost five decades. It began with stints playing keyboard with the likes of his mentor, blues barrel house pianist Sunnyland Slim. He’s opened for some of the most diverse acts in the music biz, like Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Boz Scaggs, The B-52s, Taj Mahal, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and NRBQ. The Rev. is still the unofficial honorary keyboard player for the legendary Nighthawks.
As if that wasn’t enough for one man tickling the ivory, Rev. Billy C. spent some time as a professional wrestling manager, leading to a contract with pro wrestling in Florida. All because of a song described as a tasteful tune about a midget lady wrestler named Teenie Weenie Meanie. A dizzy spell playing with the Root Boy Slim Sex Change Band led him to see the light on the road to sobriety after years of blackouts sampling the devil's dandruff, poison poppy flowers, a mountain of pills, and enough moonshine to blot out the sun in a permanent eclipse. The Reverend is still touring today. In between teaching workshops, he created a church known as The First House of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire, Our Lady of the White Go-Go Boot, Lord of the 40-Watt Undulating Bubbling Lava Lamp Apocalyptic, No Pizza Take-Out After Twelve, Shrine of the Rick Flair “WOOOO’," and Rasslin' Jeezus.
In 2008, Circumstantial Productions published Wirtz's first book, Atomic Boogie at the One-Stop Sanctified Shopping Mall of Salvation.. Rev. Wirtz published his second book, , with Holy Macro Books in 2012. And his radio show The Rhythm Revival. It’s broadcast every Friday on 88.5 WMNF from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., along with Marvelous Marvin Boone. The backstory is that Marvelous Marvin’s dad was a DJ in the 1950s and 60s who hated the communist jungle boogie-woogie music he would receive at the radio station. Fortunately for Marvelous Marvin, his father stockpiled hundreds of the hated 45’s in the attic of their family home. Check it out. The Master of the 88-Key Disaster, King of the