Joe Williams

Williams was born Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Georgia on December 12, 1918. He moved to Chicago at the age of three with his mother, Anne Gilbert, and his grandmother, Mittie Gilbert.

Living in Chicago in the 1920s was hugely influential to Joe Williams. There were many African-American musicians thriving on the music scene, and years later, he recalled going to the Vendome Theatre with his mother to hear Louis Armstrong play his trumpet. Joe Williams was exposed to the music of Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Big Joe Turner, and many others who were featured on Chicago radio stations.

By his early teen years, Joe Williams had taught himself to play the piano. He formed a Gospel vocal quartet called “The Jubilee Boys.” By his mid-teens Williams was singing solos at formal events with local bands. He was not paid more than five dollars a night, but his family allowed him to drop out of school at age sixteen so he could make a living with his rich baritone. Together Joe’s family decided on “Williams” as his stage name. Williams got a job singing with a band at Kitty Davis’ club in the evenings. He was allowed to keep the tips and sometimes made up to $20 in an evening.

Williams’ first real break came in 1938 when clarinet and saxophone master Jimmie Noone invited him to sing with his band. Within a year, he was touring the Midwest with the Les Hite band, which accompanied the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, and his voice could be heard on radio stations nationwide. In 1941, he toured more extensively with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

In 1942, Joe Williams was hired by jazz great Lionel Hampton to fill in for his regular vocalist. Joe sang for both the Hampton orchestra’s home performances in Boston and for their cross-country tours. Even though his work with Lionel Hampton was brief, he was becoming well known and was in great demand, particularly back in Chicago. In 1954, at the age of 35, he got his big break when he was hired as the male vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra. He worked with them from 1954 – 1961 and gained tremendous exposure to blues. In 1955, his first LP Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings was released, and then in 1957 Joe released his second LP The Greatest! Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings Standards.

The year of 1955 was a defining year for Joe Williams. His band, the Basie group, started attending the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the biggest events on the jazz calendar. Williams won the New Star Award, international critics’ poll for Best New Male Singer, and the readers’ poll for Best Male Band Singer from Down Beat magazine. That was just the beginning of the accolades Joe Williams would earn during his career. In 1956, 1957, and 1959 the Basie group toured Europe, where jazz had exploded in popularity.

In the 1960s Joe worked mostly as a single artist. Often he would accompany other jazz artists such as Harry Edison, Clark Terry, George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley. He sang with Jimmy Rushing and the Basie group at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962.

In 1971, Joe Williams and pianist George Shearing recorded The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams. His talent allowed him to appear on television programs like Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and the Steve Allen, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas shows. Joe’s fame grew when Billy Cosby cast him as Heathcliff Huxtable’s father-in-law “Grandpa Al” Hanks in a recurring role on The Cosby Show in the 1980s.

In 1975, Joe’s brother, Nat Adderley, composed the music for Big Man, a nearly hour long theatre piece about John Henry, the mythical black hero. Williams sang the lead in Carnegie Hall.

In 1983, Joe Williams was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1985 he received a Grammy Award for Best of Jazz Vocalist for the album I Just Want to Sing. In 1991, Joe was honored with a gala tribute for his contributions to music, and the following year he won his second Grammy Award for the song Ballad and Blues Master on his album I Just Want to Sing.

Joe Williams continued to contribute to music. Just two years before his death he sang a duet with Nancy Wilson at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He was 80 years old when he died on March 29th, 1999, in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is buried at Palm Valley Memorial Park in Las Vegas, Nevada.