Saturday, August 18, 2018

Here's Billy--Billy Carter's fifteen minutes of fame

In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia was elected President of the United States, ushering in a new era of culture and politics. President Carter had a seemingly more humble background than the typical politician, with small-town southern roots, a disarming quality of casual informality that was reflected in his name, and a family of colorful folks that charmed and captured the imagination of the American public, including liberated mother Miss Lillian, and beer-swilling younger brother Billy.

“I’m a real Southern boy,” Billy said to a gathering of reporters at his gas station in Plains. “I got a red neck, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.” The press and the public were charmed with his wit, looking to him as something of a country philosopher, but with a lot more bite than Sheriff Andy Taylor.

While Jimmy Carter personified the tolerant, liberal New Southerner, Billy Carter personified the hard-drinking, hard-smoking good-time Southern redneck. Part good ol’ boy, part businessman, part huckster. Not particularly political but very opinionated. And he didn’t give a damn who he offended, or if his boisterousness was an embarrassment to the president. “Jimmy’s staff may bitch but that don’t bother me. To hell with his damn staff,” he eloquently told Newsweek.

Billy Beer

Billy had been living a relatively quiet, simple life in Plains for his first 39 years, raising a large family, and running the Carter family peanut warehouse and the town’s Amoco filling station when he was catapulted into the national spotlight. It “complicated the hell out of my life,” he said at the time, but it also opened up some new business propositions. An attempt to ride the coattails of his brother’s electoral success didn’t quite pan out. He lost his bid to become mayor of Plains one month after Jimmy won the presidency, but a big marketing opportunity opened up: Billy Beer.

As tourists and press people began to flood into Plains, eager to find out more about their folksy new president and his family, Billy was rarely seen without a beer in hand and a beer belly to go with it. A sizable segment of the population saw him as something of a kindred spirit, someone they could have a beer and shoot the shit with. Officials from the Falls City Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky approached Billy with the idea of marketing a beer with his name, and the First Brother took them up on it.

“I had this beer brewed up just for me,” read the endorsement that bared his signature on bottles and cans. “I think it’s the best I ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.” The label went on to describe Billy as “One of America’s all-time great beer drinkers.”

“I’m a businessman,” Billy said at the time, “and I was itching to find something else to get into. For me the beer thing was a natural, ’cause I know a good beer better than anybody. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become the Col. Sanders of beer.”

In coming up with a brew that would suit Billy’s discriminating tastes, marketers of Billy Beer explained that they had him sample several brews and the one he liked best was “a heavier beer, very unlike the light beers now coming on the market.” Billy’s special brew was described as “more malty and flavorful.”  It will be “drinkable, and you’ll be able to enjoy more without explodin’,” Billy was quoted as saying.

Falls City was a regional brewer whose territory included Georgia, but to market Billy nation-wide, other regional brewers in places such as Cold Spring, Minnesota, Utica, New York and San Antonio, Texas signed deals to brew and market it in their own territories. Billy said he preferred to support the smaller businesses around the country rather than a giant corporate marketer, allowing him to have close, personal involvement with people at all levels to maintain quality. Of course, Billy was to receive a substantial royalty with the sales of the product.

Billy Beer was introduced with a big outdoor beer bash in Plains on October 31, 1977 featuring Billy, lots of good ol’ boys, two of his attractive grown daughters, mother Miss Lillian and plenty of reporters, although no presidential appearances. The brew came in bottles and cans with a slick-looking orange, blue and white label, designed by his wife Sybil, and soon posters and point-of-purchase displays proclaiming “Billy Beer is Here” were appearing in bars and liquor stores in different parts of the country. The media gave it enough free publicity that Billy didn’t need to buy expensive TV spots during NFL games.

The presidential brother quickly became a celebrity in his own rite, appearing on the TV talk show circuit and entertainment programs such as Hee-Haw, along with county fairs and car dealerships willing to shell out enough to meet his appearance fees. He was referenced in newspaper cartoons, comedy monologues and quiz shows, and he was even made a member of the Beer Can Collectors of America club. But neither Billy Beer nor Billy himself was without controversy.

Beltway elitists and political snobs wrote editorials denouncing in the strongest terms what they perceived as the younger Carter acting in a manner unbecoming to a president’s brother, and the state of Virginia banned Billy Beer outright, citing a law it just happened to have prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages bearing the endorsement of any well-known living person on the label.

Archer L. Yates of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission of Virginia said it was “highly improper for Mr. Carter to endorse a label selling beer in Virginia” and that the Billy brand is “downgrading to the office of the president of the country.”

“It has always been and continues to be the feeling of the commission that endorsements for alcoholic beverages by any prominent person is contrary to good public policy in the control of alcoholic beverages,” the humorless commissioner stated.

As it turned out, Billy Beer was a flop. Within months of its introduction, liquor retailers were deep-discounting the brand “just to get rid of it” and they were not ordering more.

Even Billy himself apparently didn’t think much of the brew in spite of his endorsement. The beer he was usually seen drinking before his namesake product was introduced was Pabst Blue Ribbon. An article years later in Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles magazine told the story of how he autographed each can of a six-pack of Pabst for the young beer can collecting son of a business acquaintance, commenting “PBR is the only brand I’ll drink. That Billy Beer tastes like shit! I was paid a lot of money to put my name on it, but I don’t have to drink it.”

Billy Beer ultimately sank the troubled Falls City Brewing Company, which had invested so much into its promotion. Less than a year after its introduction, the Louisville brewery went out of business, was closed down and the assets were sold to the G. Heileman Brewing Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which was growing by leaps and bounds at the time by buying out regional brewers across the country. Heileman wanted no part of Billy Beer and consequently 8.8 million unused Billy cans ended up in the smelter at the Reynolds Metals Company recycling plant.

Foreign Agent Billy

Billy Beer was dead by the end of 1978 but Billy Carter shed few tears. He was seeking new business ventures in the country of Libya, leading a group of Georgia legislators and businessmen in a trade delegation to that rather hostile country.  If the mission itself didn’t raise enough eyebrows, he commented that he was interested in doing business with Libya because “there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than Jews.” Regarding charges that the nation sponsored terrorism, he said a “heap of governments support terrorists and [Libya] at least admitted it.” President Carter publicly distanced himself from the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Billy’s hard-drinking reputation began to catch up to him, in part from the stress of being thrust into the limelight and in part because he felt the need to live up to the public perception that people expected of him. Eventually he checked himself in to an alcohol addiction treatment facility in California and sobered up for good.

As President Carter campaigned for reelection in 1980, Billy’s ties to Libya increasingly became a headache for the Administration.  He registered, belatedly, as a foreign agent of that country after he admitted to receiving a $220,000 payment for oil sales he was to facilitate. Allegations began to fly that the Carter Administration had asked Billy to use his influence with Libya to help out in the American hostage crisis in Iran, that Libya sought aid from Billy in acquiring C-130 transport planes embargoed by President Carter, and that Billy illegally received access by the White House to State Department cables, among other things. A scandal was brewing, dubbed by the media as “Billygate,” an investigation by the Justice Department was triggered and Congress announced plans to hold hearings on the matter.  The old image of Billy Carter as the loveable beer-swilling redneck was but a distant memory.

“Billygate” was just one of many problems weighing down President Carter’s reelection bid, and when voters went to the polls in 1980, Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. As Reagan took office the following January, all remnants of the folksy president from Plains and the culture of the late 1970s were swept away for a new era.

Revenge of Billy Beer

With a new era of Reaganomics, eighties attitudes and new-wave fashion, Billy Beer became something of a collectors’ item, a novelty from the not-so-distant past that nevertheless seemed like such a long time ago.

Beer can collecting continued to be a popular, if waning, pastime, especially with younger guys, and rumors began to snowball that Billy cans had become incredibly rare and valuable, worth up to thousands of dollars for a still-full six-pack and at least $50 or $100 for even a crapped-out empty. There were news reports about this so-called phenomenon and even Johnny Carson talked about it on the Tonight Show.

The truth was, most beer can collectors had several Billy cans saved, the cans were common if obsolete and not much more than a novelty item. But that didn’t stop scam artists and more than a few plain dimwits from thinking they could make a fortune selling the Billy cans they horded up back in 1978.

When the Beer Can Collectors of America (BCCA) held their national “Canvention” in Chicago in 1981, the dimwits and scammers saw a huge money-making opportunity, running ads in local papers offering “mint” Billy cans for an average price of $250 a can or $1,500 a six-pack. One even thought he could get $9,000 for a six-pack.

The BCCA, who once claimed Billy as a member, responded to the ads directly by giving away over 300 Billy cans to passers-by on the streets of Chicago during their convention as a means of promoting the club to the public and exposing the scam for what it was, effectively destroying the dreams of would-be millionaires. Some of the “valuable” cans were tossed into Michigan Avenue and crushed by oncoming busses.

Billy Carter, meanwhile, returned to the quiet, private life he enjoyed before his brother’s ascension to the White House, staying off the booze and staying away from controversy. However, pancreatic cancer took the lives of his two sisters and mother Miss Lillian, who also had bone and breast cancer. Billy himself died of pancreatic cancer on September 25, 1988, almost ten years to the day from his first visit to Libya, at the age of 51. Billy Beer still did not increase greatly in value with collectors.

The Billy Carter Museum

His legacy did not end with his death, however. Almost twenty years later, in May 2008, the old gas station and watering hole in Plains that had famously been Billy’s official headquarters, reopened as the Billy Carter Service Station Museum. Operated by the Plains Better Hometown committee, of which Jimmy Carter is a board member, the idea was suggested by the former president himself, who contributed $50,000 to get the project rolling. Another $200,000 was raised in private funds.

The museum displays many of Billy’s personal possessions, including clothing such as his cowboy boots and a Billy Beer T-shirt, documents, diplomas, commendations, magazine covers, even a letter he wrote to his older brother, the future president, as a young boy. There is also a history of the service station itself, provided by the Jennings family of Plains, from whom Billy bought the station in 1972.

“Well, I think all of you know Billy Carter was the one who put me on the map,” President Carter told a crowd of about 300 at the grand opening of the museum. “Mother always believed—and she convinced the rest of us—that Billy was the most brilliant member of the family. And I don’t think anybody would doubt that.”

"Redneck Power: the Wit and Wisdom of Billy Carter, compiled by Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard, Bantam Books, 1977
“Brother Billy” by Pete Axthem, Newsweek, November 14, 1977
Beer Can Collectors News Report, November-December, 1977
Beer Can Collectors News Report, January-February, 1978
Beer Can Collectors News Report, May-June, 1978
Beer Can Collectors News Report, March-April, 1979
Beer Can Collectors News Report, November-December, 1981
Beer Cans & Brewery Collectibles, February-March, 1999
“Billy Carter Museum shows ‘whole man’” by Susan McCord, Albany Herald, May 4, 2008
Associated Press report on Billy Carter Service Station Museum, May 5, 2008

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