Singing a mixture of blues, ballads, popular songs, and jazz standards, Joe Williams (1918-1999) was an elegant and sophisticated baritone known for his clear pronunciation and jazz stylings. He became famous as the lead vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1954 to 1961, recording such popular hits as "Every Day (I Have the Blues)" and "All Right, O.K., You Win."
Joe Williams was born Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Georgia, a small town about 50 miles south of Macon, on December 12, 1918. His grandmother took him to Chicago at the age of three. His mother gone ahead had found work as a cook. He was exposed to music early; both his mother and aunt played piano, which he learned to play a little, and he sang in church. On the radio he would listen to jazz and opera. Jazz singer Ethel Waters was an early favorite.
When he was 14, Joe began singing with a gospel quartet, the Jublee Temple Boys, which he organized. The next year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to have one of his lungs collapsed for treatment. Fortunately, the treatment left his singing voice undamaged, but Joe would continue to suffer from respiratory ailments throughout his life.
At the age of 16 Joe sang for tips and worked as a janitor in an all-white nightclub in Chicago called Kitty Davis's. Around this time he dropped out of high school and changed his surname to Williams. He began singing in clubs around Chicago with bands led by Erskine Tate and Johnny Long. It was a busy time for the young singer, who found himself featured with three different bands.
In 1937 the 18-year-old Williams joined a band led by clarinetist Jimmie Noone and toured the South. From 1938 to 1940, Williams and Jimmie Noone's Orchestra were heard nationally over the CBS radio network. He would later credit his early radio experience with lending clarity to his pronunciation, a key element of his trademark style. When not working for Noone's band, Williams toured the Midwest with the Les Hite band.
In 1938, Williams heard blues singer Big Joe Turner for the first time and was immediately drawn to the blues. Fifty years later he reminisced about that first exposure to the blues in a The New York Times interview: "In Chicago in those days, we had what were called breakfast dances. The shows would start at six in the morning and be over by eight. The one where I first heard Big Joe Turner was at a club that seated maybe 500. Joe Turner got on the stage, and even though he had no microphone, I could hear him as clear as day singing, Oh baby, you sure look good to me." Williams noted that Turner had an urban, as opposed to a country, sound and was the first blues singer "who made the words discernible."
Williams joined tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's band in 1941, but it broke up soon after. In need of a steady job, he worked as the stage doorman at the Regal Theater in Chicago, where he met the leading jazz and rhythm-and-blues musicians who were on tour. When jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton played the Regal with his band, Williams joined in, singing side-by-side with noted jazz vocalist Dinah Washington. He toured with the Hampton band in 1943. It was with Hampton that Williams made his New York City debut, sharing vocals with Dinah Washington. According to Williams, "I was given all the pretty songs like 'Easy to Love' and 'You'll Never Know,' and Dinah sang the blues." Other notable gigs in the 1940s included a six-week stint in a blues show with boogie-woogie pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons and a subsequent job with Andy Kirk's big band.
Williams was married to Wilma Cole from 1943 to 1946 and to Ann Kirksey from 1946 to 1950. It was a troublesome period for the blues singer, who had difficulty finding steady work. In 1947, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a year in a state hospital. When he returned to performing, he developed a following at Chicago's Club DeLisa and sang with pianist George Shearing's quintet. Williams married for a third time in 1951, this time to Lemma Reid. Their daughter, JoAnn, was born in 1953. However, this marriage was not a success. After a lengthy separation, the couple divorced in 1964.
Williams first worked with the noted bandleader, Count Basie, in 1950. Basie was fronting a septet at Chicago's Brass Rail, for a ten-week engagement. When Basie formed a new band in 1954, he asked Williams to join. On Christmas Day, Williams flew east to begin performing with them in New York. He consciously avoided duplicating the material or style of Basie's previous vocalist, Jimmy Rushing. Instead, he introduced his own blues-flavored repertoire, including a song he had been singing in clubs, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)." Williams had recorded the song in 1951, and it became a local hit in Chicago. In early 1995 he recorded a new version of the song with the Basie band. It became Basie's first hit in 15 years. According to The Encyclopedia of Jazz, "His success with Basie was so phenomenal that he elevated the entire band to a new plateau of commercial success."
The song appeared on the album, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings. It brought "overnight" recognition to Williams, who had been singing for 20 years. He was named "New Star of 1956" in the jazz magazine, Down Beat. In addition to his big hit, Williams's repertoire during this period included "All Right, O.K., You Win" and covers of such pop hits as "Too Close for Comfort" and "Teach Me Tonight."
With the Basie band, Williams played his first Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 as well as the first of three annual Birdland tours with pianist George Shearing, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, pianist Erroll Garner, and tenor saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young. Williams also made his first television appearance in 1955, as a guest on the Jackie Gleason-produced Music 55, where he sang "Alright, O.K., You Win." In 1956, he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, which was then hosted by Steve Allen. He later appeared frequently on The Steve Allen Show.
Williams met his fourth wife, Jilean Hughes-D'Aeth, during a 1957 engagement at the Starlight Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. They married in 1965.
During 1960 Williams tired of singing with the Basie band. He played his last engagement with Basie in January 1961 and began a solo career by touring with a quintet led by trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. They recorded three albums together in 1961 and 1962. From 1963 to 1965 Williams recorded for RCA Victor, including a 1963 live album, Joe Williams at Newport. Williams appeared frequently on television during the 1960s, including several appearances on The Tonight Show, starting in 1962.
In a December 1964 interview in Down Beat, Williams discussed the relationship of politics and music at a time when many black performers were under pressure to take a stand in favor of integration and the civil rights movement. Williams clearly fell on the side of entertainers, like Nat "King" Cole, who felt that an entertainer's major responsibility was to entertain. He stated his belief that music is a personal thing and "the moods change too much in music to make a political thing out of it."
Williams also sang with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band during the latter half of the 1960s, including a 1966 date at New York's Village Vanguard that was captured on a live album. The collaboration produced a studio album that featured a mixture of blues, Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" and "It Don't Mean a Thing," and Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)."
During the 1970s Williams continued to tour, playing clubs, concerts, and festivals throughout the world. In 1971, he and pianist George Shearing collaborated on a recording, The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams. They had been friends for more than 20 years. In 1973, he recorded Joe Williams Live with saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. He also sang in Adderley's folk musical, Big Man, which was released on record in 1975.
In 1974, Williams sang an a cappella version of Duke Ellington's First Sacred Concert at a memorial concert for Ellington held at the Hollywood Bowl. That year he also reunited with the Count Basie Orchestra for a Newport Jazz Festival concert in New York City. It was so well received that Williams appeared frequently with the band until Basie's death in 1984. Toward the end of the decade he toured Africa with trumpeter Clark Terry under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. A 1979 recording, Prez and Joe, with Dave Pell's Prez Conference, which played ensemble versions of Lester Young's tenor sax solos, earned Williams a Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal. He earned another Grammy nomination in 1981 for the song, "8 to 5 I Lose," from the movie Sharky's Machine.
Williams toured with Edison and other former members of the Basie band as well as with his own trio during the 1980s. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, next to Basie's. When Basie died in 1984, Williams sang at his funeral, moving the crowd with a rendition of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday." That year he also won his first Grammy for the album, Nothin' but the Blues. He sang the title cut in the movie All of Me, starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.
During the 1980s Williams had a role on the popular television series, The Cosby Show, playing Cosby's father-in-law Grandpa A1. He also appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival ten times. In 1988, his schedule included more than 100 nights of performing, including two trips to Europe, a week aboard the Floating Jazz Cruise, the Monterey Jazz Festival, his annual participation at the Kennedy Center Honors, and more.
When Williams reached the age of 70, a birthday tribute concert was held at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. The two-part concert featured Williams singing with his own trio during the first half, then joining the Count Basie Orchestra led by Frank Foster for the second half.
Williams recorded for Telarc during the 1990s. In 1992 he recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, led by Frank Foster, for the first time in 30 years. His last album, recorded in 1994, was a set of spirituals entitled Feel the Spirit. Of his interest in gospel music, Williams told Down Beat in 1999, "The church was the beginning of almost all of our lives. That's where we come from, so it is normal that we should go back to it." In 1992, his recording of "Every Day (I Have the Blues)" with the Basie band was named a Grammy Hall of Fame recording by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). The following year, Williams performed at the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton. He continued to attend the Kennedy Center Honors each year. Williams had performed for every American president since Richard Nixon, with the exception of Gerald Ford.
A 1993 video, Joe Williams: A Song is Born, captured the singer in a live performance with pianist George Shearing and his trio. In 1997, he performed to rave reviews in the San Francisco revival of Duke Ellington's 1943 classical and jazz composition, Black, Brown and Beige, which included "Come Sunday" and "The Blues." He subsequently recorded duets with a young singer, Nicole Yarling, for the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.
Williams was hospitalized for treatment of breathing problems in Las Vegas. When he left the hospital he was reportedly disoriented from his medication. Williams walked about two miles without his oxygen tank before collapsing on the street. He died on March 29, 1999. His manager, John Levy, told the press that Williams had a history of respiratory difficulties, but had always recovered with the assistance of oxygen and other treatments.
The New York Times described the singer's style in its obituary of him: "Well into the 1990's, Mr. Williams was one of the most dependably moving performers in jazz. Standing nearly still, perhaps with his hands folded in front of him, he would make ballads sound like resonant, intimate conversation, then open up a blues with a voice that was both knowing and heartsick." In a tribute published before his death in 1999, Down Beat offered this portrait of Williams: "The mellow beauty of his voice, the unequalled clarity of his diction, the sureness of his swing and his equal ease with ballads and blues place him in the first rank of all jazz singers and among the leading interpreters of the American popular song."
All Music Guide to Jazz. Second edition, edited by Michael Erlewine et. al. Miller Freeman Books, 1996.
Feather, Leonard. The Encyclopedia of Jazz. Revised edition.
Bonanza Books, 1962. Billboard, December 3, 1988.
Down Beat December 17, 1964; March 1994; June 1994; September 1997; January 1999.
Entertainment Weekly, November 20, 1992.
Jet, April 19, 1999.
Michigan Chronicle, April 7-13, 1999.
New York Times, May 23, 1980; June 22, 1989; June 25, 1989;March 31, 1999.
Time, April 12, 1999.