Everyone knows that Joe Williams sang the hell out of the blues, but do you know what else he sang the hell out of?
Williams’ expansive wheelhouse encompassed romantic ballads, songs of heartbreak, swinging standards, bossa novas, and boogaloo beats. He could improvise like a stylish horn player or phrase down the middle like a sophisticated pop singer. He was even a credible scat singer, though it wasn’t a strength. Williams could do more things as well or better than just about any other post-war male jazz singer.
Yet his identity remains inextricably tied to the blues hits that defined his 6½-year tenure with the Count Basie Orchestra, from 1954-1961: “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Alright, OK, You Win,” and “The Comeback.” These numbers and others like them were integral to the singer’s repertoire until his death in 1999 at age 80.
The critical discourse around Williams during his life often circled around this duality. As late as 1986, Whitney Balliett could write in The New Yorker that Williams was in fact two equally accomplished singers: “One is the famous blues singer, and the other is the almost unknown ballad singer.”
One reason Williams remains typecast is that most of his finest recordings — five LPs taped for RCA Victor between 1963 and 1965 and a glorious one-off for Solid State with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (1966) — are hidden in plain sight. They capture Williams’ effulgent bass-baritone at its peak of expression and best document his versatility, swing, storytelling, and sublime balance of gutsy power, restrained elegance, and taste.
These records have a checkered past in terms of falling in and out of print, though all made it to CD at some point and all are available via streaming services. Anyone looking for a deeper understanding of Williams’ art should start here.
Chicago-raised, Williams was 36 but still a work-in-progress when Basie rescued him from obscurity. Despite the success of his 1955 debut LP with the band, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings (Verve), there’s still a bluntness to his blues elocutions, and his early ballads often come across as one-dimensional. You can chart a steady progression toward more subtle expression through his Roulette LPs with strings, among them Sings About You! (1959) and Sentimental & Melancholy (1960).
By 1963, Williams’ voice, always as full-bodied as a Barolo, boasted a balanced suppleness in the finish.
By 1963, Williams had matured. His voice, always as full-bodied and opulent as a Barolo, now boasts a balanced suppleness in the finish that translates to a larger dramatic range. His vibrato, coloring, and accents are more carefully modulated, more attuned to the nuances of a song’s layered emotions. His pitch is more centered, his swing even more authoritative. Absorbing Basie’s less-is-more aesthetic taught Williams the value of understatement. The singer never forces the issue.
Jump for Joy (1963), his tremendous RCA debut with big band arrangements by Oliver Nelson and Jimmy Jones, opens ecstatically. Williams glides through a swinging “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” with the relaxed confidence of a man in a hand-tailored suit. Dig his call-and-response exchanges with the band in the second chorus, where he gradually spreads his melodic wings, before flowering into a resplendent rise-and-fall variation in quarter note triplets on the bridge.
Williams had an ear for worthy, neglected songs. There are several on Jump for Joy, including Helen Bliss’ obscure 1941 torch song, “I Went Out of My Way,” which receives a bittersweet, 2 a.m. reading ala Sinatra. “A Good Thing” and “She Doesn’t Know” were written for Williams by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal — adult love songs that he sings with the knowing air of a man who has not only been around block in life but an artist able to transform his experiences and emotions via craft into art. That’s the ballgame.
On “A Good Thing,” note the patience with which Williams sings I’m glad that loneliness and heartache taught me just how much I needed you. He stretches out the word “needed” with an extra dollop of vibrato that intensifies its meaning.
While there are no formal blues on Jump for Joy, the next studio date, Me and the Blues,throws Williams back into the briar patch with charismatic results. These RCA records were first-class major label projects — the cream of New York studio players (Clark Terry, Phil Woods, Osie Johnson, etc.), top arrangers like Nelson and Jones, and beautiful engineering by Ray Hall in resonant Webster Hall. The steady hand of veteran producer George Avakian is palpable.
Avakian conceived At Newport ’63 to showcase a casual vibe. Williams, frisky and loose, fronts a hot, four-horn band with stars like Coleman Hawkins that leans into a blues-dominated set for an appreciative audience.
The final RCA records, The Song is You and The Exciting Joe Williams return to the studio with a new producer (Jim Foglesong) and arranger (Frank Hunter). The songs are ballads and standards with a beat. Williams is in strong voice, but commercial motivations are more on the surface, especially on The Song is You, which goes all in with strings and occasional vocal choir. The Exciting was Williams’ own favorite RCA date. Sometimes it lives up to its title — he generates awe-inspiring swing on “This is the Life” — but Hunter’s Nelson Riddle/Billy May-flavored charts are overly gussy and there are a couple duds aimed at air play.
Presenting Joe Williams and Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra is a classic. Jones’ inspired arrangements are full of exhilarating details like the slithery sax section soli on “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” The band roars, and Williams roars back on the mostly blues and blues-flavored material. Best of all is a moving reading of Ellington’s de facto spiritual “Come Sunday” that finds Williams reaching deep into his soul to create a masterpiece.