Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
Music was the magic that transformed Bill Neely from a poor sharecropper's son during the Depression era into a respected entertainer with a career that spanned decades. It transported him from his humble roots in Texas to such worldly cities as Paris and Washington, D.C., leading the singer and composer to play esteemed venues that included the Smithsonian Institution. Not too shabby for a Collin County boy who had been forced to leave school in the eighth grade and seek employment when he was just 15 years old. His early forays into the work force of the 1930s began on train treks with crews working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program instituted by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to aid the thousands of citizens who desperately needed work. Neely moved around the country and labored on government-sponsored jobs. He entered the U.S. Army in 1939 and served through 1943. By this time he was already writing music, but the war stalled his career. His interest in music had developed early, when at the age of 13 he received a guitar lesson from Jimmie Rodgers, a reigning star of country music. Upon Neely's discharge from the service, he settled in Arizona. Relocating six years later to Austin, TX, he made the acquaintance of Kenneth Threadgill, a restauranteur and musician. Threadgill booked Neely into his establishment for weekly Wednesday gigs, and Neely's act found a home there throughout the 1950s. Austin was also where Neely met acoustic guitarist Larry Kirbo in 1968. The pair teamed up for almost a dozen years and played a Smithsonian Institution event together. The list of other musicians whom Neely performed with includes Pete Seeger, Mance Lipscomb, and Janis Joplin. Over the long course of his career, he put out a lone recording, Blackland Farm Boy, which was released in 1974. Neely was one of a small group of musicians from Texas who headed to Paris late in 1989 to appear at the Maison des Cultures du Monde, or the House of World Cultures. A cassette was made of some of these performances through Documentary Arts, with Alan Govenar as producer. In addition to Neely, the recording also features Osceola Mays and John Burrus. Neely is also featured prominently in the video Living Texas Blues. In addition to his music, he also spent time supporting his family as a truck driver, a chef, and a restauranteur. In 1948, he took Bobbie Hamilton as his wife, and Neely went on to help raise a stepchild and four more children. He succumbed to leukemia in 1990.