One evening in 1964, pioneering blues and rock guitar player Jody Williams quietly laid his guitar into its case, snapped the locks shut and slid it underneath his bed.
Lyndon B. Johnson was President of the United States at the time.
It would be 35 years later – in 1999 – when Bill Clinton was the President of the United States, before Williams’ guitar would once again see the light of day.
So why did the Alabama-born, Chicago-raised legend – a performer who had recorded with Sonny Boy Williamson and shared the stage with The Drifters, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Bill Haley and The Comets – turn his back and walk away from a very lucrative career, arguably at the height of its popularity?
According to Williams, it was cut and dry.
It was because his career was anything but lucrative, all thanks to the greed of others.
“It seems like anytime I write a song, it’s stolen and over a million records are sold. And then about 10 other people record it. You know I got to feel bad about that,” Williams recently said. “That’s the main reason I put my guitar under the bed for 30-something years – to keep from killing somebody. I just said, ‘To Hell with it.’”
So the man who laid down the explosive and highly-influential solo on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and also played on classic Howlin’ Wolf sides such as “Evil” and “Forty Four” was basically MIA from the music scene for the 70s, 80s and 90s, depraving blues fans of a major creative force for three decades.
“I wouldn’t mind eight or 10 other people recording it (his songs) if I had gotten something out of it,” he said. “But to have things completely stolen, I don’t even get my writer’s royalties off a bunch of my stuff.”
Not only did Williams not play – or, for that matter, even think about playing – the blues for 30-plus years, he didn’t even bother to listen to them, either.
“I listened to some country and western and a little light jazz during those years. That was about it,” he said. That’s all I listened to for 30 years. No blues; period.”
Williams basically just vanished from plain sight overnight, leaving many to wonder if he had either passed away or maybe moved to some deserted island.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Mickey Baker used Williams’ riff for “Billy’s Blues” on the Mickey & Sylvia hit “Love is Strange.” That song hit number one on the charts in the late 50s, and was later used in the movie Dirty Dancing and even wound up in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And despite all of that – even though courtroom litigation was eventually held on the matter – Williams never received credit for giving birth to the lick used in the song, nor did he ever garner so much as one penny from the sale of it over the years. Disgusted and left with no real motivation for continuing to play music, Williams simply faded into the background.
However, just because he was finished with music, that didn’t mean that all Williams did was sit on his hands for three decades. Instead, he retreated to the south side of Chicago, raised a family, went to school for electronics and for 26 years, he was a technical engineer for the Xerox Corporation.
“I did that until March of 1994, when I retired from Xerox. Then after that, I became an ATM technician and worked on those machines at banks and places like that,” said Williams. “I was in uniform and wore a bullet-proof vest with a big .357 magnum on my hip. I did that from ’95 until June of last year, when I retired from that. I did 16 years of that. So really, I had two careers in engineering.”
And thankfully for those that appreciate great music, after retirement from the corporate world, Williams put aside his .357, picked up his guitar and now seems intent on making up for lost time.
“I’ve been playing shows, traveling the country … been to Europe, Japan and Australia and different places,” he said. “And I did those two albums for Evidence (2002’s Return of a Legend and You Left Me in the Dark from 2004) since I started back playing again. And since then, I’ve written some things, but I haven’t run across a company that I’d like to record for. Everybody’s still tryin’ to rip you off, you know? I was approached one of the last times I was down in Memphis by a record company that wanted me to record for them, but they wanted me to give up my publishing rights. I said, ‘No.’ Before I do that, I’d rather not record anything new at all.”
Newly-recorded material or not, Williams has still been busy playing the blues these days.
This past year, Williams was part of the impressive memorial concert staged for his old friend and former band-mate Hubert Sumlin at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre.
“I did a couple of things there with Eric Clapton. We played “Evil” at the Apollo. Matter of fact, Clapton recorded one of my songs that I wrote for Billy Boy Arnold back in the 50s,” said Williams.
Williams’ entry in the world of music got its start on the street-corners of the Windy City, where he and Ellas Bates/McDaniel (Bo Diddley) used to perform for passers-by. Williams played harp at the time, his first instrumental love, before later switching over to the six string.
“We played these amateur talent shows at different theatres in Chicago when we wasn’t playing on the streets. And then this guy at the Indiana Theatre heard us play and that’s how we really got started,” Williams said. “We had two guitars and a washtub bass.”
It didn’t take long for the world to get introduced to the wonderful talents of Bo Diddley, as tunes like “I’m Looking for a Woman” and the now-classic “Who Do You Love” found an eager audience for this wild, new form of music.
And Jody Williams was at the heart of it all, playing lead guitar on the chug-chug-chugging “Who Do You Love.”
“I never thought that (song) would be as big as it is. A lot of guitar players say they started playing because of that song,” he said. “But when I was in the studio for that one, I just put my stuff on it … just did my thing. But I’m glad I managed to inspire somebody.”
If the Chicago blues in the 1950s was anything, it was inspirational. A person would probably have been hard-pressed to find any place in the city, on any given night, that did not have some kind of a blues band holding court. That had to have made for some serious posturing in order to secure a gig, even with so many plum spots in the city to play the blues back then.
“I don’t know if we looked at it like that or not, but there was a lot of competition around,” he said. “Everybody and his brother had some kind of a guitar they was playing or a harmonica they was blowing. It was really an amazing time.”
Williams credits B.B. King and T-Bone Walker as being the two musicians that were most influential on his own style of guitar playing. And as luck would have, Williams ended up getting to play with both of the Hall of Famers.
“I played with T-Bone and I recorded with B.B.,” said Williams. “And they were my main influences on guitar. Matter of fact, I could play B.B.’s style almost like he could. I was one of the few that could do that.”
Although the first time he met B.B. King face-to-face, he wasn’t entirely sure who he was greeting.
“We were in the studio on the first day of recording “Forty Four” – Wolf, Hubert and I, with Earl Phillips on drums and Otis Spann on piano. And while we was on a break, a couple of guys that I didn’t know walked into the studio. Then I noticed after we got back to work, this one guy was watching my hands. That’s what a guitar player does if he wants to steal another player’s licks – he watches his hands. So I said to myself, ‘This Mother … is in here ripping me off,’ Williams said. “So it went like that for awhile and he was still watching me, still ripping me off. So I didn’t say anything, I just turned my chair around so he couldn’t see my hands. When we finished that song and was listening to Leonard Chess play it back, Wolf called me over to the other side of the studio. Well, by chance, that guy that was sitting there watching my fingers was over there talking to Wolf. So when I got over there, Wolf said, ‘Jody, I want you to meet a friend of mine – Mr. B.B. King.’ And oh man, I felt bad. That studio was too small for me to run and hide in. But here was a guy that I thought was ripping me off, when I had been ripping off him! But we hit it off real good. At the end of the day, B.B. got on his guitar, I got on mine and Spann got on the piano and we recorded “Must Have Been the Devil.””
Williams and King would collaborate a few years later on a tune called “Five Spot.”
“When I recorded my album (Return of a Legend) after retirement, I re-recorded that song as a tribute to B.B. But on the album, I called the song “Jive Spot.” But that’s a tribute to what B.B. King meant to me,” Williams said.
Williams’ re-emergence into the world of blues music was through a couple of old friends – Dick Shurman and Robert Junior Lockwood.
“He (Shurman) stopped by the house one day and asked me if I could manage to see someone from the 50s that I liked, who would it be? I told him that me and Robert Junior Lockwood got along real good and I really liked him, even though I had not seen him since the 50s. Robert and I always looked like father and son,” said Williams. “Dick told me that Robert Junior was going to be down at (Buddy Guy’s) Legends on Saturday night and did I want to go see him? I told him I would go on one condition – that nobody knew who I was. But as soon as I got in there and sat down, he (Robert Junior) know who I was. We talked and had a good time that night. Oh man, that made me feel good.”
That good feeling continued to resonate with Williams and helped to encourage him to once again pick up his guitar and start unleashing his signature sound to a legion of hungry blues fans that had been starving for something – anything – from Williams for many years.
Robert Junior would later make an appearance on a couple of songs off Williams’ second post-retirement disc, You Left Me in the Dark.
Of all the many tunes that Williams helped craft for the Chess and Vee-Jay labels when he was one of the top blues session men in the world, the song that he feels best represents the ‘classic Jody Williams’ sound’ is a tune of his own – “Lucky Lou.”
“Most of the guitar players that try to play that song really can’t, unless I show them how. Tinsley Ellis played on Return of a Legend and he had been playing “Lucky Lou” but he hadn’t been playing it right. So during the sessions for that album, he asked me to please show him how to play it right,” said Williams. “So I showed him – give me a D-flat minor chord down here at the bottom – and he got it. He said, ‘After all these years of playing that song wrong, I can finally play it right.’”
Little moments like that have no doubt re-enforced Williams’ decision to return to the arena of playing the blues, even though it’s not quite been forgive and forget for him.
“All the things that I’ve done that people have stolen from me, I should be a millionaire. When I quit playing music, that left a bad taste in my mouth for 30 years,” he said. “But the things that happened to me, there’re going to happen to somebody else. And I hate that for them. But you know, there’s a lot of artists from back in the 50s – still living or not – that never did get what was rightfully theirs; songs or money.”
More hurt and disappointed by that than he is bitter about it, Williams seems to understand that if he continues to play music, he’ll probably be constantly reminded of what all he’s lost.
“I was playing down at Legends after I came out of retirement and I heard a song on the jukebox (by a newer band) that had something on it that I did when I was playing with Memphis Slim,” he said. “I heard my stuff on someone else’s record. But I guess they heard something worthwhile and decided to take it. But as you’ll notice, on both my CDs on Evidence, you’ll not hear me stealing anything from anybody. It’s all original material. And they were both nominated for Blues Music Awards.”
Mad props to James Walker for his help with this feature.