Joe Williams live in 1982
Williams was born Joseph Goreed in the small farming town of Cordele, Georgia. His father, Willie Goreed, left the family early on, but Williams’ mother, Anne Beatrice Gilbert, who was 18 when she had her only child, provided a strong emotional bond until her death in 1968. Soon after Williams was born, his mother moved them in with her parents, who had enough money to support an extended family. During this time, Anne Gilbert was saving for a move to Chicago. Once she had made the move — alone — she began saving the money that she earned cooking for wealthy Chicagoans so that her family could join her. By the time Williams was four, he, his grandmother, and his aunt had joined his mother in Chicago, where they would live for many years.
Probably most important to Williams’ later life was the music scene—fueled largely by African-American musicians—that thrived in Chicago in the early 1920s. Years later, he recalled going to the Vendome Theater with his mother to hear Louis Armstrong play the trumpet. Chicago also offered a host of radio stations that featured the then-rebellious sounds of jazz, exposing Williams to the stylings of Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Big Joe Turner, and many others. By his early teens, he had already taught himself to play piano and had formed his own gospel vocal quartet, known as “The Jubilee Boys”, that sang at church functions.
During his mid-teens Williams began performing as a vocalist, singing solo at formal events with local bands. The most that he ever took home was five dollars a night, but that was enough to convince his family that he could make a living with his voice; so, at 16, he dropped out of school. After discussing it with his family, he began using the name “Williams” as a stage name, and he began marketing himself in earnest to Chicago clubs and bands. His first job was at a club called Kitty Davis’s. Williams was allowed to sing with the band in the evening and keep the tips, which would sometimes amount to $20.
Williams had his first real break in 1938 when clarinet and saxophone player Jimmie Noone invited him to sing with his band. Less than a year later, the young singer was earning a reputation at Chicago dance halls and on a national radio station that broadcast his voice from Massachusetts to California. He toured the Midwest in 1939 and 1940 with the Les Hite band, which accompanied the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. A year later, he went on a more extensive tour with the band of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
In 1942, Lionel Hampton hired him to fill in for his regular vocalist, both for the Hampton orchestra’s home performances at the Tic Toc Club in Boston and for their cross-country tours. Williams’ work with Hampton ended when the band’s former singer returned, but by that time Williams was in great demand, his fame particularly burgeoning back in Chicago. In the mid-’40s he toured with Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy (making his first recording with that band). From 1951 through 1953, he recorded with Red Saunders and his band for OKeh Records and Blue Lake Records.
He got his big break in 1954, when he was hired as the male vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra. He remained with Basie until 1961, garnering some of the best exposure a blues and jazz singer could have. His first LP, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, appeared in 1955, containing definitive versions of Memphis Slim‘s “Every Day I Have the Blues” (already his signature song, and first recorded by him in 1952 on Checker Records) and “Alright, Okay, You Win.” “Every Day” hit number two on the R & B charts, and sparked another LP—1957 The Greatest! Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings Standards—spotlighting Williams’ command of the traditional-pop repertory. After 1955, the Basie group stopped every year at the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the biggest events on the jazz calendar. In 1955, Williams won Down Beat magazine’s New Star Award. That same year, he won Down Beat’s international critics’ poll for Best New Male Singer, as well as their readers’ poll for Best Male Band Singer—citations he would continue to accumulate throughout his career. The years 1956, 1957, and 1959 also found the ensemble touring Europe, where the popularity of jazz had skyrocketed.
He appeared with Count Basie and his Orchestra in the 1957 rock and roll movie Jamboree (1957 film), released by Warner Brothers.
In the 1960’s Williams worked mostly as a single, often accompanied by top-flight jazzmen, including Harry Edison, Clark Terry, George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley. In 1962 Williams sings along with Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie & His Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1971, he and pianist George Shearing collaborated on a recording, The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams. He became a familiar face on television, appearing on such variety programs as Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, Steve Allen, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas shows. Williams gained further fame when Bill Cosby cast him as Heathcliff Huxtable‘s father-in-law “Grandpa Al” Hanks in a recurring role on the hit 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show.
Williams sang the lead in 1975 in Cannonball Adderley’s musical play Big Man (based on the John Henry legend) in Carnegie Hall. Helped by Cannonball’s brother Nat Adderley, he composed music for a full-blown, nearly-hour-long theater piece, which he called a “folk musical”, the subject of which is John Henry, the mythical black hero.
Williams continued to perform regularly at jazz festivals, both in the U.S. and aboard, as well as on the nightclub circuit. Williams had performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival 12 times, spanning from 1959 thru 1993, sharing the stage with jazz greats such as Sarah Vaughan, Dianne Reeves, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, Carmen McRae, Herbie Hancock, Nat Adderley, and Dizzy Gillespie. During the 1980’s Williams appeared at Chicago’s Playboy Jazz Festival ten times.
He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, next to Basie’s. When Basie died in 1984, Williams sang a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” at his funeral. The 1984 movie All of Me starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin gives credit to Williams as performer of the title track. In 1985, Williams received a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocalist for the album I Just Want to Sing. In 1991 Williams attended his own gala tribute, “For the Love of Joe”, which celebrated the contribution that he had made and was still making to music. In 1992, he won his second Grammy Award, for the release Ballad and Blues Master—”I Just Want to Sing.” Williams appeared several times on Sesame Street in the 1980s and early 1990s, including the celebrity version of “Put Down the Duckie.” He also performed the song “The Birdland Jump.” In 1997, Williams sang a duet with Nancy Wilson during the opening show of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, singing the song “You’re Too Good to Be True.”
Williams enjoyed a successful career and worked regularly until his death, which occurred at age 80, on March 29, 1999, in Las Vegas, Nevada. He collapsed on a city street a few blocks from his home after walking out of Sunrise Hospital, where he had been admitted 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.