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Blues Pianist and Vocalist Detroit Junior Dies

Legendary blues pianist, vocalist and songwriter Emery “Detroit Junior” Williams Jr. died at his home in Chicago on Aug. 9 of heart failure. He was 73. His 50-plus year career was studded with notable recordings, memorable performances and renowned band mates.

Born in Haynes, Ark. on Oct. 26, 1931, Williams’ family soon moved to Memphis and then again to Southern Illinois, where he spent his childhood growing up. His family moved again, this time to Flint, Mich., where he lived with his grandmother and began playing the instruments she kept around her house. By the time he was 19, he was leading his own band, the Blues Chaps, and playing clubs in both Flint and Pontiac, Mich. For three years, the Blues Chaps were the house band at the Circle Club in Detroit, a position that had them backing touring stars such as Roscoe Gordon, Eddie Boyd, John Lee Hooker and Amos Milburn. Playing with Milburn was a special accomplishment for Williams, who idolized Milburn and his amusing songs about the evils of alcohol.

In 1956, Williams moved down to Chicago under the tutelage of Eddie Boyd as Boyd tried to line up a contract for Williams with Chess Records. While the record deal didn’t originally pan out, Williams fell in with J.T. Brown, Chicago’s leading blues saxophonist. Together, they landed a gig at Club 99 and soon after, a gig at the legendary Squeeze Club. Williams’ performances quickly earned him a dedicated following, which adored the musician’s percussive piano playing and engaging live performance.

Soon, Williams paired up with harpist Little Mack Simmons and the two settled into a steady gig as the house band at Cadillac Baby’s South Side club. Around the same time, in 1960, Williams recorded his first single for the Bea & Baby label – “Money Tree” backed with “So Unhappy.” It was this single that sparked the nickname Detroit Junior; before that, he had been known as Little Junior Williams.

After his successful single, Chess came calling, regretting their missed opportunity to sign the artist. Williams signed to Chess, but ironically, the singles didn’t sell. He cut for Foxy, CL and Palos before his next hit, the original tune “Call My Job” on U.S.A. in 1965. The single helped him gig with era heavy-hitters Mack Simmons, Eddie Taylor, Sam Lay and Johnny Twist. In 1968, he began touring and recording with Howlin’ Wolf, playing everywhere from college campuses to Big Duke’s Flamingo. When Howlin’ Wolf died in 1976, Williams remained with the band, the Wolf Gang, for a number of years.

Williams finally recorded his first full album under his own name in the early 1970s, entitled Chicago Urban Blues on the Blues On Blues label. The inclusion of four of his songs on Alligator Records’ Living Chicago Blues, Volume 6 established his career as a successful solo artist. He recorded four albums under his own name from 1995-2004: Turn Up the Heat (1995); Take Out the Time (1997); Live at the Toledo Museum of Modern Art (2004), all for Blue Suit; and Blues on the Internet in 2004 for Delmark.

Throughout his career, he was known both for his music and his antics on stage, which included playing the piano standing up, on his knees and from underneath the instrument. Many of his songs are blues classics, and Koko Taylor recorded three of his tunes: “Tired of That,” “Thanks, But No Thanks” and “Never Trust a Man.”

In the last few years, Williams continued to play around Chicago, even after losing a leg to diabetes. He was also featured in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series, The Blues. He wrote and performed up until his death.

The funeral will be held on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at A.R. Leake Funeral Home, 7838 S. Cottage Grove, Chicago, Ill., with the wake held at 1 p.m. A visitation will be held Wednesday evening from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Originally Published