Many of the quotes and images in this blog entry were obtained during interview sessions conducted for the purpose of creating a 1996 documentary on Joe’s life entitled “A Portrait in Song,” which was produced by Burrill Crohn.
Joe joined the Basie band on Christmas Day in 1954. He was not a total unknown to the Count. Joe sat in a number of times with Basie’s septet at the Brass Rail in Chicago, and the Count must have heard something he liked. Basie signed Joe up when his “new testament” band came to fruition. The Joe and Basie combination was an instant success, resulting in the early 1955 release of “Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings,” which contained Joe’s signature song, “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Trombonist Bill Hughes was a young man at that time and was thrilled to be a part of this ensemble.
An observation often made about the Basie band is that they could sound like a small group even though it was a large ensemble. Basie must have had that in mind when he signed Joe on with no arrangements ready for him. The band was able to set riffs and create head arrangements for the first couple of weeks until things could be written down that suited Joe’s voice and unique abilities. Joe talked about those first few months in the band:
JW: We had no arrangements. None at all. We got to Jackson, Mississippi I guess it was. And they had a place they called the Two Spot. And we were there about four or five days. And I got together with Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster and arranged “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Teach Me Tonight,” — Foster did “In the Evening,” and something else. And there was “Every Day I Fall in Love,” and something else he did. But yeah, that was ’55. And when we got back we had these things to present, plus the things they were doing that were head [arrangements], like “Roll ‘em Pete” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
It would be inevitable that Joe would be compared with Mr. Five-by-Five, Jimmy Rushing, whose fifteen year tenure with the orchestra ended in 1950. But Joe didn’t look backwards. He was confronted with the considerable shadow of Jimmy Rushing when he went to England with the band in 1957:
Basie taught Joe that if he believed strongly enough in the direction he wanted to take, and if he worked for it, it would pay off in the end. Joe also learned a bit about when to get off the stage. Joe talked about a trip to Stockholm, Sweden in 1956.
JW: So Basie said to me “you’ve been killing them in the States, everybody just loves you over there.” He said “let’s see what you’re going to do now, ‘cause none of these people understand English. [There were] ten thousand people standing on their chairs and they were busy, you know, like screaming and hollering. And I said to Mr. Basie, “what are we going to do, Bas?” He says “for once you’re going to quit while you’re ahead.” I never forgot that lesson, man.
JW: As a leader, I watched and observed [Basie]. He never saw mistakes. Those of us who knew, it was like, gee that wasn’t what we do 98 times out of a hundred. That was an accident. And so instead of looking where it came from, he’d always happen to be looking someplace else. Somebody over there you know. He missed it. He never heard it. He did something marvelously unusual. [When a musician did something that pleased him] he would go light up like a Christmas tree. What I learned from him was that when you were working with first class musicians particularly, or any musician for that matter, you live with what they contribute. You don’t have to give them direction necessarily or anything. Let them find their own level of what goes in support of what, according to their own depth and perception. You have to. And that way you get an unusual presentation and one that is always fresh and refreshing to you. You don’t get tired.
Considering all the young men who passed through Count Basie’s orchestra, Joe must have been very special to earn the moniker “Basie’s Number One Son.” When Joe decided it was time to move on and leave the band, in 1961, the Count attended Joe’s first gig with the Sweets Edison quintet.
While great singers all love performing in front of stellar bands, the feeling is not always mutual. Vocalists, by their very presence on stage, move the spotlight off the instrumentalists. A singer needed to earn his/her respect with the band both musically and from their personal character. Many musicians spoke of Joe’s musical talent — his ability to sing blues, ballads and anything in between in any key. The second part of the equation was addressed by baritone saxophonist John Williams, who crossed paths with Joe during the singer’s many appearances with the Basie orchestra in the 1970’s:
Joe’s respect for other performers included fellow singers as well. In the concert documentary mentioned above, Joe performed live at Hamilton College, with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Grover Mitchell. He surprised the producer and production staff when on his first song (“Every Day I Have the Blues,” his signature tune), he invited Chris Murrell, the then-current Basie vocalist, to join him on stage and trade verses. After the concert we asked both Bill Hughes and Joe himself why he chose this moment to spotlight another singer.
BH: Yeah, he invited Chris. He’s very generous with the microphone. But most of the great jazz singers I’ve ever seen have been generous with the microphone. They are eager to have their fellow artists come up and show what they can do.
The Jazz Archive continues to acquire interviews. In July of 2011 we visited Iola Brubeck, wife of Dave Brubeck, and she reminisced about Count Basie and Joe Williams.
IB: I should have brought this up when we were talking about the idea for The Real Ambassadors because Joe Williams was a part of that. That summer I was in New York and I went to Central Park and Joe Williams was with the Basie band, and he was just so great. And the night before I had gone to a Broadway musical. And I said to myself Joe Williams said more and reached me more emotionally with the Basie band that night than that big production I’d seen the night before. And that was one of the reasons why I started thinking in terms of a Broadway show.
MR: He was a big help to us getting this started.
The Count Basie Orchestra swings on, and its succession of leaders all played in the orchestra when The Count was at the helm. Its current conductor is drummer Dennis Mackrel.