For me, Joe Williams always was, is, and will be the perfect male jazz singer. I say this with the greatest respect to Armstrong, Sinatra, Nat Cole, Johnny Hartman, Torme, Bennett, and anyone else you can think of from that fifty-year classic period of jazz singers, 1925–1975. From the moment I first heard his recording of “Smack Dab in the Middle” in the early ’50s ( I believe it was his only recording to ever make the charts), it was clear to me that he had everything a jazz singer ever needed. Actually, there wasn’t any kind of popular music Joe Williams couldn’t sing supremely well. He could have sung Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” all by himself if he’d wanted to.
Sinatra could break your heart with slow, soft songs of lost love or swing with as much force as a whole trumpet section, but he couldn’t really sing the blues. Nat King Cole could swing lightly and give you a refined version of blues, but his true métier was the ballad. Mel Torme could slide across lyrics as though they were butter, and he could scat with the best of them. Johnny Hartman may well have had the best natural voice and clearest interpretation. But Joe Williams had it all. You struggle for comparisons in vain.
The man Count Basie called “Number One Son” grew up in Chicago and played the clubs with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Andy Kirk, and Hot Lips Page before joining the Basie crew. Basie had hired him to replace the great blues/swing singer Jimmy Rushing, that rotund and affable veteran of the famous Territory bands out of Kansas City in the ’30s and ’40s. Rushing had a voice that could pierce Kevlar body armor and seemed an impossible act to follow. When he retired from the Basie Band in 1950, it took four years to find a replacement. By then Basie had constructed the swingingest big band there ever was, and every orchestrated punchy, bluesy note had that perfect “in the pocket” feel. It was a newer, harder driving, more sophisticated band, and, arguably one that no one could have stood up to other than Joe Williams.
The thing about Williams – something that’s almost unheard of today – is that he just opened his mouth and sang. There wasn’t any body language, no pyrotechnic movement, no arm-slapping gyrations (Joe Turner, the classic blues singer was the same way). He just stood there behind the mike and sang. And the room filled with the wonder and awe and rapture of it.
I remember the night I saw him with the Basie orchestra at a small club in the autumn of 1960, just a year before he left Basie to go it on his own. The room was long but very narrow, at least 100 feet long, but only around 30 feet wide, with a bar running down one long side, tables scattered about, a dance floor the size of a cuff link, and the small bandstand which accommodated the dozen or so musicians tightly jammed together. The place was packed four deep at the bar and the small tables were jammed with four to six people each. Basie did one 50-minute set, starting off with his theme, “One O’clock Jump” and several other standard numbers. After a twenty-minute break, the band reassembled and Williams strode purposefully onto the small stage in a beautifully cut navy blue mohair suit, straightened the mike and surged into a rocking, pulsating version of Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have the Blues”, segwayed into “Who She Do” and “Goin’ to Chicago”, then slowed down for a few ballads, and finished up with a slow-but-powerful “April in Paris.” After two ten-minute encores – the crowd wouldn’t let them go – of “Roll ’em Pete” and “All Right, OK, You Win,” I couldn’t believe the walls were still standing, they seemed to be throbbing with the beat. It’s funny, I can’t remember the young lady I was with.
Williams could sing Ella Fitzgerald to a draw in a scatting contest, do Rogers & Hart as poignantly as Sinatra, and shout the blues with all the vibrancy and soul of Big Joe Turner or Rushing himself. His was an unmatchable, cross-pollinated art of down-home Delta blues, Kansas City swing, Broadway ballad, joyous early rhythm and blues, and unforgettable versions of both gospel and protest music. In his life (1918–1999) he seems to have sung with every great jazz musician of the 20th century. It would also seem that, when Duke Ellington wrote, “It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot/ Just give that rhythm everything you’ve got,” Joe Williams had it to give, took it to heart, and poured it out. The range of his abilities has never been approached. — GBB