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Joe Williams (December 12, 1918 – March 29, 1999) was a well-known jazz vocalist, a baritone singing a mixture of blues, ballads, popular songs, and jazz standards.

Early life

Williams was born Joseph Goreed in the small farming town of Cordele, Georgiamarker. His father, Willie Goreed, left the family early on, but Williams' mother, Anne Beatrice Gilbert, who was 18 when she had her only child, provided a strong emotional bond until her death in 1968. Soon after Williams was born, his mother moved them in with her parents, who had enough money to support an extended family. During this time, Anne Gilbert was saving for a move to Chicagomarker. Once she had made the move — alone — she began saving the money that she earned cooking for wealthy Chicagoansmarker so that her family could join her. By the time Williams was four, he, his grandmother, and his aunt had joined his mother in Chicago, where they would live for many years.

Probably most important to Williams' later life was the music scene — fueled largely by African-American musicians — that thrived in Chicago in the early 1920s. Years later, he recalled going to the Vendóme Theatre with his mother to hear Louis Armstrong play the trumpet. Chicago also offered a host of radio stations that featured the then-rebellious sounds of jazz, exposing Williams to the stylings of Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Big Joe Turner, and many others. By his early teens, he had already taught himself to play piano and had formed his own gospel vocal quartet, known as "The Jubilee Boys", that sang at church functions.

During his mid-teens Williams began performing as a vocalist, singing solo at formal events with local bands. The most that he ever took home was five dollars a night, but that was enough to convince his family that he could make a living with his voice; so, at 16, he dropped out of school. After discussing it with his family, he began using the name "Williams" as a stage name, and he began marketing himself in earnest to Chicago clubs and bands. His first job was at a club called Kitty Davis's. Williams was allowed to sing with the band in the evening and keep the tips, which would sometimes amount to $20.


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 Massachusettsmarker to Californiamarker. 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 Bostonmarker 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 demand, 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). 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, appeared in 1955, containing definitive versions of Memphis Slim's "Every Day I Have the Blues" (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. 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 , released by Warner Brothers.

In the 1960s Williams worked mostly as a single, often accompanied by top-flight jazzmen, including Harry Edison, Clark Terry, George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley. In 1962 Williams sings along with Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie & His Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival. 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. 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 Hallmarker. 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.

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 McRae, Herbie Hancock, Nat Adderley, and Dizzy Gillespie. 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."

Williams enjoyed a successful career and worked regularly until his death.Williams died at age 80, on March 29, 1999 in Las Vegas, Nevada. He collapsed on a city street a few blocks from his home after walking out of Sunrise Hospital, where he had been admitted for a respiratory ailment. The hospital had reported him missing several hours before his body was found. "He's an adult and chose to leave," Ann Lynch, vice president for human services at the hospital, said. "We don't confine people here. Upon finding him missing, the facility was checked, and then the police were notified to continue the search." Ron Flud, the Clark County Coroner, said Mr. Williams had apparently died of natural causes.

He is buried at Palm Valley View Memorial Park in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Awards, recognitions and legacy

Grammy Award

Joe Williams Grammy Award History
Year Category Title Genre Result Notes
1989 Best Jazz Vocal Performance In Good Company Jazz Nominee
1989 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby Jazz Nominee with Marlena Shaw
1988 Best Jazz Vocal Performance I Won't Leave You Again Jazz Nominee with Lena Horne
1987 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Every Night Jazz Nominee
1986 Best Jazz Vocal Performance I Just Want to Sing Jazz Nominee
1984 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Nothin' But the Blues Jazz Winner
1982 Best Jazz Vocal Performance 8 to 5 I Lose Jazz Nominee
1979 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Prez and Joe Jazz Nominee

Grammy Hall of Fame

The Grammy Hall of Fame was established by The Recording Academy's National Trustees in 1973 to honor recordings of "lasting qualitative or historical significance" that are at least 25 years old.

Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes
1955 Everyday I Have The Blues Jazz (Single) Clef 1992 with Count Basie Orchestra

The Blues Foundation Awards

Joe Williams: Blues Music Awards
Year Category Title Result
1985 Traditional Blues Album Nothin' But The Blues Winner


Year Category Result Notes
2001 ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame Inducted
1995 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Inducted
1993 NEA Jazz Masters Winner
1993 Ebony Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1983 Hollywood Walk of Fame Honored at 6508 Hollywood Blvd.
next to Count Basie


Prior to his death, Joe Williams, with his wife Jillean and some of his closest friends and collaborators, created the not-for-profit "Joe Williams Every Day Foundation". Its aim -- to provide support for music and musicians, especially those in jazz, and to create career opportunities for deserving young talent.

Selective discography

Year Title Label Billboard Chart
Top Jazz Albums
2002 The Definitive Joe Williams Verve
2001 The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing Verve
1993 Every Day: The Best of the Verve Years Verve #2
1992 Ballad and Blues Master Verve #7
1997 The Best of Joe Williams: The Roulette, Solid State & Blue Note Years Verve #20
1989 In Good Company Verve #5
1984 Nothin' But the Blues Delos
1979 Dave Pell's Prez Conference GNP Crescendo
1973 Joe Williams Live Fantasy
1985 I Just Wanna Sing Delos
1964 Me and the Blues RCA
1963 At Newport '63 RCA
1957 One O'Clock Jump Verve
1956 Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings Verve

Notable Recordings


  • 1991 Jazz at the Smithsonian (Kultur Video) - Rereleased in the Jazz Masters Series on DVD by Shanachie (2005)
  • 1992 Joe Williams with George Shearing: A Song is Born (VIEW) - Rereleased on DVD by VIEW (2004)


  1. All About jazz: Joe Williams
  2. San Francisco Gate (Sunday, October 5, 1997): Blues singer Joe Williams
  3. All Music: Joe Williams
  4. Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness (1995), page 4494 - ISBN 1561591769
  5. Count, William & Rushing at Newport Jazz Festival
  6. Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (2001), page 514 - ISBN 0140159398
  7. Cannonball Adderley: Big Man
  8. San Francisco Examiner (March 30, 1999): Beautiful voice, elegant man: Joe Williams was perfect combination of jazz, blues and balad singer
  9. Photo: William & Wilson 1997
  10. Grammy Award History
  11. Grammy Hall of Fame Database
  12. The Blues Foundation Database
  13. The ASCP Jazz Wall of Fame list
  14. Joe Williams Every Day Foundation
  15. Top Jazz Albums
  16. VIEW DVD Listing

External links

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