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Bassist Made His MarkCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Williams, JohnnyJohnny Williams was a working musician rather than a star name throughout a lengthy career in jazz, albeit one divided by a long sabbatical from the music. Nonetheless, he made contributions to a number of significant bands, and left his mark on at least two timeless jazz recordings, both in 1939.
He studied violin at school, but took up tuba, and began playing in bands in his native Memphis. He switched to double bass, inspired by the example of Duke Ellington's bassist, Wellman Braud, and toured the south with various territory bands in the 1930s and 1940s.
His employers in the 1930s included the Florida-based saxophonist, C S Belton, who led his Society Syncopators under the banner "the Duke Ellington of the south", and Jean Calloway, the brother of Cab Calloway. He moved to New York in 1936, where he worked with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and band-leaders Lucky Millinder and Frankie Newton.
The latter band often featured singer Billie Holiday, and Williams played bass on her recording of "Strange Fruit" in April, 1939, the haunting evocation of a southern lynching which became one of her most famous records. Two months later, he accompanied Sidney Bechet on the session whcih produced his recording of "Summertime" for the new Blue Note label, another classic.
In the 1940s, he worked with several giants of the music, including spells with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist Teddy Wilson, clarinetist Edmond Hall and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. He participated in numerous recordings with these artists, including Hawkins's "Bouncing With Bean" (1940), Armstrong's "Rockin' Chair" (1947) and Hodges's Used To Be Duke (1954).
That listing alone is testimony to his qualities as a bass player, but after leaving Hodges's band in 1955, he retired from music in favour of more secure employment, working in a bank for 17 years. He returned to performing in the late 1960s, touring in Europe with Buddy Tate in 1968, and became even more active on his retirement from banking. He worked regularly for a time with pianist Red Richards in the Seventies, and was one of the co-founders of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in 1978.
He performed with that popular band, including a number of European tours, until shortly before his death, and played his last gig with them the day after he celebrated his 90th birthday. He suffered a stroke in June, and never recovered. He was survived by his wife, Melrose.