Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Willette, "Babyface" (Roosevelt)
Organist Babyface Willette made a brief but indelible mark on the sound of soul jazz in the early sixties. He recorded two albums for Blue Note in 1961, and two more for Argo, which capture a gospel-tinged sound which has influenced the contemporary generation of jazz and funk organists.
Roosevelt Willette was born on September 11, 1933, probably in New Orleans. Willette's father was a minister at a church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and his mother was a missionary, so the boy was exposed to the sounds of the black church from an early age.
Willette learned to play piano from his uncle, Fred Freeman, and began to tour as an accompanist for gospel groups while in his teens. He then switched to rhythm-and-blues, and crisscrossed the United States, as well as Cuba and Canada, with groups led by King Kolax, Jay McNeely and others. He earned the nickname "Babyface" while touring because of his youth: sometimes had trouble getting into nightclubs where he was to perform.
Around 1958, Willette settled in Chicago, where he took up the organ as his primary instrument and began to focus on jazz. By 1960, he was in New York, where he met guitarist Grant Green and tenor saxophonist Lou Donaldson, both artists on the Blue Note label at that time. Soon he too was signed to Blue Note Records.
As was Blue Note's policy at the time, Willette first recorded for the label as a sideman, appearing on Green's Grant's First Stand and Donaldson's Here 'Tis. Willette made his first recording for the label as a leader, Face To Face, in 1961. The album boasts an enviable lineup of Willette on organ, Green on guitar, Fred Jackson on tenor sax, and Ben Dixon on drums. Willette composed most of the tunes on the album. While the songs are pedestrian, the interplay between the musicians is quite incredible and, although it's not commonly thought of as his best work, it is a great album.
Willette's next album, Stop and Listen, is generally considered to be his best recorded work, and features a stripped down sound with a trio of Willette, Green and Dixon.
Willette formed his own trio in 1963, and recorded his next two albums for the Chess Records subsidiary Argo. The first of these, Mo-Roc, was recorded in the same trio format as his last album for Blue Note and featured Willette, guitarist Ben White, and drummer Eugene Bass. Though not as well-known nor accomplished as Willette's Blue Note trio, the band swings and turns in a competent enough performance behind Willette, whose compositions for the album are forgettable but feature excellent playing.
Willette's next album for Argo, Behind The 8-Ball, was Willette's last for the label and his last as a leader. Featuring a trio with White on guitar and Jerold Donovan on drums, the album gives listeners a closer taste at Willette's roots than his more jazz-oriented albums. For the first time, Willette features more R&B covers than originals, and also shortens the length of the songs. His playing shows more of a soulful, churchy feel than his other albums and Willette shines brightly here, as the choice of songs seems to make him more comfortable.
After his two albums for Argo, Willette returned to Chicago, where he faded from the jazz scene but played a steady gig at a southside lounge from 1966 until 1971, the year of his death. He was survived by a son, Kevin D. Bailey.
Face to Face (1961) Blue Note Records
Stop & Listen (1961) Blue Note Records
Mo' Rock (1964) Argo Records
Behind The 8 Ball (1965) Argo Records
Contributor: Scott Homewood