Vera was born in Riverside, California, and is the son of the radio and television announcer Bill McCord. His mother, singer Ann Ryan, was a member of the Ray Charles Singers backing Perry Como on his TV show and his hit records.
He began his recording career in 1962 as a member of the Resolutions followed by the regional hit "My Heart Cries"/"All My Love" as Billy Vera & the Contrasts. He went on to a songwriting career in the 1960s, writing for Barbara Lewis, Fats Domino, The Shirelles and Ricky Nelson. He also wrote the garage band classic "Don't Look Back", performed by the Remains and later covered by Robert Plant.
In 1967 Vera, with Chip Taylor, penned "Storybook Children" and brought it to Atlantic Records. The groundbreaking decision to place former gospel singer Judy Clay with Vera in a white-black duet to record the song was a commercial and artistic success. The duo became big favorites at Harlem's Apollo Theater and their follow-up, "Country Girl-City Man" also charted. He had a solo hit single later that same year with the Bobby Goldsboro penned "With Pen in Hand", which was also the name of his next album.
The 1970s were a slow period for Vera but 1979 began with his song "I Really Got the Feeling," a number 1 hit for Dolly Parton. During that decade he served as conductor for many oldies acts, including the Shirelles and Ronnie Spector as well as fronting the band at the 1972 Reunion concert of Dion & the Belmonts. Before moving to Los Angeles in 1979, he played many New York area clubs with his band which included Ben Beckley on drums, Tommy Wolk on bass, John Levanthal on guitar, and Joe Renda on keyboards.
Living in Los Angeles and writing songs for Warner Bros. Records, Vera and his old friend, bass player Chuck Fiore decided to put together a band to play the local club scene. Modeling their band on Ray Charles's 1950s band, The Beaters were born. They featured a horn section, as well as a pedal steel guitar, along with drums, piano, Fiore's bass, and Vera on guitar and vocals. As a result of the buzz the band generated from their now-legendary Monday midnight shows at the Troubadour, they were offered a recording contract by Alfa Records, a major Japanese record company that had recently opened an American office in Los Angeles. They recorded the band live, at the Roxy and in 1981 yielded the minor hits "I Can Take Care of Myself," which reached number 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., and "At This Moment", which (initially) charted at number 79. Both songs were credited as Billy & The Beaters.
The band's record deal evaporated when Alfa Records closed its U.S. offices in July 1982, but Vera and the Beaters continued to play the clubs of Southern California. In 1985, a producer from the television show Family Ties was in the audience and heard the band play "At This Moment". The song was featured in 1985 as a backdrop for romantic interludes between characters Alex (Michael J. Fox) and Ellen (Tracy Pollan). Viewers responded by clamoring for the song, and in 1986, Rhino Records released By Request: The Best of Billy Vera & the Beaters, which featured the song. The single became a number one hit on its re-release, reaching the top in January 1987, and remained on the charts for 15 weeks.
Before "At This Moment," Vera had a small career in movies and television including appearances in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Late for Dinner, The Doors and soap opera Days of Our Lives. "At This Moment" propelled his movie career as he and the Beaters were featured prominently in the Bruce Willis movie Blind Date. He appeared in one episode of a TV series, Wiseguy and had several other roles on shows such as Baywatch, Boy Meets World, and a recurring role as Duke on Beverly Hills, 90210 as well as nine appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. These roles would lead him into singing theme songs for TV shows, such as Empty Nest and The King of Queens, as well as voice acting on Cartoon Network cartoons. He served as band leader on Rick Dees' short-lived late-night talk show Into the Night on ABC in 1990.
During that period, Vera co-produced three Lou Rawls albums with his friend Michael Cuscuna, for Blue Note Records, including At Last, which reached number 1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Vera also produced Rawls's final album, Rawls Sings Sinatra, which remained on the jazz chart for over six months. Rawls recorded seven of Vera's songs, including "If I Were A Magician" (1989), "Room With A View" and "You Can't Go Home". In 1990, Vera's tune "Papa Come Quick (Jody & Chico)" was included on Bonnie Raitt's album, Luck Of The Draw. Vera also recorded as a duo with Nona Hendryx on the 1992 album You Have To Cry Some Time.
Currently the Beaters are still playing the Southern California club scene, and Vera continues his work as a music historian. He has helped produce, archive, and write liner notes for over 200 reissue albums and sets, from artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Louis Prima, among others.
Vera has been the voice for AM/PM Mini Mart commercials since 1999 and is one of the top voice-over artists in Los Angeles. "At This Moment" was included on Michael Bublé's number one album, Crazy Love. Vera's CD Hopeless Romantic: The Best Of Billy Vera & The Beaters, was issued on Shout Factory Records, and The Billy Vera Story was released on Rock Beat Records. With his old friend Evie Sands, Billy recorded "Queen of Diamonds/Jack of Hearts," a CD featuring songs by their early mentor Chip Taylor.
In 2015, Vera released Billy Vera: Big Band Jazz, a tribute to the black songwriters of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It was issued on Varese-Sarabande Records, and Vera has appeared with a big 18 piece band in New York City, Hollywood and at various jazz festivals.
Vera also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the corner of Vine Street and Yucca Street, right in front of the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. He won a 2013 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for the Ray Charles box set Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles".
Book publishing came calling and in 2016 his first effort, Vintage Neon: Los Angeles, 1979, featuring photographs from Vera's nocturnal hunts for old neon signs was released. His second book, a memoir entitled Harlem to Hollywood was released in 2017. Reviews hailed it as "an astounding story...the purest treatise on the subject ever produced." Award winning documentarian Alan Swyer has directed a documentary on Billy Vera, also titled Harlem to Hollywood due out this year.Storybook Children (with Judy Clay, Atlantic, 1968)
With Pen In Hand (Atlantic, 1968)
Out Of The Darkness (Midsong International, 1977)
Billy & the Beaters (Alfa, 1981) (US #118)
Billy Vera (Alfa, 1982)
The Billy Vera Album (Macola, 1977 - re-released 1987)
By Requestː The Best of Billy Vera and the Beaters (Rhino, 1987) (US #17, CAN #13)
Retro Nuevo (Billy & the Beaters, Capitol, 1988)
You Have To Cry Sometime (with Nona Hendryx, Shanachie, 1992)
Out of the Darkness (Unidisc, 1994)
Oh What a Night (Billy & the Beaters, Pool Party, 1996)
Not For Sale (Billy Vera, Chance, 1999)
Something Like Nothing Before (Classic World Productions, 2002)
At This Moment: A Retrospective (Varese-Sarabande, 2002)
Hopeless Romantic: The Best of Billy Vera & the Beaters (Shout! Factory, 2008)
The Billy Vera Story (Rock Beat, 2011)
Big Band Jazz (Billy Vera, Varese-Sarabande, 2015)
"Life Goes On", Empty Nest (TV series)
"Answers", Roomies (TV series)
"You've Got Me", Baja Oklahoma (TV movie)
"Baby All My Life I Will Be Driving Home To You", The King of Queens