Born William Richard Thorpe in Manchester, Billy Thorpe and his parents emigrated to Australia in 1955, arriving in Melbourne, Victoria and settling in Brisbane, Queensland. He performed as a youth under the pseudonym 'Little Rock Allen'. After he was heard singing and playing guitar by a television producer, Thorpe made regular musical appearances on Queensland television, and by the time he was 17 was an experienced singer and musician.
In 1963, Thorpe moved to Sydney and auditioned for a regular gig at Surf City, a popular beat music venue in the city's Kings Cross area. His backing band was an accomplished Sydney surf/instrumental group called The Aztecs, comprising Colin Baigent (drums), UK-born Tony Barber (rhythm guitar, vocals), Vince Melouney (aka Vince Maloney), lead guitar, vocals), and John "Bluey" Watson (bass). The various incarnations of this group would be Thorpe's musical collaborators for several decades.
In 1964, The Aztecs released their first single, "Blue Day", written by guitarist Tony Barber, but it was their next single release, Leiber and Stoller's "Poison Ivy" (a cover of a song by The Coasters which the group decided to cover after hearing the version recorded by The Rolling Stones. It was to be the band's breakthrough hit and over the next two years, the band experienced incredible success in Australia, their record sales and concert attendances rivalling those of The Beatles, with hits like "Over The Rainbow", "Mashed Potato" and "Sick And Tired" cohabiting on the record charts.
The original Aztecs lineup split from Thorpe at the end of 1965 over a financial dispute, so Thorpe created another band with the same name. Thorpe then formed second incarnation of The Aztecs with Johnny Dick (drums), Mike Downes (rhythm gtr, vcls), Colin Risby (lead gtr, vcls), Jimmy Taylor (pno), Teddy Toi (bass) and Tony Buchanan and Rocky Thomas (brass).
This lineup achieved further success with huge hits such as "Love Letters"," I Told The Brook" and "Twilight Time". On 27 March 1966, the Seven Network debuted a music show called It's All Happening! hosted by Thorpe with the Aztecs as the house band. Each one-hour episode featured both Australian and international musical guests. When the show ended its run in 1967, the Aztecs broke up again.
Thorpe stayed fairly quiet for the next few years, emerging after a spell of bankruptcy in 1969 in Melbourne, Victoria. With the encouragement of former Purple Hearts guitarist Lobbby Loyde (who was briefly in the new band), Thorpe took up electric lead guitar and put together a new "heavy" version of the Aztecs and established himself as one of Australia's premier rock musicians.
With their landmark LPs The Hoax is Over and More Arse Than Class and a breakthrough gig at Melbourne Town Hall in 1970, supporting Daddy Cool, the 'new' Aztecs accrued a considerable reputation in the southern states and became known as one of the loudest acts on on the local concert circuit.
In 1972, the Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs played two of their most famous gigs. A show at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl during the Moomba Festival resulted in 250,000 people filling the park to catch the Aztecs' set, and forcing police to close the roads around the venue. Later in the year, The Aztecs released a live recording of their show at the Sunbury Music Festival, which featured the debut of one of Thorpe's most famous anthems "Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy", which took him back into national prominence.
In 1975, The third version of the Aztecs broke up, and in 1976, Thorpe relocated to Los Angeles in the United States.
Thorpe continued his musical career in the United States, recording and releasing a solo album entitled Children of the Sun in 1979. He released three more albums, all of which had some chart success.
In 1984, Thorpe quit live music, and started an electronics consulting company which did work for The Walt Disney Company, Mattel and Universal Studios.
By 1986, Thorpe owned a recording and production studio in Los Angeles, where he worked on musical scoring for television series, including: War of the Worlds, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Columbo, Eight Is Enough and Hard Time on Planet Earth.
He collaborated with Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac) and Bekka Bramlett in Fleetwood's side project, a band called The Zoo.
Thorpe returned to Australia permanently in June 1996, where he authored two autobiographies: Sex and Thugs and Rock 'n' Roll (1997) and Most People I Know (Think That I'm Crazy) (1998).
Billy Thorpe suffered from chest pains at his home on 28 February 2007.
Thorpe was taken by ambulance to St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney around 2am AEDT after having massive heart attack, and he remained in the emergency ward in a serious condition. He went into cardiac arrest around half an hour later, and hospital staff attempted to resuscitate him, but he did not recover. His family was by his side when he died. Thorpe was 60 years old.
He is survived by his wife Lynn, and daughters Rusty and Lauren. Thorpe's manager Michael Chugg has said the death is a "terrible tragedy", as Thorpe had just finished recording a new album "Tangier" and was very happy after a recent acoustic tour.