With a deep, earnest voice that was as sincere as it was expressive, Joe Williams moved jazz singing in a new direction.
Although he was born in Georgia, Williams grew up on Chicago’s South Side, where he was part of the vibrant gospel scene. In 1937, at the age of 19, he took his first solo jobs at area clubs. Soon he was contracted for a tour with the bandleader Les Hite. His reputation got the attention of Lionel Hampton, who was always on the lookout for more musicians to add to his vast touring machine. Coleman Hawkins hired him too.
But it was at home in Chicago that his biggest break came, singing as he often did at the high-end Club DeLisa on South State Street. That’s where Count Basie heard him in the early 1950s and snatched him up for a five-year gig as the singer with the Count Basie Orchestra. Their 1955 recording of “Ev’ry Day I Have the Blues” was selected in 1992 for the Grammy Hall of Fame. Besides lots of records and shows with Basie, Williams also made two celluloid appearances with him, in Jamboree and the Jerry Lewis vehicle Cinderfella.
After his time with Basie, Williams went on to an illustrious solo career, appearing on TV variety shows and at festivals and clubs worldwide. Late in life, he performed mainly in Las Vegas (plus occasionally on Sesame Street!). He died in 1999 when he was 80.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Joe Williams.
- Track: “Roll ’Em Pete”
Album: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings was the first album that Williams made with the Basie orchestra. It was produced by Norman Granz for his own Clef label, a subsidiary of Verve.
“Roll ’Em Pete,” by Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, demonstrates why Williams is perfect for Basie’s needs: he had the unusual ability to communicate with the listener in a straightforward way while using his voice in complex ways that took advantage of both the blues and swing elements of the Basie sound.
- Track: “Can’t We Talk It Over”
Album: A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry
Besides the high-energy jump blues that Williams was known for at Basie gigs, he was also a master of the mellow tone and straight-up torch songs. A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry is a collection of songs, arranged by long-time Basie arranger Jimmy Mundy, that exhibit that sentimental style.
“Can’t We Talk It Over” was composed by string orchestra leader Victor Young, with lyrics by Ned Washington (who also wrote the words to “Rawhide,” of all things!). Williams always has a slight crack in his baritone voice, giving him more texture and interest than a lot of crooners of this period and contrasting perfectly with the silky-smooth string arrangement.
- Track: “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
Album: Everyday I Have the Blues
Another of many collaborations with Basie, this time with his orchestra, Everyday I Have the Blues was named after the Basie/Williams hit single from a few years before.
Charles Calhoun’s proto-rock and roll number “Shake, Rattle and Roll” lets Williams show his rollicking side. And Basie is clearly having a barrelhouse ball at the piano. At around the 2:00 mark, Williams really starts to let loose, sliding around the pitches with a humorous wink.
- Track: “September in the Rain”
Album: Joe Williams Live! A Swingin’ Night at Birdland
There’s a special joy in a great live jazz album, since the genre is so reliant on extemporaneous musical decisions. Joe Williams Live! A Swingin’ Night at Birdland captures the singer’s electricity before a live audience. He’s joined by a sizzling quintet of instrumentalists, including trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest.
The track list is a pleasing mix of blues-based jazz tunes and American popular standards from the Tin Pan Alley days. In the latter category is Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “September in the Rain.” The interaction between a mellow-sounding Williams and pianist Hugh Lawson is especially sweet.
- Track: “Evil Man Blues”
Album: Presenting Joe Lewis and Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra
Label: Solid State
One of the musicians in the Basie orchestra was a spectacular trumpeter named Thad Jones. A gifted arranger and conductor himself, Jones ran his own big band with drummer Mel Lewis. Of course, Williams and Jones knew each other well from their time with Basie.
Here they’re doing a slinky arrangement of “Evil Man Blues,” a song you might recognize if you’re a fan of the John Wick film franchise, which uses the Candy Shop Boys’ recording in the first of those movies. In this Williams version, notice the angular syncopation; Lewis brought in a freer, post-swing sound, different from the Basie style.
- Track: “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”
Album: The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing
Label: Sheba Records
The pairing of Williams’ voice and the pianistic panache of British master George Shearing is truly a treat. Shearing’s own label, Sheba Records, released The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing.
Besides the fluid way these two musicians work together, this album is also special for its repertoire. It had been a while since Williams put on his crooner hat and sang a collection of romantic songs. Here is Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” featuring a lighter-than-air swing. The excellent cymbal work is by Stix Hooper.
- Track: “Hold It Right There”
Album: Nothin’ But the Blues
Williams won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance thanks to his work on Nothin’ But the Blues, a collaboration with Red Holloway and His Blues All-Stars. The track list is packed with the kind of jazz songs that use the voice as just one of the band instruments, the kind of material Williams often sang with Basie, but leaning toward the bebop edge of rhythm.
Two pioneers of bebop, Clark Terry and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, wrote “Hold It Right There.” In fact, Vinson sings with Williams on this recording. Holloway’s band is tight, with an organ (Jack McDuff) giving the horns a slick harmonic rink to skate on.
- Track: “War No More”
Album: I Just Want to Sing
A true gem among Williams’ prolific output is this rare recording of the African-American spiritual “War No More” (more commonly known as “Down by the Riverside), buried in a collection of more expected genres on the album I Just Want to Sing.
In an arrangement by Chicago-based bassist Johnny Pate, Williams takes it slow and quiet, his long lines punctuated by gentle dissonant chords from the horns. It’s a moving rendition that reminds us how Williams started his musical life singing gospel.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brianmcmillen.