Joe Williams is still considered by many to be the quintessential male jazz vocalist. Best known for his smooth baritone delivery as the singer for Count Basie’s band from 1954 to 1961, the Georgia native also sang with Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, and Earl Hines, and had a successful solo career.
Williams was born Joseph Goreed in Cordele on December 12, 1918, and moved to Chicago at the age of three with his mother, Anne Gilbert, and his grandmother, Mittie Gilbert. He later remembered little of his childhood in Cordele. Chicago had a dynamic music scene when Williams was coming of age. The migration of Blacks from the South brought distinctive regional styles together to form a new national scene. Williams was exposed to the local blues acts in Chicago’s Southside and, perhaps more important, to the big bands that toured throughout the North. He began singing professionally in clubs at age sixteen and soon became a regular performer in the bands of Chicago musicians Johnny Long and Jimmie Noone. In the early 1940s he worked as stage-door manager at the Regal Theatre, where he became acquainted with many heroes of jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Fats Waller, and Count Basie.
After temporary jobs with Hampton and Coleman Hawkins, Williams hit his stride in the 1950s. One night in 1954, during an intermission in his own show with Dr. Jo Jo Adams, Williams stole a few minutes to hear Count Basie’s band at the Trianon Ballroom. He had sat in with the Basie band years earlier, but now Basie was looking for a full-time singer. Basie recognized Williams and asked him to sing a number before returning to his own gig. In December of that year, Williams received a fifty-dollar money order with instructions to meet Basie in New York City to begin an East Coast tour, which led to a seven-year stint with one of the most popular big bands in the nation. With the legendary tour-ending set in spring 1955 at New York City’s Birdland, Williams gained national recognition as a top-tier jazz vocalist. Later that year he made his first recording with Basie, including “My Baby Upsets Me,” “In the Evening,” “Alright, Okay, You Win,” and what became his signature song, Memphis Slim’s “Every Day.”
Williams was known as a jazz singer, but he was equally comfortable with the blues. His sensual phrasing incorporated the styles of robust blues singers like Roosevelt Sykes, Big Bill Broonzy, and Big Joe Turner, but Williams’s style was more subtle and understated than that of those so-called shouters. His warm, smooth baritone made a performance intimate in a way that few could duplicate.
After leaving Basie’s band in 1961, Williams took to the road solo. Over the next thirty years he performed steadily and made more than forty albums, continuing to receive critical acclaim from reviewers like John S. Wilson of the New York Times, who in 1974 said Williams “could bring life to any bit of musical dross.” Down Beat gave him many awards throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and he dabbled in acting, appearing in television’s The Cosby Show many times as the father of Claire Huxtable. In 1965 he married Jillean Hughes-D’Aeth, and they lived in Las Vegas until Williams’s death at the age of eighty on March 29, 1999.