Joe Williams

Born in Cordele, Georgia in 1918, Joe 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, 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).[3] 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 with 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, appearedin 1955, containing definitive versions of Memphis (already his signature song) 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.[3] 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 1960s Williams worked mostly as a single, often accompanied by top-flight jazzmen, including HarryEdison, Clark Terry, George Shearing and  .[4] In 1962 Williams sings along with Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie & His Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival.[5] 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.[6] Williams gained further notoriety 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 his brother Nat Adderley, composed music for a full-blown, nearly-hour-long theater piece, which he called a “folk musical”, the subject is John Henry, the mythical black hero.[7]

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
, Herbie Hancock, Nat Adderley, and Dizzy Gillespie. [8] During the 1980s 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.” 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.”[9]

Williams enjoyed a successful career and worked regularly until his
death. Williams died at age 80, on March 29, 1999 in Las Vegas, Nevada.



  1. In my opinion Joe Williams was the best male singer of the 20th century.

  2. He was definitely one of my favorites too. In 1985 at the Blue Note in Manhattan I saw him live. He did a version of “After You’ve Gone” set to a Latin tempo and very slow. It was the best version of the song I had ever heard. There’s a recording of this performance at the Blue Note. Its called, “Joe Williams and Friends. 1985, I Just Want To Sing.” If you don’t have it, I think you will really enjoy it! Thanks for writing.

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