When the American singer Viola Wills finally hit the charts in the UK and the rest of Europe with her disco version of "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" in October 1979, it was the culmination of a long-held ambition. She started out in her native Los Angeles when she came to the attention of Barry White in the mid-Sixties, then became a backing vocalist for Joe Cocker and relocated to London where she recorded her debut album, Soft Centres, in 1974. Her career continued into the Eighties and she scored another UK hit with the self-penned, dreamy soul of "Dare To Dream" and an uptempo cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now".
She also became a favourite of gay and straight club-goers on both sides of the Atlantic with soulful, uptempo renditions of material like "If You Could Read My Mind", "Up On The Roof", "I Can See Clearly Now" "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me" and "Stormy Weather" which showcased her stunning vocal range. She spent several years based in the UK, most recently in Brighton, where she performed jazz and gospel with a group fittingly called Jazzspel, in between appearances with fellow Hi-NRG stars Miquel Brown and Hazell Dean on the nostalgia circuit in 2004. Her last release was a house version of the standard "What Now My Love?" for a Miami label in 2006, the year she moved back to the US to be closer to her family, which comprised six children, 21 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
She was born Viola Mae Wilkerson in the notoriously tough Watts district of South Los Angeles and was always coy about her exact date of birth. As a child aged eight, she won a singing contest sponsored by the Federation of Baptist Churches and was subsequently granted a scholarship to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music where she chose to take piano rather than singing lessons. However, she soon lost interest in classical music.
She married in her teens and had six children by the time she was 21 but dreamed of escaping her dead-end existence on the poverty line. In 1965, her cousin, Esther Ray Potts, brought her to a recording studio to sing background vocals on a track produced by Barry White, then trying to make a name as a producer and talent scout. He signed her to the Bronco label, and shortened her name to the catchier Viola Wills. White made four singles with her, starting with a single coupling the shuffle ballad "Lost Without The Love Of My Guy" – a hit in the Los Angeles area – with "I Got Love", and continuing with "Together Forever"/"Don't Kiss Me Hello And Mean Goodbye", "I've Got To Have All Of You"/"Night Scene" and "You're Out Of My Mind"/"Any Time".
Licensed to President in the UK in 1968, these and further releases such as "The First Time", on BEM, subsequently found favour on the Northern Soul scene but made little headway in the US mainstream at the time. White lost interest in producing Wills when he met Love Unlimited and began fashioning his symphonic soul style with the female vocal trio. At the behest of his wife Glodean, he even reused the intro to "Lost Without The Love Of My Guy", the Wills track he'd co-written, to fashion the US R&B chart-topper "I Belong To You" in 1974.
By then, Wills was busy trying to make up for lost time. She came into the orbit of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, a local group best known for the 1970 R&B smash "Express Yourself", and was encouraged by their drummer, James Gadson, to develop her songwriting talent. In 1971, he also introduced her to Gloria Jones – of "Tainted Love" fame – who talked her into joining Joe Cocker on a world tour and replacing Claudia Linnear as part of a quartet of backing vocalists, known as the Sanctified Sisters, with Virginia Ayers and Beverly Gardner alongside Jones and Wills.
This meant leaving her children with friends and family, but Wills felt ready to take the plunge, especially since she had amassed quite a collection of original material and hoped to get another record deal. Wills gained notoriety with a solo spot during which she sang a version of "Do Right Woman", the Southern soul classic associated with Aretha Franklin. It became one of the highlights of Cocker's live set and was included on the Joe Cocker album in 1972. Eventually, with Cocker's backing band and her fellow vocalists, Wills did get to make the album Soft Centres, but it was as released on a small label, Goodear, in 1974 and quickly disappeared.
She stayed in Europe and made records with the producers Yves Dessca in France, and Jerry McCabe in Germany. In 1979, McCabe suggested updating "Gonna Get Along Without You Now", a Milton Kellem composition first recorded by Teresa Brewer in 1952, but more successful for the American sister duo Patience and Prudence in 1956. With its skipping tempo and lush backing behind Wills' insouciant vocal performance, the single pointed towards the Hi-NRG genre of the Eighties and became a major hit all over Europe. She appeared on Top Of The Pops and many other TV shows and released several follow-up singles without ever matching her irresistible, irrepressible signature song, still a recurrent oldie on Radio 2 and a staple of dozens of compilation albums.
In the Eighties, Wills went back to college and got a degree in music therapy in the US. She also wrote and performed an autobiographical one-woman show entitled Willspower. Wills seemed destined to remain a one-hit wonder, often promoting yet another remixed version of "Gonna Get Along Without You Now", but charted again in 1986 with "Dare To Dream", her own composition, and the one she was justly most proud of since it was built around her favourite saying: "Aim for the sky and always dare to dream."
Viola Mae Wilkerson (Viola Wills), singer, songwriter: born Los Angeles circa 1940; twice married (twice divorced, six children); died Phoenix, Arizona 6 May 2009.