Singer Billy Mize may not have achieved national fame, but as a spearhead on the mid-20th-century California country scene he was a formidable artistic force. His fans included Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin, and no less an authority than country music legend Ray Price called Mize "my favorite country singer."
Although sidelined years ago by a debilitating stroke, Mize, now 87, remains a beloved figure among Southern California country music aficionados. As captured in the compelling documentary "Billy Mize & the Bakersfield Sound," which screens Thursday at the South Pasadena Library's community room, Mize's story is one of impressive creativity and harrowing personal tragedy. Directed by Joe Saunders, the singers' grandson, it's a powerful mix of documentary storytelling and deeply affecting, naked human emotion.
Perhaps best known as composer of the much covered honky-tonk classic "Who Will Buy the Wine," released in 1955 by Decca Records, and as host of several long-running television shows in Bakersfield and on Los Angeles' KTLA, Mize was a gifted, persuasive singer from the Tommy Duncan-Jimmy Wakely western crooner school, a talented multi-instrumentalist and a lyricist of great skill. Although an established regional star, Mize's admirable fealty to family kept him off the road and largely out of the national spotlight, a fact that provided Saunders with more than a few challenges during the film's production.
"Because so few people remember who Billy was, it was almost impossible to raise any money for it, so it was an extremely low budget project," Saunders said. "But once I had some of it shot and edited and people could see what I had, that made it easier. The Academy of Country Music [which Mize co-founded] stepped in and helped out with song licensing and clearances, which was very helpful."
Mize's decision to pursue his career locally also ensured a very active role in the fast-evolving Bakersfield Sound, a hard-driving California hybrid that reached its commercial peak with the mid-1960s chart dominance of Bakersfield hit-makers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. But Mize was there at its post-war dawn and with his boundless skill, affable charm and movie-star good looks became the city's first real country music star.
Saunders' unearthed an astonishing trove of historic, never before seen footage of early Bakersfield, including rare performances on KERO's famed "Cousin Herb Henson Trading Post" show. "Billy is a bit of a pack rat. There's a room in his house full of boxes of stuff, photo albums, scrapbooks, old tapes, acetates, all kinds of media that are really not used anymore," Saunders said. "And I discovered all sorts of things — the 'Cousin Herb' footage I found on an unmarked VHS tape that Billy had."
Researchers from Hollywood to Nashville have scoured archives and attics looking for this type of material for decades and essentially gave it up as a lost cause. While Saunders made a significant contribution with the Trading Post material alone, he also discovered of a legitimate Holy Grail of Bakersfield country — Haggard's television debut.
"There was this old, rusted 16-milimeter film can and I pried it open. The film was developed, I looked at it, saw Billy's face and knew that I had to have that digitized," Saunders said. "It was a black-and-white episode of 'The Billy Mize Show' that happened to be the first television appearance Merle Haggard and the Strangers ever did. The film was actually already done at that point, it was scheduled to be shown at a festival in Cleveland but I knew I had to use it. So I called the organizers saying 'Hold on! I just made this incredible discovery.'"
Haggard himself, as an interview subject, provides a lot of context and color throughout the film. "Haggard really feels like he owes a lot to Billy and he was really helpful to me," Saunders said. "And Merle is a very nice guy who really likes Billy, so he and the people in his organization were great about helping me get in contact with other musicians, things like that."
The Bakersfield music community was an affectionate, tight-knit tribe, all of whom adored Mize. From the 1950s right through to the 1980s, if Mize dropped in at a nightclub to see a friend perform, everything stopped and everyone there wanted to visit with him. If he got up to sing, no one ordered a drink, no one said a word. They listened. It went beyond respect and friendship, because everyone in town knew what Mize had been through.
"The big challenge of the film was to strike a balance between Billy's personal life story and the story of the Bakersfield Sound," Saunders said. "Of course they directly parallel each other, but you could do an entire move on each one of those stories."
The personal side, depicted with copious vintage home-movie footage and Mize's own touching commentary, is deeply moving and, recounting the sudden deaths of two of his children, chillingly tragic. While his music provided Mize some relief, if not redemption, that was snatched away by a massive 1989 stroke. Although doctors said he'd never be able to use his right hand or speak again, the singer, following years of rigorous therapy, saw dramatic improvement.
"Billy will be 87 in April, but he's not a healthy 87, he's bedridden a lot of the time," Saunders said. "I certainly wish the film had cast a wider net. It did very well on the festival circuit, and we picked up some awards. Hulu Plus is distributing it now, it's on iTunes, all of those digital outlets, but they don't do any promotion, so really it's left to someone stumbling across it, within a sea of titles."
"It's like having a kid, you raise it and send it out into the world, hope for the best and see what happens."
What: "Billy Mize & the Bakersfield Sound" screening with live music and Q&A with director Joe Saunders
Where: South Pasadena Library's community room, 1115 El Centro St, South Pasadena
When: Thursday, Feb. 18, 7 p.m.
More info: (626) 403-7335; billymizemovie.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."