Billy Harner, the rock-and-roll barber from Pine Hill whose high-voltage performances got him nicknamed “the Human Perk-u-lator” in the 1960s, relaxes in a recliner with his cat, Freddie.
His wife, Veronica, is frying eggs for lunch. Their daughter, businesswoman Deborah “Debi” Fischer, is on the way over from her place in Pine Hill; her brother Billy III — a carpenter known to some as “Wild Bill from Pine Hill” — lives just down the road, too.
“I went to Hollywood, but I just wanted to be home with my family. I never wanted to move, because I love it here,” says Billy, a grandfather and great-grandfather several times over. “I’m a family guy, that’s for sure.”
“Perk” grew up in a musical household and taught himself drums as a boy. He honed his chops at South Jersey high school dances and at clubs like Dick Lee’s in Brooklawn. And when not cutting records, he was cutting hair in Merchantville, where a line of kids eager to sit in the rocker’s chair once spilled so far into the street that the police were worried about public safety.
Later on, Billy worked at Perk’s Place, the little salon Debi now owns on Haddon Avenue in Westmont. He continued to perform for many years — a 1987 oldies show at the old JFK Stadium in Philly was a highlight — but he hasn’t used his clippers or rocked a venue with his soulful vocals in quite a while.
Having heard that Billy has been ailing, I paid him a visit last week.
“If I felt any better, I couldn’t handle it!” he says, sporting a big smile and attire far more sensible than the snakeskin boots and black-leather pants that once were his signature.
I tell Billy that his 1967 Top 40 single “Sally Sayin’ Somethin’ ” had a place of honor on the soundtrack of my music-obsessed youth. I ask him what it was like for him to hear it on the radio.
“It’s a feeling I wish everyone could feel,” he says. “But I’m just a singer. I got lucky with a few records, that’s all.”
Billy’s career may not have brought him superstardom, but it spanned more than half a century of singles and albums on a dozen or so labels — including majors like Atlantic and indies like Philly’s legendary Cameo-Parkway.
Harner tunes such as “Sally,” “Homicide Dresser,” and “She’s Almost You” became staples of the Northern Soul dance-club movement in the United Kingdom in the ’70s. Later in the decade, Billy even did an album titled King of the Disco at Philly’s Sigma Sound.
“I want this generation to know about this guy. He should have been bigger. He was a wild man,” says WMMR-FM personality Jacky Bam Bam, who met Billy at a South Jersey event several years ago and likens him to Mitch (“Devil With a Blue Dress On”) Ryder.
And if he gets requests to play “Sally” on his Friday show, Bam Bam says, “I play Billy Harner loud and proud.”
I ask Billy III if his dad was disappointed at never having made it all the way to the top.
“Absolutely not. So much happened, he had so many things to talk about, and he was happy with whatever he got,” Billy III, who’s 52, recalls.
“When he performed at the Steel Pier in the early ’70s, he showed me his name [on a marquee] in letters 14 feet high. He said to me, ‘That’s your name up there, too.’ ”
Indeed, despite his rugged rock-star looks and sweaty stage shows that made him synonymous with good times — Billy played Wildwood’s Rainbow Room for 93 nights straight in 1969 — he’s best known around Pine Hill for being a goodhearted, generous fellow who made sure his musicians got paid first and often gave free haircuts to folks in need.
“He was always a gentleman,” says Veronica, who remembers ironing the shirts her husband wore during gigs and making mac and cheese for the Friday night jam sessions Billy and the guys would have in his basement studio.
“There’s not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me how he’s doing,” says Debi, her dad’s manager for 15 years.
“Billy has never forgotten his roots,” says my former newspaper colleague Kevin McElroy, who grew up in the borough and has known Billy since childhood.
“ ‘Sally’ is his song, but Pine Hillers claimed it, and him, as their own,” adds McElroy. “Pine Hill and Billy Harner are inseparable.”
Billy also is longtime pals with Patti Lattanzi and Billy Carlucci, cohosts of a show broadcast on the Vineland oldies station Cruisin’ 92. That friendship, and his working-class roots, landed Billy a scene in Red Gravy, an upcoming documentary film by Washington Township native Jacquelyn Shulman.
Although the focus is on Italian Americans from South Philly, “the theme of the movie is being blue collar and following your dreams,” Shulman says by phone from New York. “Billy’s so humble. And he achieved so much.”
Says Lattanzi, “We love the Perk, and we’re sad he’s not performing anymore.”
In fact, Billy’s final gig was a taping of Lattanzi and Carlucci’s show at Filomena’s in Berlin in 2007.
There’s a low-fi YouTube video of him singing “Homicide Dresser” and getting into a groove; it’s a priceless portrait of a man doing what he loves.
Rock on, Perk.