Up from the streets: How video saved a radio star
Once a promising DJ, Ted Williams ended up as a homeless drug addict. Guy Adams charts his unlikely salvation on YouTube
Ted Williams was born with the gift of a golden voice. Then things went very badly wrong. Or as the cardboard sign he spent days flashing on the exit ramp of a freeway in Columbus, Ohio, put it: "I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times. Please! Any help will be greatfully [sic] appreciated!"
For years, Mr Williams scraped by on spare dollars from passing motorists. He slept in a tent, on a patch of wasteland. According to records from the local courthouse, where he was an occasional visitor, his address was: "Streets of Columbus". But this week, Ted's luck changed.
On Monday, a 98-second video of Mr Williams shot by Doral Chenoweth, a reporter for the local newspaper, was uploaded to YouTube. In it, he described his life and times, in a manner remarkable for just one thing: his voice. Despite Ted's weather-beaten appearance, he had somehow retained the warmest of baritone drawls, still rich as butter after all these years.
This being the modern era, the short film rapidly went viral, and by last night had been watched by more than 12 million people. This being America, Williams has been catapulted into celebrity, offered homes, jobs and advertising contracts, and plastered across news bulletins, normally after the words: "and finally..."
Yesterday, the 53-year-old former DJ found himself in a New York TV studio, where his deep vowel sounds welcomed viewers of NBC to the Today programme. Smartly dressed and clean-shaven, he then carried out a string of media appearances, did some commercial voiceover work, and, in front of a crowd of journalists, enjoyed a tearful reunion with his 90-year-old mother, Julia.
"If you need proof that, in this country, life can change overnight, look no further than Ted Williams," said Matt Lauer, host of the Today show. "Everybody deserves a second chance," added his co-anchor, Meredith Vieira. "This is just a great moment." A beaming Mr Williams described his previous 48 hours as "outrageous".
Having scrubbed up and pricked the nation's conscience, Ted is now hot property. The Cleveland Cavaliers, one of America's biggest basketball teams, has offered him a two-year contract as stadium announcer. NFL Films, which makes documentaries about American Football, wants him as its official voiceover artist. MTV and ESPN are also knocking on his door.
"I don't know which one to choose," he said on Today, regarding the job offers. "Having all of this all of a sudden... it's hard to process."
Everyone loves a tale of salvation. So the story of the "homeless man with the golden pipes", as one national news show described him, has lifted the spirits of a recession-addled nation on the week it returns to the grindstone after the Christmas Holidays. But not everyone is cheering Ted's instant fame.
To critics, his saccharine story represents a pertinent example of "American Dream Propaganda," by which the media uses one unlikely fairytale to paper over cracks in the fabric of a society with few safety nets and an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor.
For Mr Williams, there is no guarantee that life will now be happy ever after. Already, reporters have begun digging into his background, uncovering a regrettable tendency to press the self-destruct button.
Born into a comfortable family in Brooklyn, he had a promising radio career in the 1980s as the DJ of a morning show in Columbus, where he nicknamed himself The Teddy Bear. But the perils of minor fame – drink, drugs, and loose women – got to him, and in 1996 his marriage disintegrated.
Mr Williams says he soon began drinking alcohol, "pretty bad." He became addicted to marijuana and crack cocaine, and lost interest in work. Despite the best efforts of his nine children he ended up homeless.
On the video that catapulted him to fame, Mr Williams claims that he has now sobered up and is getting his life together again: "Alcohol and drugs and a few other things became a part of my life. [But] I got two years clean and I'm trying to get it back."
Yesterday, though, that claim was questioned. Legal records showed that his criminal record stretches back almost 20 years, with arrests for robbery, theft, forgery and drug possession. Though he claimed two years on the straight and narrow, his most recent brush with the law was in May, when police arrested him on suspicion of pimping two women.
That won't sit well with Middle America, where public attitudes to rehabilitation were most recently laid bare when President Obama was condemned for backing the highly repentant former jailbird Michael Vick, an American Football star.
For now, though, Mr Williams has control of his destiny. At the very least, that allows the nation to enjoy a decent sob story. "I apologise, I'm getting a little emotional," he told the CBS Early Show yesterday, wiping a tear from his eye after being asked about his imminent family reunion.
"I haven't seen my mom in a great deal of time. One of my biggest prayers was that she would live long enough to see me rebound or whatever, and I guess God kept her around and kept my pipes around to maybe just have one more shot."
To hear the 'golden voice' of Ted Williams, visit: www.independent.co.uk/goldenvoice
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