12.12. – Happy Birthday !!! Joe Williams, whose urbane bass-baritone and suavely heartbroken songs made him one of the most important singers in jazz.
Mr. Williams collapsed on a city street a few blocks from his home after walking out of Sunrise Hospital, where he had been admitted last week for a respiratory ailment. The hospital had reported him missing several hours before his body was found. ”He’s an adult and chose to leave,” Ann Lynch, vice president for human services at the hospital, said. ”We don’t confine people here. Upon finding him missing, the facility was checked, and then the police were notified to continue the search.”
Ron Flud, the Clark County Coroner, said Mr. Williams had apparently died of natural causes.
As a blues and ballad singer, Mr. Williams was widely admired for his heartfelt tone and impeccable timing. ”He sang real soul blues on which his perfect enunciation of the words gave the blues a new dimension,” Duke Ellington wrote in his autobiography, ”Music Is My Mistress.” ”All the accents were in the right places and on the right words.”
Mr. Williams traded supple syncopations with big bands and small groups and gave ballads a tender authority; his voice could also reach raw blue notes and breaking, ululating inflections that harked back to the music’s African roots. As the singer with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950’s, he carried the group to its commercial peak, beginning with what became his signature song, Memphis Slim’s ”Every Day (I Have the Blues).”
”He brought the blues from the country to the city,” the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson said yesterday. ”His voice is rich and it’s bittersweet, but it’s a very composed sound. Everything is well-formed in his mind before he opens his mouth, and it’s flawlessly executed. He reminds me of autumn. His voice is bronze and burnt sienna and golden, warm and enveloping, just an incredible instrument. It’s a life’s work to create that kind of a sound.”
Mr. Williams reached his broadest audience in the 1980’s with occasional television appearances on ”The Cosby Show” as Grandpa Al, whose reminiscences about Chicago were often drawn from his own life. But his recording career continued into the 1990’s. His album ”Nothin’ but the Blues” (Delos) won him a Grammy Award in 1984 as best jazz vocalist.
He was named Joseph Goreed when he was born to a teen-aged mother on Dec. 12, 1918, in the small town of Cordele, Ga. When he was 3, his grandmother took him to Chicago, where his mother had gone to work as a cook; he lived with his mother and aunt, who both played the piano. He sang in church, learned some piano and listened to jazz and opera on the radio, particularly to Ethel Waters, whose precise diction and deep emotion left a lasting impression on his style.
He started singing with a teen-aged gospel quartet, the Jubilee Boys, when he was 14. A year later, he was found to have tuberculosis and had to have a lung collapsed for treatment, but his voice was undamaged. At 16, he got his first job as a pop singer, performing for an all-white audience in a club called Kitty Davis’s, where he cleaned latrines and sang for tips. He dropped out of high school to work and changed his last name to Williams. He sang in clubs around Chicago with bands led by Joe Long and Erskine Tate.
In 1937, Mr. Williams joined the band led by the clarinetist Jimmie Noone, which was broadcast nationally on the CBS network. He toured the Midwest with the Les Hite band between stints with Noone, and in 1941 he joined the Coleman Hawkins big band, which dissolved in 1942. For steady work, Mr. Williams became the stage doorman at the Regal Theater in Chicago, where he met the leading musicians on the jazz and rhythm-and-blues circuit. He joined the Lionel Hampton band during its engagement there, working alongside Dinah Washington, and went on to tour with the band. He sat in for six weeks, replacing Big Joe Turner, in a blues show with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, and went on to join Andy Kirk’s big band.
He was married twice in the 1940’s: to Wilma Cole from 1943 to 1946 and to Ann Kirksey from 1946 to 1950. Mr. Williams suffered a nervous breakdown in 1947, and spent a year in a state hospital. He then sold Fuller Cosmetics door to door before returning to performing. He worked around Chicago, building a strong local reputation at the Club DeLisa, and sang with George Shearing’s quintet. He married Lemma Reid in 1951, but that marriage foundered after the birth of their daughter, JoAnn, in 1953; after years of separation, they were divorced in 1964.
Mr. Williams sat in regularly with a septet led by Count Basie when it came to Chicago in 1950. Four years later, Basie had put together a new big band, and after it came through Chicago, Basie invited Mr. Williams to join. He became a member of the band on Christmas Day in 1954. ”He told me he couldn’t pay me what I was worth,” Mr. Williams said in an interview with The New Yorker, ”but as things got better for him they would get better for me.”
Things got better quickly. Mr. Williams chose not to sing material associated with the Basie band’s former vocalist, Jimmy Rushing, and introduced his own blues repertory. He had been singing ”Every Day (I Have the Blues)” in his club dates, bringing sets to a peak with its mournful incantations. He had recorded it in 1951, backed by a Chicago band, and it became a local hit. In 1955, he recorded a new version, arranged by Ernie Wilkins, that became the Count Basie Orchestra’s first major hit in 15 years; it appeared on the album, ”Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings” (Verve). He made his first network television appearance on CBS’s ”Music 55.” With the Basie band, he toured the United States and Europe, sometimes singing alongside Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald; he also made albums on his own.
In 1957, the Basie band became the first black performers to appear at the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria. There, Mr. Williams met an Englishwoman, Jillean Hughes-D’Aeth, whom he went on to marry in 1965.
His vocal style was changing. When he began singing, he often performed without amplification, belting above the band. But during his years with the Basie band, he listened to tape recordings of his nightly performances, and he honed his style, paring away nonessentials, improving his intonation and adding new subtleties. His role with the Basie band was as a blues singer, but he was increasingly drawn to ballads.
By 1960, Mr. Williams was losing interest in the routine of the Basie band. Basie agreed to let him go and offered strategic career advice. After playing a final engagement with the Count Basie Band in January 1961, Mr. Williams embraced Basie on the stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem — they had never even shaken hands before — and started his solo career.
Mr. Williams formed a small group featuring the trumpeter Harry (Sweets) Edison, who had been a Basie band member. While many jazz musicians struggled in the 1960’s as rock took over popular music, Mr. Williams worked steadily. He appeared frequently on television shows, notably the ”Tonight” show with Johnny Carson. He settled in Las Vegas with his wife, though he was on the road about 40 weeks a year, usually working with small groups. Through the years, his accompanists included the pianists Junior Mance, Ellis Larkins and Norman Simmons. Mr. Williams also worked during the 1960’s with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band.
In the 1970’s, he collaborated with the saxophonist Julian (Cannonball) Adderley on the album ”Joe Williams Live” and he sang the role of John Henry in ”Big Man,” Mr. Adderley’s ”folk musical.” He reunited with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1974 for a Newport Jazz Festival concert in New York City that drew rave reviews and appeared frequently with the group until Basie’s death in 1984. In 1978 and 1979, Mr. Williams and the trumpeter Clark Terry toured Africa, sponsored by the United States State Department.
During the 1980’s, Mr. Williams toured with Mr. Edison and other Basie alumni, as well as with his own trio. His star was placed next to Basie’s on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, and in 1984, he sang Duke Ellington’s ”Come Sunday” to a hushed crowd at Basie’s funeral. In 1989, he had his own tribute concert as part of the JVC Jazz Festival, backed by Frank Foster conducting the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1992, ”Every Day (I Have the Blues)” was added to the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame for recordings.
Mr. Williams recorded in the 1980’s for Verve and in the 1990’s for Telarc Records; his last album, a set of spirituals called ”Feel the Spirit” (Telarc), was released in 1995. More recently, he recorded duets with a young singer, Nicole Yarling, for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild label; they have not been released.
Well into the 1990’s, Mr. Williams was one of the most dependably moving performers in jazz. Standing nearly still, perhaps with his hands folded in front of him, he would make ballads sound like resonant, intimate conversation, then open up a blues with a voice that was both knowing and heartsick. ”There is nothing wrong,” he told an interviewer, ”with singing a song the way it is written, with making a song say, ‘Please like me.’ ”
He is survived by his wife and daughter.