Saturday, June 27, 2015

Joe Williams - A JazzProfiles Snapshot

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Whether it was with Count Basie’s band from 1954 to 1960 or with one of the many trios that accompanied him later in his career, particularly the ones led by pianists Junior Mance and Norman Simmons, Joe Williams was always right up there with The Best of The Blues Belters.

Williams followed Billy Eckstine in bringing a new sophistication to “... the black male singer’s stance.”

And while he made his reputation with the Basie Band as a blues singer, Joe was equally at home with standards and original materials.

Joe Williams endured marvelously and sang with power and assurance well into his seventies [He died in 1999 at the age of 81.]]. He had great time and a marked assurance in his vocal delivery.

I came across this remembrance of Joe by the esteemed Jazz writer Gene Lees recently and I thought his brief insight into Joe’s greatness and a video featuring Joe singing his trademark version of Everyday I Have The Blues would make for a fun JazzProfiles snapshot of one of my favorite vocalists.

Joe Williams is one of the great bass-baritone singers of our time. He astounds me every time I hear him: the range and flexibility of his voice, his utter control of it, the depth of its passion. Joe is known as a blues singer, and he is a great one, but he is also one of the most sensitive ballad singers ever to grace popular music. And I have never heard a singer swing a band the way Joe can.

He grew up in Chicago, where he experienced severe discrimination, and not only from whites. Within the black community, the ideal was what Joe called "light-skinned pretty boys.” He once said, "My light-skinned black brothers really whipped a racist color game on me.” As handsome and imposing as he is, he was, he says, at least twenty-five before he was "comfortable with my blackness.”

Joe is very much a product of the rich Chicago jazz tradition. He gained his early experience in that city, working with bands led by clarinetist Jimmie Noone and pianist and organist Tiny Parham. In 1943, he joined Lionel Hampton's band at the minuscule (even for those days) salary of eleven dollars a night. Through the 1940s, he worked various bands, never getting the recognition he deserved. He worked briefly with Count Basie in 1950. Then, in 1954, he re-joined Basie and recorded Memphis Slim's Every Day I Have the Blues. It brought him the stardom that had eluded him for twenty years. With wry humor, he quotes Duke Ellington: "They don't want you to get famous too young. You might get a chance to enjoy it."

But Joe did get a chance to enjoy it. Nearly forty years after "Every Day" became a hit, he was still singing it, still exercising that great, glorious, incomparable voice.

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