Obituary: Joe Williams

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The Independent Culture
"WHEN I was a small boy, my grandmother taught me to behave as though someone was watching me all the time," said the bass baritone Joe Williams. "She made me learn that you should never do anything that you would be ashamed to have anyone see you doing." Williams was a fastidious and dignified man who lived by his grandmother's rules throughout his life. "My Number One son!" was how Count Basie liked to refer to him.

Nobody who saw Williams sing with the Count Basie band of the Fifties could ever forget the experience. A tall, well-built man, he stood rooted to the stage, immobile, with his hands clasped before him as he sang and swung with a virile power that British audiences had never seen before. The flexibility of his voice and the range of his emotion, mainly in the blues, were unique.

Basie's followers were astounded. They took to Williams right away. The critics, as is so often the case, took a lot longer. "A lot of the critics in England and Europe were hostile. They would write, 'Most of the applause was reserved for the singer, and he is no Jimmy Rushing,' " said Williams. Rushing, who sang with Basie during the Thirties and Forties, had been different. He had used his voice almost as though it was one of the horns in the band and his kind of swinging made him an integral part of its sound. Williams, on the other hand, sang in front of the band rather than as a part of it.

Restrictions imposed by the Musicians' Union on the visits of American bands meant that Basie didn't come to Britain until 1957. We had heard Williams's 1955 recording with the band of the Memphis Slim number "Every Day I Have the Blues". The arrangement, by Ernie Wilkins, featured the singer and the band and spread over two sides of a 78 record, with the singer shouting as loudly as the band played. "There's no such thing as going into the studio intending to make a hit record," Williams told me when he came over here on a reunion tour with Basie during the Seventies. "Unless you do something that you enjoy, it just doesn't make sense. Get it out so it sounds as good as it possibly can, then leave it alone. Let the public do the rest."

The public duly did, and the album Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, recorded for Norman Granz's Clef label, became one of the best-selling jazz collections. It included half a dozen arrangements by Basie's tenor player Frank Foster, who was particularly good at writing for Williams. "The Comeback", "Teach Me Tonight", "In the Evening" and "Alright, OK, You Win" were stunningly successful on the LP. They also featured in the world-wide concert tours that were mutually beneficial to Basie and Williams until the unthinkable happened in 1961 and Williams left the band. Over these years Williams regularly won all the magazine polls as best male singer of the year.

He was born Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Georgia. He recalled,

My mother and aunt and grandmother chose the Williams for me when I was 16, and I adopted it legally later. When I was three I was taken to Chicago by my grandmother. My aunt and my mother, who was working as a cook, were already there. I don't remember my father at all. We never heard a word from him. My aunt and my mother sang at the St Paul's Coloured Episcopal Church every Sunday. My mother was the organist.

I did some singing with a quartet called the Jubilee Boys when I was 14, and when I was 16 I got a job in a club called Kitty Davis's. I was tall enough to get away with it. I was there about eight months, and I was the only black person in the place. I sang all the pop songs of the time. One night I walked up to the bandstand where the trumpeter Johnny Long was leading his orchestra. I told him I'd like to sing with his band and he took me on right away.

In 1937 Williams joined the band led by the clarinettist Jimmy Noone, as its singer. The money at the club where they played was not as good as it might have been, so Williams augmented it by working in the kitchen between sets. Noone had been one of the classic New Orleans clarinettists and had been a seminal influence in the early years of the music. His immaculate playing and fat, warm tone were to influence generations of clarinettists, including Benny Goodman, and Noone famously impressed Maurice Ravel, who sat in the audience trying to transcribe Noone's solos.

Having moved on from the New Orleans style, the band played the popular songs of the day. It toured the South and played to packed black audiences before returning to Chicago. "Back in Chicago we broadcast almost every night for two 27-week seasons on the CBS coast-to-coast network," said Williams.

When Noone left to work in Los Angeles, Williams decided to stay in Chicago. "My first experience with a big-name orchestra was in 1941 in the big band led by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins," he remembered:

Oddly enough I was singing the blues in a night-club where he was playing, the Cafe Society, and when he heard me, he asked me if I'd join him. He gave me double what I had been making, and he only wanted me to sing ballads, not blues. It lasted until we were in Memphis on 7 December and there was nobody there at the dance that night. They'd bombed Pearl Harbor and Hawk broke the band up.

By 1943 Williams was working as a security guard on the front door of the Regal Theatre in Chicago:

Somehow the manager of the theatre fixed it for me to join Lionel Hampton at the Tic Toc Club in Boston. I met all kinds of musicians in that band and some of them, like the trumpeters Joe Newman and Joe Wilder, were in the Basie band that I joined later. The girl singer was Dinah Washington and Hampton paid me $11 a night.

Williams returned yet again to Chicago in search of a better salary. He worked in various clubs and in 1945 stayed in Milwaukee for several months singing with the backing of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, two of the most famous boogie- woogie pianists:

Then I joined Andy Kirk's band, and had a nervous breakdown. I was in Elgin State Hospital from April of 1947 to April of 1948. I had electric shocks - the works. When I left the hospital some people helped me get a job selling cosmetics door-to-door. You took half of what you made. It kept me busy and it made me so tired sometimes I couldn't get my clothes off before I fell asleep.

In 1949 a radio disc jockey began announcing that, if any listeners knew the singer's whereabouts, the bandleader Jay Burkhardt wanted to add Williams to his band. Somebody found Williams and took him to where the band was playing. He sight-read the band's book and was hired. At last Williams's career began to take off:

George Shearing came through with his quintet, and I worked with him at the Regal Theatre, and that did it. I gave up cosmetics. In 1950 I did a two-week stint with Count Basie at the Brass Rail in Chicago. Basie gave me $50 a week out of his own pocket. He had this small band then and it could swing you inside out. I worked with Red Saunders's band for nine months and I sang in Cleveland and Buffalo. Basie came through Chicago again in 1954 and he'd reformed his big band again by then. He told me that he couldn't pay me what I was worth, but as things got better for him, they would get better for me.

Williams was very much a professional who took pride in both his singing and his stagecraft. "There's a very simple reason why the show must go on," he said. "If it doesn't, we don't get paid."

He joined Basie's band in New York on Christmas Day 1954 and stayed for six years. "We had our hits," he said,

but the main thing was it was a very lifting experience being with that band. It was made up of men who took great pride in getting their music right. It was a matter of self-discipline and of group discipline. If someone got out of line, we didn't go to Basie. We straightened him out ourselves. We were treated like artists, so we tried to act like artists. Basie was very quiet, but he observed a lot. In a way he ran the band by letting it alone.

One of the reasons Williams finally left the band, in 1961, was because he wanted to broaden his repertoire away from the blues that Basie favoured. "I like all songs. I guess maybe I do lean towards mood music. However if the story is right and the mood and the song are good I like it." He was a magnificent singer, and his rich textured voice was natural for the ballads and standards that he sang for the rest of his career. He used all manner of devices, including falsetto, and sometimes he would take a phrase like "Oh well, oh well" and repeat it for 12 bars.

He was an inspired jazz musician, but could also tread the ground of the commercial song in the way that Billy Eckstine had done. Williams was very conscious of the fact that his being a black musician had closed many doors that would otherwise have been open to him.

His career expanded and he recorded with the best jazz singers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. His friendship with Basie survived and led to many reunions until the pianist's death in 1984. Williams also recorded with the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and his group, with Robert Farnon's orchestra, with George Shearing and with the Thad Jones- Mel Lewis Orchestra, amongst many others.

He was able to pick the finest musicians to accompany him, amongst them the pianists Ellis Larkins, Norman Simmons and Hank Jones. For his seasons in New York he used musicians of the calibre of Joe Temperley, Junior Mance and Al Harewood. His friendship with Bill Cosby led to him taking the role of Cosby's father-in-law, Grandpa Al, in the television comedy series The Cosby Show during the Eighties. The childhood memories Grandpa Al spun on the show were in fact Williams's own from his early days in Chicago.

He continued to be in demand for work on cruise ships, at festivals and in hotels and clubs. Despite his advanced age he worked for 40 weeks a year. He was a dedicated golfer. Williams chose to live in Las Vegas because the desert climate eased the serious problems that he had with emphysema, which meant that he had to avoid high altitudes and polluted air. It was this illness that overtook him while he was working recently in a smoke-filled club in Seattle. He died after discharging himself from hospital, against medical advice. He had walked several miles and was found a few blocks from his home.

Joseph Goreed (Joe Williams), singer: born Cordele, Georgia 12 December 1918; four times married (one son, one daughter); died Las Vegas 29 March 1999.