Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Williams, Joe (Joseph Goreed)

                                         Joe Williams by JC Jaress

Singer Joe Williams' supple bass-baritone voice was at once sophisticated and down-home. In his extensive work with the bands of William "Count" Basie and others, he combines bluesy phrasing with a transparent, precise tone and enunciated syllables to create a personal sound which may be raucous, intimate, declamatory or sad.

Williams was born Joseph Goreed in the small rural town of Cordele, Georgia, December 12, 1918 to Anne Beatrice Gilbert and Willie Goreed. His father disappeared shortly after his son was born; Anne, just a teenager, took her baby and moved in with her parents.

When Anne saved up enough money, she left Joe with her parents and moved to Chicago, where she worked as a cook in an affluent home. In 1922, when Joe was four, he left Cordele along with his aunt and grandmother and joined his mother in Chicago.

At this early age, Joe absorbed the rich musical climate in Chicago, a prime destination for African Americans leaving the rural south since the post-Reconstruction era. He heard country blues and gospel filtered through Chicago’s urban prism, and on the radio, the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Big Joe Turner, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington. In his early teens, Joe played piano and formed his own vocal group, “The Jubilee Boys,” which performed at church events.

Williams went on to perform solo and with local bands, led by the likes of Erskine Tate and Joe Long. Confident that he could make a career out of singing, he left school at 16, and took "Williams" as his stage name.

Joe's first regular gig was singing at a Chicago club called Kitty Davis’s, where he cleaned the bathrooms and sang with the band in the evening show. Like Billie Holiday when she first moved to New York, he sang for tips.

In 1937 Williams was invited to join the band of clarinetist Jimmie Noone, who had a nationally broadcast radio show on CBS. Also during this time, when he could find the time, Williams toured with the Les Hite Band. He also sang briefly with Coleman Hawkins big band, from the beginning of 1941, until it broke up just a year later.

At this point Williams also began work as a doorman at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, The position proved auspicious: during his band’s engagement at the theatre, Lionel Hampton invited Williams on tour, to sing alongside Dinah Washington.

Following his engagement with Lionel Hampton, he filled in for Big Joe Turner in a blues revue with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. After this he went on to join Andy Kirk’s big band.

A nervous breakdown in 1947 sidelined Williams for the better part of a year, during which time he remained under medical supervision at an Illinois state facility. After his release, he became a door-to-door salesman of cosmetics before returning to the stage.

Williams reentered the scene sitting in with bands in and around Chicago, among them, George Shearing’s quintet. He also sat in with Count Basie’s septet when it performed in Chicago in 1950. When Basie formed his big band in 1954, he invited Williams to become a member.

It was with Basie’s big band that Williams recorded “Everyday (I Have the Blues).” This song, written by Memphis Slim, was a staple of William’s repertoire for years, but it was the version he cut with Basie’s band in 1955 on the album “Count Basie Sings, Joe Williams Sings” that became definitive, sealing it as his signature song.

Ernie Wilkins' arrangement begins with a bluesy, descending piano intro punctuated after a bar and a half by the raucous and jauntily swinging entry of the horn section. Crisp hits, tremulous glissandi from the trumpets, and the thumping interplay of the rhythm section- Will Matthew’s guitar chunking chords with a yeoman’s fealty- set the stage for William’s vocal.

Williams voice enters the scenario with a mellow iteration and reiteration of the songs title and ethos “Everyday, everyday, I have the blues”; mellow but with a slight ululation, an understated protest, a foreshadowing of the song’s melancholy climax. William’s crisp enunciation of each syllable, delivered with his trademark virile basso simultaneously evokes authority and humanity. With the second verse there is a steady increase in intensity and vocal filigree. The horns and rhythm section respond in kind. By the fourth verse we hear the imperfect and affecting sound of a wailing broken and bereft soul, but nevertheless one with a martyred elegance, one with the will to fight, the dignity to beseech. After this climax Williams and the band trade syncopated statements, and recapitulations of melodic and rhythmic lines, the song punctuated by Williams falsetto howl.

With Basie, Williams toured the world and shared the stage on various occasions with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

By the late fifties, Williams started to experiment with different vocal stylings, and started to move away from being primarily a blues singer belting, sometimes shouting over big band arrangements. He played his last show with the Basie big band at the Apollo Theater in January 1961.

Williams formed a smaller, more intimate group with Harry “Sweets” Edison, and in 1962, released “Swinging At Birdland.” This group included Edison (piano); Jimmy Forrest (tenor saxophone); Hugh Lawson (piano); Ike Isaacs (bass); Clarence Johnson (drums). “The Very Thought of You,” a live performance from this album, showcases Williams the balladeer.

At the beginning of the number Williams begins in a virtual speaking voice, before iterating the central melody of the song, with the lyric “the very thought of you, I forget to do, the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do…” Williams’ tone is silky, warm, dark, sensual, commanding, at times impossibly low. Williams is still soulful, though perhaps not bluesy in this milieu. His approach here is not the dynamic juxtaposition of quiet and near shouting that he employed when singing with big bands. His characteristic pronunciation, sometimes over-enunciation of the lyrics draws the listener into the poetry of the song and it’s subjective landscape: urbane, sexy, but still earthy. In this case band’s role is to frame the singer and the text of the song, to provide a harmonic mise-en-scene.

The 60s were busy for Williams. He toured, appeared multiple times on television, on programs like Johnny Carson’s the “Tonight” show, and worked with various accompanists including pianists Norman Simmons, Junior Mance and Ellis Larkins. He also made an album with the Thad Jones-Mel Louis big band in 1966, which includes "Night Time is the Right Time To Be With Someone You Love."

In the 1970s Williams collaborated with saxophonist Cannonball Adderly. Together, they recorded “Joe Williams Live” (1973), and Williams played the role of John Henry in the musical “Big Man”, composed by Adderly. In 1974 he reunited with the Count at a Newport Jazz Festival Concert in New York City. In 1978 and 1979, under the auspices of the US State Department, he toured Africa with trumpeter Clark Terry.

In the 1980s Williams toured with different configurations of musicians, including his sextet with Harry “Sweets” Edison, and smaller groups including a trio. In 1989 he performed and was the guest of honor at his own tribute concert, part of the JVC Jazz Festival, with the Count Basie Orchestra conducted by Frank Foster. Throughout the decade Williams had a recurring role on “The Cosby Show” as “Grandpa Al”, an avuncular and cheery fellow prone to reminiscences about Chicago.

In 1992, Williams’ rendition of “Everyday I Have the Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame for recordings. From 1979 to 1989, Williams won eight Grammy Awards in the category of “Best Jazz Vocal Performance.”

His last album was a collection of spirituals “Feel the Spirit”, for the Telarc label (1995). Williams performed live with regularity until his death March 29, 199, in Las Vegas, where he lived.

Select Discography:

Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings (1956 Verve)

One O’Clock Jump (1957 Verve)

At Newport ’63 (1963 RCA)

Me and the Blues (1964 RCA)

I Just Wanna Sing (1985 Delos)

Joe Williams Live (1973 Verve)

Dave Pell’s Prez Conference (1979 GNP Crescendo)

Nothin’ But the Blues (1984 Delos)

In Good Company (1989 Verve)

The Best of Joe Williams: The Roulette, Solid State & Blue Note Years (1997 Verve)

Ballad and Blues Master (1992 Verve)

Every Day: The Best of the Verve Years (1993 Verve)

The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing (2001 Verve)

The Definitive Joe Williams (2002 Verve)

Contributor: Ricardo Quiñones