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Joe Williams: 1918-1999
Joe Williams

Born: December 12, 1918 in Cordele, Georgia
Died: March 29, 1999 in Las Vegas, Nevada

The Consummate Big Band Singer

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Williams, Joe Joe Williams, the great jazz and blues singer who will be best remembered for his association with the Count Basie Orchestra, died in the street after refusing to remain in hospital. His personal manager, John Levy, confirmed the circumstances of his death.

"After his release from the hospital in Seattle, Joe Williams returned to Las Vegas where his own physician placed him at Sunrise Hospital there. We had thought he was making good progress. He was determined to leave the hospital, and he did so against medical advice and that of his family and friends. He took off on his own, and attempted to walk home. He did not make it."

Williams was one of the great voices in popular music, and if his years with Count Basie made the greatest single impact, he enjoyed a long and successful career as a major name in his own right. He was born Joseph Goreed in Georgia, but was brought up by his mother in Chicago from the age of four, where he began singing in the church, and with his own gospel group, The Jubilee Boys.

The local radio stations fed him a regular diet of jazz and blues, and he shifted his focus to jazz in the late Thirties. He served his apprenticeship on the city's famous South Side, working in bands led by Les Hite, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Noone, Lionel Hampton and Red Saunders, as well as working with the great boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.

He made his recording debut with Saunders in 1946 for the Okeh label, and worked with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, Jay Burkhardt and Hot Lips Page before beginning his association with Count Basie in 1950. At that time, in common with most band-leaders feeling the winds of economic change after the war, Basie was leading a slimmed down Sextet rather than a big band, and Williams was asked to step into the shoes of Basie's long time blues shouter, the great Jimmy Rushing.

Williams's rich baritone and more sophisticated, swinging style were very different to that of his predecessor, but he went on to make his mark on the band's music in equally emphatic fashion. He did not join the band on a regular basis until 1954, however, and in the interim had a national hit on the R 'n' B charts with a song which became his trademark, "Everyday I Have The Blues", which he first recorded in 1952 with the King Kolax Orchestra.

When Basie put together a new big band in 1954, Williams was invited to join. In the course of the seven years in which he sang in the band, he and Basie forged one of the most effective leader-singer relationships in jazz. The association brought Williams an unprecedented exposure and won him an international reputation, while the singer helped restore the commercial fortunes of the band, and his ability to sing blues, jazz standards and ballads with equal style and authority made him the quintessential big band vocalist.

The classic Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, released on Norman Granz's Verve label in 1955, is the definitive statement of that relationship on record, and is arguably Williams's finest achievement. Its successor, The Greatest!! (1957), served to emphasise -- both in its choice of material and his approach to it -- that he was much more than just a great blues singer.

He remained with Basie until 1961, when he parted amicably with the pianist -- who used to refer to his as his "number one son" -- to pursue his own solo career, although he was occasionally reunited with the band over the years, and also with its later post-Basie manifestations under Thad Jones and Frank Foster.

He sang with trumpeter Harry 'Sweets' Edison's band in 1961-62, and then put together his own rhythm section for regular club, concert and television appearances, led initially by pianist Junior Mance, and then for many years by Norman Simmons. He returned occasionally to the big band format, including memorable recordings with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, and also worked with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing.

He was featured with symphony orchestras from time to time, including an orchestra under the direction of arranger Robert Farnon on Here's To Life, an album released in 1994 to mark his 75th birthday. While always at home with just a swinging rhythm section, he often said that he loved being surrounded by the lush sound of the massed orchestral instruments.

Williams's deep, warm, supple baritone proved both highly adaptable to changing fashions, and remarkably resistant to the worst effects of the ageing process, and he continued to perform to a high level well into the present decade. He recorded almost 50 albums in the course of his career (including a return to his roots in one of his last releases, Feel The Spirit, an album of spirituals and gospel tunes released in 1995), and earned numerous awards and honours, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Kenny Mathieson

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With 3 reader comments, latest December 22, 1999