Obituary: Wee Willie Williams
Wednesday 15 September 1999
Williams, who was also a singer and mandolin player, formed a band, the Northern Lights, while attending high school in Maine and the quartet appeared on local radio and television. Williams married another of the Northern Lights, Roberta Merrill, and, with a friend, they worked as the Virginians around Norfolk, Virginia. They backed artists on a radio talent show, Country Showtime, for the station manager, Sheriff Tex Davis.
In 1955 Gene Vincent was discharged from the US Navy following a road accident in which he nearly lost a leg. He saw Elvis Presley perform in Norfolk and determined to record the new rock 'n' roll music for himself. Appearing on Country Showtime and backed by the Virginians, he won for several weeks. Williams remembered the first night, "He came up wearing a cast and sang `Be-Bop-A-Lula' and all the chicks were berserk!"
Davis gave Vincent a management contract and formed the Blue Caps (who were named after President Eisenhower's golfing headgear) with Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, Willie Williams on acoustic rhythm guitar, Jack Neal on upright string bass and the 15-year-old Dickie Harrell on drums.
Ken Nelson, a producer for Capitol Records desperately seeking rock 'n' roll, arranged a session in Nashville on 4 May 1956, but, unsure of the Blue Caps' competence, hired some key players as well. However, as soon as he heard Cliff Gallup's remarkable runs on "Race with the Devil", he realised he could record Vincent with the Blue Caps and, within a few hours, they completed four tracks. A month later, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" was climbing the US charts, although the B-side, "Woman Love", was banned by the BBC for obscenity.
Also in June 1956, Nelson recalled them for an album and 16 songs were recorded including the hit single "Bluejean Bop" and the frenzied "Who Slapped John". Willie Williams can be heard jive-talking with Dickie Harrell on "Bop Street" and the sessions included highly individual versions of the standards, "Jezebel", "Peg o' My Heart" and "Lazy River". The Beatles copied their arrangement of "Ain't She Sweet" during their time in Hamburg.
Williams never thought rock 'n' roll would last and he feared for his life when Vincent urged him to drive at 120mph in a road race. He commented, "I was looking at a picture of my wife in her bathing suit and then I looked round at all those hairy-legged guitarpickers and I said to myself, `Man, I must be crazy.' "
Williams returned to WCMS and then worked as a radio DJ in New York, Kansas City and Nashville. He promoted the country hits of the Tree International catalogue, sold insurance in Honolulu and, more recently, had worked in personnel recruitment in Bradenton, Florida. Although he continued to play in local clubs, he never rejoined the Blue Caps for reunion shows and became one of the forgotten men of rock 'n' roll. He was always cheerful and accidentally shot himself whilst preparing to go to a shooting range.
Ervin Williams, singer and guitarist: born Millinocket, Maine December 1935; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Bradenton, Florida 28 August 1999.
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