Born Joseph Leon Williams on February 3, 1935, in Mobile, AL. Addresses: Record company---Evidence Music, Inc., 1100 E. Hector St., Ste. 392, Conshohocken, PA 19426. Agent---Piedmont Talent Inc., PO Box 680006, Charlotte, NC 28216.
Blues master and former Bo Diddley collaborator Jody Williams returned to the stage in 2000 after a 30-year absence, dazzling audiences once again with the deft guitar work that earned him renown in the 1950s and 1960s. Williams first made a name for himself as a session guitarist for such blues luminaries as Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers, and many others. The guitarist's signature riffs set apart such songs as Diddley's "Who Do You Love," Otis Spann's "Five Spot," and Billy Boy Arnold's "I Was Fooled."
Though highly influential in the 1950s and 1960s blues scene, Williams was often relegated to the status of a sideman. In the late 1960s he quit the music business in frustration when other musicians appropriated his work. Williams was in his 60s when he made his spectacular re-emergence, winning the W.C. Handy Blues Award for Comeback Album of the Year for his 2002 album, Return of a Legend.
Joseph Leon Williams was born on February 3, 1935, in Mobile, Alabama and moved to Chicago at the age of six. As a teenager he met Bo Diddley playing acoustic guitar on the streets of the city that made blues famous. Williams then played the harmonica, but he switched instruments when his mother purchased a $32.50 Silverstone guitar for her son at a pawn shop. "It had one electric pickup on it," Williams told Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Bo Diddley didn't have an electric guitar, but I did."
Soon Williams was performing with Diddley and other up-and-coming bluesmen. By the time he turned 20, Williams had become one of the blues world's most sought-after session guitarists, known for his nimble fingers and evocative, Latin-inflected rhythms.
In 1955 Williams made his recording debut as a guitarist and vocalist under the nickname "Little Papa Joe." His single "Looking for My Baby" appeared on Al Benson's Blue Lake imprint. Two years later, under the new stage name "Little Joe Lee," Williams received writing credits for the Argo imprint releases "Lucky Lou" and "You May." Under yet another alias, "Sugar Boy Williams," the guitarist released "Little Girl" for Herald Records in 1960. Over the next few years Williams penned tunes for such labels as Nike, Jive, Smash, and Yulando.
Williams had begun to grow wary of the music business when other artists pilfered his guitar work without crediting him. Originally created for blues artist Billy Stewart, a lead guitar riff by Williams appeared in the 1957 hit song "Love Is Strange," by Mickey Baker of the one-hit-wonder group Mickey & Sylvia. It appeared that Baker had picked up the riff when he heard Williams play at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. Williams took legal action but was unable to obtain credit or monetary compensation for his contribution to the song.
To make matters more complicated, the writing credit for "Love Is Strange" was given to Bo Diddley's wife. Together with Williams, Diddley had a hand in creating the song, but he had switched the credit to protect his royalties. So it was Diddley, and not Williams, who ultimately profited from Mickey & Sylvia's hit, which climbed to number 11 on the charts in 1957. "I was ripped off," Williams later told John Sinkevics in the Grand Rapids Press.
Fed up with the music business, the guitarist ultimately turned his back on it. In an abrupt change of course, Williams stashed his cherished "Red Lightnin'" Gibson guitar under his bed and enrolled in school to study electronics in the late 1960s. Joining the workforce, he became an appliance repair technician specializing in radios and televisions. Continuing his education in computer science, Williams built on his skills as an electronics whiz; he later found work as a technical engineer for copy machine giant Xerox. This job was to be his livelihood for more than 25 years.
Williams's departure from music was complete; he not only refused to play in public, he refused to play at all, even staying away from the nightclubs where he used to watch his friends and colleagues play. He was afraid, he later acknowledged, that some of those friends would prevail on him to pick up his guitar one last time.
It wasn't until Williams retired in 1994 that he considered reviving his music career. "One day my wife [Delores Williams] said if I started playing again I might feel better about life in general," he told Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times. Yet it was not until 1999, at the encouragement of producer Dick Shurman, that he stepped into a blues club for the first time in decades. That evening he went to hear his old friend Robert Lockwood Jr. play, and the experience left Williams nostalgic for his music days. It wasn't long before he dusted off an old tape of himself playing in 1964. The recording moved Williams to tears and inspired him to pick up his guitar once more.
Once he started to play and compose music again, Williams found it impossible to stop. Only two months after picking up his guitar, the bluesman returned to playing regular gigs in 2000 and 2001. Eventually he also returned to the studio, with Shurman as producer, laying down the tracks that began his 2002 release from Evidence Music, Return of a Legend. Williams's first solo effort reiterated hit songs from the artist's glory days, but also hinted at a new incarnation for the bluesman. Critics showered praise on the album, which showcased the guitar pyrotechnics that had put Williams in a class by himself decades earlier.
Making up for lost time, Williams followed up with a sophomore solo album, You Left Me in the Dark, released on the Evidence label in 2004. The recording afforded Williams the opportunity to reunite with former collaborators Robert Lockwood Jr. and Lonnie Brooks. It also gave Williams a chance to present new songs composed in a period of prolific creativity.
Meanwhile, Williams had picked up part-time work as a automated teller machine technician for its health care benefits and to make some extra cash. But as his second incarnation as a blues player picked up steam, it seemed likely that he would once again be able to devote full time to music.
Fans both old and young have responded with enthusiasm to Williams's comeback to the blues scene---whether they had eagerly followed his early career or were discovering him for the first time. The praise, applause, and star treatment that followed all came as a surprise to the musician, who was finally receiving the recognition that had eluded him in his early career.
Williams himself has expressed amazement at his renewed popularity. "For someone who never, ever intended to play guitar again, I've come an awful long ways," he told Sinkevics in the Grand Rapids Press.
by Wendy Kagan
Jody Williams's Career
Met Bo Diddley, started playing guitar, early 1950s; made recording debut as guitarist and vocalist on "Looking for My Baby," 1955; wrote, played guitar, and sang on various blues singles, 1950s and 1960s; abandoned music career, studied electronics and engineering, late 1960s; worked as electronics engineer for Xerox, 1970s through early 1990s; retired 1994; reemerged on music scene, June 2000; released first solo album, Return of a Legend, 2002; released You Left Me in the Dark, 2004.
Jody Williams's Awards
W.C. Handy Award, Comeback Album of the Year for Return of a Legend, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Leading Brand [6 Track], Red Lightnin', 1977.
- Return of a Legend Evidence, 2002.
- You Left Me in the Dark Evidence, 2004.
- Chicago Sun-Times, May 31, 2002, p. 22.
- Grand Rapids Press, June 14, 2004, p. D1.
- Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, September 30, 2002, p. 1.
- "Jody Williams," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 27, 2004).
- "Jody Williams," Evidence Music, http://www.evidencemusic.com (August 27, 2004).
- "Jody Williams," Piedmont Talent, http://www.piedmonttalent.com (August 30, 2004).