Christmas of 1954 was truly a time to rejoice: On that day
he came aboard the swinging-est band in the land, the Count
Basie orchestra, and began his climb to stardom. The title
song of their 1959 album
Every Day I Have the Blues is
diary of woes, but Basie and Williams turn it into a shout
of celebration. Their kind of blues is high on swing and
free of victimization; it leaves no doubt that the men who
deliver it are winners.
Williams became much more than Basie’s boy singer; for
seven years he made himself so indispensable that the
maestro dubbed him his “Number-One Son.” A big-city blues
man, Williams was a tuxedoed image of suavity and class.
But his voice – a virile, burnished baritone – had all the
devilish swagger of a ladykiller who knows he’s about to
score. Williams loved to spice up his smooth delivery with
guttural sounds, like his yodeling wail on
Every Day I Have the Blues:
“No-o-o-o-o-o-body loves me!” He knew all the lowdown
grunts and growls of his blues-shouting forefathers,
notably Jimmy Rushing, his predecessor with Basie. But as
Duke Ellington once said, Williams’s “perfect enunciation
of the words gave the blues a new dimension. All the
accents were in the right places and on the right words.”
With Williams out front, the Basie band reached a new level
of prestige. They were the first black act to play the
snobbish Empire Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel,
where Lena Horne would later triumph. They joined Fred
Astaire on his 1960 TV special, Astaire
Time. Basie and
Williams were virtually synonymous with Birdland, and their
records on Verve and Roulette sold impressively.
Not bad for a singer who’d spent years living in poverty.
Born Joseph Goreed in 1918, Williams had left his hometown
of Cordele, Georgia at three and moved to Chicago with his
mother. For decades he held survival jobs – janitor,
dishwasher, door-to-door cosmetics salesman – while
struggling to establish himself musically. He was somewhat
familiar locally in 1950 when Count Basie blew into
Chicago. Basie, too, was having low times; after years of
leading a top band he’d hit a financial slump, and was
forced to downsize to a sextet. Williams sang with that
group for ten weeks, then resumed working odd jobs. But
Basie didn’t forget him. He revived his orchestra in 1952,
and as soon as budget allowed he hired Williams.
Like every Basie band, the one on this CD teems with fine
soloists: Benny Powell, Frank Foster, Eddie “Lockjaw”
Davis, Freddie Green, Frank Wess. But under Basie’s
direction, they thought as one – the result, in part, of
his witty piano playing, in which a few choice notes set a
blueprint for the whole group. Its arrangers (Foster, Thad
Jones, Ernie Wilkins) knew how to capture the brassy,
vibrant sound, the sly humor and relentless swing that had
made Basie famous.
The material here is a diary of urban blues, written by
many of its masters.
Confessin’ the Blues was the
trademark of a big band led by Jay McShann, the blues and
swing pianist and songwriter. Basie’s spare opening solo
suggests an array of piano styles – stride, boogie-woogie,
barrelhouse. Jesse Stone wrote the raunchy
Shake, Rattle and Roll for Big Joe
Turner, who made it a number-one R&B hit in 1954. But
not until it was “cleaned up” and covered by a white act –
Bill Haley and the Comets – did it become a major smash.
The Basie-Williams version isn’t as dirty as Turner’s, but
the frisky spirit is still there in this high-speed chase
of a straying woman.
Cherry Red with a kingpin
of boogie-woogie piano, Pete Johnson; the version here
shows off Frank Foster, Basie’s tenor-sax star.
It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame features the
slurring wail of trombonist Benny Powell. Williams wrote
the words for
Five O’Clock in the Morning, a slow, funky
evocation of Manhattan before dawn and the enveloping
loneliness it can bring.
Williams would leave Basie in 1961 to forge a full-time
solo career. Long before he died in 1999 he had gained
universal respect as one of the true gentlemen of jazz, and
as one its nonpareil artists. The same held true for Basie;
fittingly, they earned adjacent stars on the Hollywood Walk
-- James Gavin,
New York City, 2007
[James Gavin, the author of Deep in a
Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a
biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]