Featured Interview – Larry Williams

larry williams photo 1Bass player extraordinaire Larry Williams is a true blues survivor. One of the most beloved sidemen in Chicago, you’ll usually find him keeping time and dancing the night away as a member of the Mike Wheeler Band or accompanying 90-year-old guitar legend Jimmy Johnson if time allows.

Known to his friends as L-Dub and familiar to audiences across Europe, too, and easily recognizable for his never-ending smile and upbeat attitude, Larry’s driven to keep the beat going strong no matter what obstacle comes his way.

“I’m not the guy whose name’s on the marquee,” he told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “People aren’t gonna say: ‘L-Dub’s playin’…let’s go!’ I’m not that guy.

“Everything I do out there is to make someone else shine,” Williams says warmly.

He’s built his career as a long-time member of Big James And The Chicago Playboys as well as Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Peaches Staten and others, and he’s a songwriter and producer, too, having helped launch the recording careers of Toronzo Cannon and Tomiko Dixon, too.

Through it all, he’s remained humble and grateful.

“I definitely thank God for the gift He gave me and for blessin’ me, puttin’ me on this earth knowin’ what I was put here to do. It makes livin’ a whole lot easier!”

Born and raised in the Washington Park Homes, a short walk from the famed Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, Williams was born into gospel royalty, which is high praise for any family of musicians in the Windy City.

Other cities might claim gospel as their own, but Chicago is where blues singer Georgia Tom, whose extensive recording career included work with both Ma Rainey and Tampa Red, migrated north and had a spiritual awakening. Reinventing himself as the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, he’s the founding father of black gospel and composer of such standards as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

The Soul Stirrers, Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi and Highway Q.C.’s were superstars who called the city home. But L-Dub’s forebears played an important role, too, as members of The Family Jubilees.

“My dad, Benny, was a piano player, and my mom, Ora Lee, had 11 kids — so Mom was mom,” Larry jokes. “I was the fourth son and the seventh child.”

Known for their four-part vocal harmonies, the Jubilees consisted of his father and four uncles who performed at churches and festivals, sharing billing with The Mighty Clouds Of Joy, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Albertina Walker, The Staple Singers and other heavyweights.

They also were favorites of Isabel Joseph Johnson, a pioneer in the broadcasting industry. She began delivering gospel over the radio in the Windy City in the 1930s as host of It’s Time Truth Speaks and moved to WCIU-TV in the 1970s where her Rock Of Ages show was a Sunday morning staple until her passing in the ‘80s, and The Family Jubilees appeared on both shows.

“My uncles were the who’s who of gospel in Chicago,” Larry says proudly.

L-Dub started out in gospel, too – but as lead singer in a group with his brothers that frequently served as opening act for Jubilees shows. “We were called The Smiling Four, and I was five or six – and we actually had five members,” he says. “And everybody had to smile!”

There were four members in the beginning before Larry noticed that his baby brother Ernest had a great voice and brought it to his father’s attention. “He said: ‘Bring ‘em in here.’ So I did,” Larry remembers. “He’s singin’ his butt off, man, and Mama says: ‘He’s in the group.’”

Larry suggested changing the name to The Smiling Five. “But Mama says: ‘No!’ I said: ‘How ‘bout The Smiling Four Plus One?’ Mama says: ‘No.’ So we traveled with my uncles on radio as The Smiling Four with five members. I thought that was the craziest thing ever, but…”

“My mom, she was awesome,” he says, noting that she’s responsible for the animated movement he makes on stage today. “I was standin’ there singin’ during rehearsal, and she sticks her head in the door and says: ‘No! You don’t do that. If you’re gonna sing, put somethin’ in it. Move! You have to let the audience feel what you’re feelin’.’

larry williams photo 2“To this day, you see that I can’t be still on stage!”

Larry abandoned singing in his early teens when his voice changed and an older female cousin ridiculed the way he sounded. Her words affected him deeply. “I felt so embarrassed,” he says, “especially because my mom would always say: ‘Don’t get up there and embarrass me.’

“Kids are very impressionable. Be careful what you say and what you do and how you act,” he reminds us, “because the one thing you say or do to them can affect them for the rest of their lives. That affected me.”

Back then, Ernest took over as lead vocalist, while Larry turned his attention to piano then abandoned it for piano after learning how much work was involved. He loved the rhythm and the sounds he was creating, but turned to guitar at his mother’s suggestion because an elder brother, the guitarist in the group, was enrolling in Kentucky State University and the family needed a replacement.

“I picked it up and learned my chords and all the other stuff,” Williams recalls, “but the strings were just too small for me. I could maneuver, but just didn’t like it.”

He’s left-handed, and like Albert King, Eddy Clearwater, Lefty Dizz and Otis Rush before him, simply turned the guitar over and started playing it upside down. But he never considered that a hindrance.

“Maybe that’s why I didn’t get the chord thing in its entirety,” he says now. “But I have an uncle with The Family Jubilees who played upside down as well, and one of my brothers did, too. So it wasn’t a weird thing at all. It was kinda normal.”

He turned to the bass at age 16.

“I was in the car with my mom, and she was playin’ the radio. The bass was hittin’ me in the chest, man. Beatin’ the hell out of me! I said: ‘That sounds good! That feels good!’ So I tell my brother, Benny Jr.: ‘I wanna play bass.’ He’s a helluva bass player. And he was like: ‘Nah, nah. You can’t play my bass.’”

So L-Dub did the next best thing: He broke two strings on his guitar to mirror the action. He also grabbed Benny’s bass so often behind his back that his big brother finally gave in and started teaching him the ropes.

“The first song he showed me how to play was ‘Chameleon’ by Herbie Hancock,” Larry remembers. “If you know that song, you know it’s not easy to play. His words to me was: ‘If you can’t play this, you can’t play bass.’

“I played it. I worked it, and I worked it, and the beauty of it was that nobody had to tell me to practice. I wanted to play that bass — there was somethin’ about it all inside me, a part of me. Even now, I feel the same way.”

An eighth grade music teacher tried to show him the fundamentals, but gave up, Larry believes, because he found himself unable to instruct anyone who played upside down. But he did start feeding Williams sheet music: Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You,” Quincy Jones’ “Killer Joe” and Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mr. Magic,” then Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” and some Earth Wind & Fire.

The next year, L-Dub moved to Martin Luther King High School, where his skills improved dramatically. His teacher, Harvey Burton, insisted he learn trombone, knowing it would enable his student to read bass lines better because, despite their obvious differences, the two instruments share similar pitch.

“I love him so-o-o much,” Larry says.

A quick study who was, by his own admission, both temperamental and hard-headed, he played slide in the school’s marching band, but was granted permission to return to bass after threatening to quit the band to play football instead.

Today, Williams is heavily influenced by Willie Dixon, Sly & The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, Detroit powerhouse James Jamerson, longtime Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White and Chicago Blues Hall Of Famer Sam Cockrell. Back then, however, he credits Alfred Shorter, another young Chicagoan who was far more advanced on the instrument he was, with helping him out immensely.

larry williams photo 3Along with classmate and future James Cotton Band percussionist Mark May, Larry started getting involved in blues and R&B projects after high school.

“We started our first band and needed equipment – with no money,” Williams remembers. “So we did whatever we could. We took out folks’ garbage, painted houses, cut lawns, shoveled snow…all just to make a few dollars. We finally made enough to get Mark a set of drums and me my first professional bass, a 1977 Fender Jazz.”

The Checkerboard Lounge was basically only a few blocks down the street, and Larry walked by it frequently, pausing often to listen, but never daring to enter and attempting to sit in. Today, he regrets his shyness. He knows now that he would have gotten the chance if he’d only gotten up the courage.

A great deal of his training in the blues came through L-Dub’s friendship with the Scott family, ten siblings who rotated in and out of two family bands, The Scott Brothers Band and Scottie & The Rib Tips, both fixtures in the city for decades.

“If you didn’t learn directly from the Scott brothers,” Larry insists, “you learned indirectly from them. Someone that they helped back then probably helped you.”

Nick Moss cut his teeth as a member of the Rib Tips, and L-Dub credits Jerome Scott for teaching him much of what he knows about the bass today. “That brother helped me out so much, man,” Larry says. “It was crazy.”

Larry subsequently joined The May Foundation Band, a, R&B unit founded by his brothers Benny and Smokey. But his stay was short. “I was still hard-headed and rebellious,” he recalls. “My own brother kicked me out the band.

“But everything happens for a good reason.”

Williams’ first trip into the recording studio came shortly thereafter, however, through the friendship he developed with producer Lucky Cordell. Known as “The Baron Of Bounce” on powerhouse WVON radio, where he was a initially a deejay and later its general manager, Cordell hooked him up with The Next Movement, an R&B group fashioned after the Temptations and the Chi-Lites. Larry joined their band for a tour and helped record their debut LP, Never Stop Dancin’.

Slowly establishing himself as a go-to bass player in the city, L-Dub was also supporting two young sons, Larry and Lamont, working as a dishwasher, at Burger King and as a telemarketer – menial jobs he knew he could leave in a heartbeat. At age 32 in 1995, however, he feared for their welfare and was about to enlist in the military when Mack suggested he apply with the U.S. Postal Service.

Williams reluctantly jumped at the chance and landed a job. He’s spent the past 24 years delivering mail by day and making music by night. He’s been fully involved in show business since his father, who passed in 1989, visited him in a dream.

“He asked me if I was still playin’ bass. I said: ‘Yeah,’” Larry remembers as if it were yesterday. “And he said: ‘You know, your uncles need a bass player.’”

Williams and his youngest brother quickly joined the Jubilees, recording two albums with them, God Is Real and We Need Jesus. Now hard-to-find treasures, some of their cuts live on through YouTube uploads. When the group disbanded following the deaths of two uncles and his brother, Larry immersed himself in the blues, gigging with harp player Cadillac Dave, Nellie “Tiger” Travis and future James Cotton band leader Slam Allen.

Then, despite reluctance on his part, Big James Montgomery called and changed forever his life.

Big James had established himself as a star in his own right, fronting his smoking hot group, The Chicago Playboys after several years as a member of Little Milton’s band. He needed a bass player and phoned three times. Believing in his own mind that he wasn’t good enough, however, Williams balked at the idea repeatedly.

“The Playboys’ reputation was high,” he remembers today. “They had Mike Wheeler on guitar, Cleo Cole on drums, Charlie Kimble on sax, Big James on trombone…man, I said: ‘No way!’

“It was Cleo who convinced me to come down and see ‘em at Buddy Guy’s Legends. I went down there, and my adrenaline was runnin’, my blood was flowin’, as I listened to ‘em. My heart was pumpin’ real fast.”

Between sets, Big James handed Williams some material and told him to learn it – not taking “no” for an answer this time, but telling him that the band was about to go into the studio. Montgomery wasn’t going to use him there, he said, but wanted to rehearse with him soon after to see where they were at.

But Williams had major jitters after a successful practice session when he discovered his first gig as a Playboy was going to take place at Buddy Guy’s. And it was also happening on opening night of the Chicago Blues Festival, and the bar was going to be packed with blues lovers from around the globe.

That was bad enough, but what made things even more nerve-wracking was that Wheeler was going to open the night with a few songs, and L-Dub had no clue about how to play the material.

larry williams photo 4“I got the Chicago Playboys thing down pat,” he says, “and I’m not a stranger to the 1-4-5 of Chicago blues, but I’m not confident, either. I remember screwin’ up one of the changes on the first song. I know he heard it, but didn’t say nothin’. I jumped right in. Then comes the second song, and I must have screwed up two or three times. I’m sayin’ to myself: ‘Aw, fu–!’

“Right before we were ready to call up Big James, I turned to my amp, and I prayed: ‘Lord, they’re gonna keep me, or, if they don’t, they don’t. At least I played at Buddy Guy’s one time — but I wanna go out with a bang whichever way it goes.’

“From then on, the spirit came over me, man, and I started rippin’. And I wouldn’t stop.”

Fortunately, that rocky beginning was the beginning of a long musical love affair. Since James worked primarily on weekends back then, it was a blessing, too, because, as a mailman, Larry couldn’t travel very often. After several years and hard-hitting albums, however, the honeymoon ended when Montgomery decided it was time to go in a new direction with a new lineup.

Wheeler had already formed his own band and was using the late Sam Green as his full-time bassist. But he regularly worked with other bands, asked if they had anyone on bass and always recruited L-Dub if they didn’t.

“Mike’s really the one who kept me out in the blues world,” Larry says. “And the way he plays guitar made my bass flow. Our friendship goes a whole lot deeper than music, and I think that shows on stage.”

Along with Cole and keyboard player Brian James – former musical director for The Chi-Lites, The Drifters and The Classic Five, William has been an essential part of the Mike Wheeler Band since Green’s medical issues sent him to the sidelines.

With successful CDs on Blind Pig and Delmark Records, all four members bring something a little different to the table, he says. “We make all of what we do even better. Mike had the vision for this band a long time ago about what and how it needed to be done. It was a struggle at first, but now we’re kickin’ it almost every night.”

In recent years, both Wheeler and L-Dub worked regularly in support of Jimmy Johnson he gigged around town, and Larry still does so when he gets the call and other responsibilities allow. One of the happiest – and most surprising — times in his life, he says, was when the Barroom Preacher insisted he join him for a single gig in Switzerland a few years ago.

“Jimmy negotiated a price for me that was out of this world,” he recalls fondly.

Today, Wheeler is “retired” from decades of hospital work. “But I’m not,” Williams points out. “Workin’ two jobs takes a toll on your personal relationships. I’m not countin’ the days or hours until I can ‘retire’ like him – but I’ve definitely got a date in mind!”

Before you jump to conclusions, however, the time’s simply close for him to walk away. He still enjoys postal work, and he ruffles at the bad rap some folks give postal workers.

“There’s nothin’ better than completing your task,” he says — even though he almost lost both of his careers in an on-the-job postal mishap.

“It was May 7, 2017, at about 1:35 p.m. – on a Tuesday,” Williams says, chuckling now despite all of the misery that day put him through. “It shows you how – in the blink of an eye – your whole life can change.”

He was in the middle of his route, moving mail from the back to the front of his truck. His hand was supporting his weight on the door frame at the same time he pushed the sliding door to close it.

“I’m movin’ fast,” he recalls, “but the door moved faster than I anticipated.”

The door slammed shut on the middle and ring fingers of his dominant left hand, smashing the tip of the middle digit and severing the fourth and leaving it hanging by the skin.

“I said: ‘Wait a minute! You didn’t do this,” Larry remembers. In shock, his first instinct was to pray. Then, instead of calling for help, he dialed girlfriend Kimberly Allen to inform her about what had just happened.

Instead of being concerned, he says, she took it as a joke.

larry williams photo 5“She said: ‘You know what? I’m tired of you playin’ with me. You’re always doin’ this, and I got clients in the office…’ and – click – she hung up,” Williams remembers. “I said: ‘Okay. I’m standin’ here bleeding. Let’s call the Postal Service.’”

As anyone who’s ever tried that knows, Larry says, that was a bad idea. The phone rang and rang, but went unanswered.

“I said: ‘Okay, that didn’t work… Maybe I should call 9-1-1,’” he finally decided.

Obviously in shock, he remained calm as he described what had happened, but the operator he was speaking with became hysterical. She wanted him to remain on the line until help arrived, but he refused, telling her he had calls to make. While he waited, he also snapped a photo of his injury and sent a copy to his lady, drawing an immediate response that mixed horror and concern.

“When the ambulance got there, the guys asked if I was okay,” Larry says. “I told them that I was – but that they had to hurry and get me sewed up – ‘because I have a gig to play tonight.’”

Told that that wasn’t going to happen, he insisted that he had to call Wheeler to arrange a replacement. The EMTs placed it instead.

As bad as things seemed, Williams got lucky that day. Even though he was transported to a hospital that didn’t normally staff a hand specialist, by coincidence, one was on site for a meeting when he was wheeled into the emergency room. When the doc told him he was headed for surgery, Larry insisted: “Can’t you just put a Band-Aid on it? I got a gig to do!”

Both girlfriend Kim and a postal representative were on hand by the time he headed for the operating room. The doc planned to graft a portion of bone from Williams’ wrist to repair the severed digit. Larry had one request before he did, however: to leave his thumb and index finger exposed when they bandaged him up.

“Gimme a couple of weeks. I’ll be all right. I gotta play!” he insisted.

“The doctor told Kim that I was delirious,” Larry chuckles now. To his delight, however, when he awoke, he discovered that not only had the procedure been a success but the medical team also had honored his request.

That night, the Wheeler band played the Kingston Mines, and Williams was already out of the hospital and in the audience.

“I tell Mike: ‘I gotta play a song,’” L-Dub remembers. “Mike went: ‘Man, you just had surgery.’ I said: ‘You don’t understand. If I can play a little bit right now, I know I’ll be okay later.’ Mike saw how I felt in my eyes. He didn’t want me to do it. But he said: ‘All right. One song.’

“It hurt like hell, but I did it.”

Three days later, medics fitted out Larry with a smaller, less restrictive cast and scheduled him for therapy. That night, he and Kim were at the House Of Blues as the band played the main stage. The crowd when wild when Wheeler pointed him out during their first set and later, when he invited him up to sing the song that would close out the night. His path to the mike, however, took him past J.W. Williams, who was sitting in for him on bass that night.

“He asked me: ‘Do you wanna play?’” Larry says. “Well…that’s like asking a crackhead: ‘Do you wanna hold this bag of cocaine?’

“I’m a crackhead when it comes to the bass guitar,” he insists. “Hell yeah, I wanna play! I grab his bass and I can see Mike, Brian and Cleo all shakin’ their heads, sayin’: ‘You fool!’

“So we started playin’ ‘Shine Your Light On Me,’ and I’m just pluckin’ away. I’m in pain, but you don’t give a crackhead cocaine and tell him not to snort it! I’m addicted. I’m sorry!”

Williams paid the price for his foolishness later on — both physically and emotionally – catching hell from his therapist and doctor after they’d seen a video of the performance that someone had posted to YouTube.

L-Dub vowed he’d be back at full strength by the time the band was booked for Chicago Blues Festival that June, but went into a deep depression when he found himself unable. Fellow musicians frequently dropped by his house to chat and play bass for him, raising his spirits a little. And the outpouring of love he received when Kim started a GoFundMe page to help him out during his recovery provided a boost.

“I can’t say enough about that,” Larry insists, “the love, the prayers that people around the world – the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, France, Lithuania…everywhere, man! — were sayin’ for me. It was crazy beautiful. Talkin’ about it still gives me chills.”

larry williams photo 6“I couldn’t play music, and I couldn’t work at the post office, though,” he says. “I was just sittin’ at home wallowing in sorrow. You try to stay upbeat, and the calls from friends helped. But the depression is real.”

Fortunately, Kim talked him into attending the blues fest, and his attitude brightened dramatically after Wheeler once again invited him up to sing – this time warning his bassist not to let him touch his instrument.

Despite several family members and some of his musical peers insisting his career was over, Wheeler never gave up believing, he says. Larry finally got to celebrate his return at a well-advertised comeback performance at Buddy Guy’s that September.

Today, he’s regained his top form, but admits that he’s had to alter his playing style somewhat, relying more on his other digits because the reattached finger has lost so much feeling that it sometimes gets in the way and that some of the bass lines he’d invented and recorded with Wheeler prior to the accident were so complex that they’ve become a challenge.

One in particular stands out – “Livin’ My Dreams,” Larry says. “We get through with song, and I tell Mike: ‘Who wrote that bass line? (laughs) He needs his ass kicked!’

“I can still do the tricks I used to do a little bit,” he says, “just not as clean as it used to be. I still love to do all the fancy stuff, and I’m still gettin’ better.”

Williams has been busier than ever since his return. Earlier this year, Tomiko Dixon – who bills herself as “The Granddaughter Of The Blues” because of her relationship to Willie Dixon — requested that he join her in the studio, where he served as her arranger for the tune “You Don’t Wanna Mess With The IRS.” The title cut of her new album, it exists on the disc in vocal and instrumental versions with Larry on bass.

He and Big James remain close, and he just co-produced Montgomery’s new CD, delivering the bottom throughout. He’s also producing another for Chicagoans Rue Jackson and the Street Jaxkson Band. And, along with Wheeler, James and drummer Pooky Stix, he’s currently busy working on Demetria Taylor’s upcoming Delmark release.

Williams and Wheeler continue to collaborate regularly on new material. They’re aiming for a new Wheeler Band album after the band heads to the studio soon for a project that will feature material written by Brian and others that Larry’s going to rearrange and with Mike serving in a guest artist role.

If that’s not enough, Larry’s also in the concept stage of another project. He planning to dip into the catalogs of several guitar superstars, taking their material and reinterpreting it as he envisions how they would have sounded if they’d been playing bass instead of six-string.

Through it all, he insists, “my job is to make other folks sound the best that they can and to do it to the best of my ability. Bass playin’ is to accommodate, not to intimidate. I don’t want my bass playin’ to intimidate anyone, but I want it to accommodate everybody.

“It’s great if you can run all across the neck of the bass. But like (Grammy-winning bassist/producer/label owner) Victor Wooten said: If you don’t have no groove, you don’t have no pocket. If I don’t see you out there bobbin’ your head and dancin’, then I’m not doin’ my job.

“Speakin’ for myself and the guys that I play with, we put our heart and soul into it, and we love what we do, man! It’s not so much playin’ the music. It’s seein’ the smiles on people’s faces and the joy and happiness that goes along with that.

“That’s what it’s really all about – you’re givin’ back. We all wanna get paid. But as I tell folks: ‘If I’m available, you got me for a hotdog and a smile!’” (laughs)

There’s no telling where Williams will pop up next. But be sure to check the Wheeler band schedule by visiting www.mikewheelerband.com.

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