Black History Month: Bruce Boyer On Joe Williams


10- JOE WILLIAMS con l-orchestra di Count Basie nel film Jamboree del 1957

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

10 Comments on "Black History Month: Bruce Boyer On Joe Williams"

  1. These reflections on a jazz/Trad connection brought up a memory from San Francisco, circa 1972-74. I frequented the old Pier 23 bar on the Embarcadero; not the large restaurant/club there now but a much smaller rickety old place suspended precariously over the water. Believe me it was nothing fancy.

    They had a regular (then-) contemporary jazz trio consisting of maybe 40-something white guys who all had day jobs but performed there as a sort of house trio on weekends. The leader was a trumpet player who was, if my memory serves me, a handsome doctor with adoring female fans. He was always attired in impeccable Trad attire: tweed sports coat, OCBD with tie. I believe he was kiled in an private airplane crash around that time.

    My point here is that the jazz/Trad look was still alive in some places into the mid-70s.

    Some shots of the old Pier 23 and lots of jazz groups here but I don’t see the trio I’m thinking of:

  2. I was just seven or so when I saw Joe Williams with Count Basie in Norfolk VA. Though my most searing memory of that concert was the fact that Freddie Green had his rather bug eyes on me seemingly throughout the show (my father and I were the only white people in the room) I remember loving the sound of Joe William’s voice. Jimmy Forrest played Night Train that evening as well.

    Thou Swell is one of my favorites. My six year old daughter digs it as well. To my knowledge, she has never heard a Lady Gaga song but she certainly can sing Thou Swell and most of the other songs on the record-yes record.

    Mr. Williams is certainly looking as cool as he sounded in his round collared shirt. There Will Never Be Another You.


  3. Ha, “Thou Swell” was my choice. As editor I got to choose a song to embed in the post. I’m planning to write a piece for Jazz Month and maybe I’ll even perform “Thou Swell” with a bit of a ’50s hipster twist.

    “There Will Never Be Another You” is another great song.

    • Nothing hipper than second person singular jazz lyrics.

      Another memory from my Count Basie/Joe Williams experience, at the end of the show an older black gentleman who was sitting beside me called out for one more song. He was calling on Count Basie to play Take the A Train. My father said he was proud of the fact that I knew that that was tantamount to requesting The Beatles to play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction when I mentioned it in the car on the way home.

  4. Great lead off with Joe Williams, I would add Billy Eckstine to the list of greats.

  5. Eric Twardzik | April 16, 2016 at 6:36 pm |

    Thank you, Mr. Boyer – I’m a Jazz neophyte and wasn’t aware of Williams’ work until now, and it’s incredible. His rendition of “I’ll Never Smile Again” may become my new shaving song.

  6. G. Bruce Boyer | February 13, 2021 at 2:26 pm |

    Dear Chensvold, many thanks for posting this again, I continue to listen to Williams and continue to smile whether he’s doing a blues tune or a Broadway standard. He remains one of the greatest.

  7. Prior to reading this, I had heard the name but not the voice. Wow! GBB nails it again.

  8. Factoid: In the old Cosby television series, Joe Williams portrayed Claire Huxtable’s dad. I don’t think he ever got the chance to sing on the show though, too bad.

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