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Remembering Joe Williams

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 12, 1999:  Though he made his name as a big band singer, Joe Williams' talent could never be confined simply to that genre. He was an amazing blues shouter, an incredible ballad stylist, and an acutely convincing romantic interpreter. He was also a gifted gospel singer, though he seldom performed in that vein once he became a secular star.

Williams, who died at age 80 on Mar. 29 after leaving the Las Vegas hospital where he'd been receiving asthma treatments, was as great a humanitarian as he was a performer. His schedule included benefits for causes as varied as college scholarships, environmental concerns, African American cultural events, and even animal rights.

He was born in Cordele, Ga., but came of age in Chicago, where he started singing in nightclubs as a teenager. During the late '30s, his prodigious baritone was initially heard accompanying clarinetist Jimmy Noone on the radio. The response was so great that jazz giants Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton both recruited Williams during the early '40s. Following a tour with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in '46 and '47, the young singer made his first recordings.

Following minor stints with boogie woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, as well as Red Saunders and Hot Lips Page, during the early '50s, Williams met Count Basie, who by that point had disbanded his orchestra and founded a septet. The singer's first Basie tenure didn't yield significant results, but when they reteamed in 1954, the results were magical. Williams' rendition of "Everyday I Have the Blues," which he'd first cut in 1951 with King Kolax, became his signature song, and he enjoyed international acclaim over the next seven years with the Basie orchestra.

Williams maintained his ties with Basie's band after going out on his own and becoming one of the most in-demand male band vocalists of all time. Like Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, and longtime friend Buddy Greco, he neatly balanced commercial and artistic considerations for the remainder of his life. He worked in Las Vegas, New York, Atlantic City, and Lake Tahoe doing lightweight pre-rock pop, then divided his remaining time between making command appearances at major jazz festivals and cutting critically praised LPs.

Sadly, many of his finest works are out of print right now, but there's likely to be a rush to get his catalog back into circulation. As longtime friend and golf comrade Bob Goulet said, "He was one of the greatest jazz and blues vocalists of all time, and he was an even better person. At 80, he could sing rings around people who were 20."

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