Joe Williams dead at 80 Smooth baritone,
was ‘national treasure’
~MSNBC NEWS SERVICES
LAS VEGAS, March 30 — Legendary jazz
singer Joe Williams, whose deep baritone often
turned the Basie band into a swinging revival
meeting, has died in Las Vegas of acute lung
disease, a hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday.
WILLIAMS, 80, COLLAPSED and died in the street
after leaving his hospital bed and walking more than two
miles in the direction of his home Monday, hospital
spokeswoman Ann Lynch said.
He was admitted to the Sunrise Hospital a week ago
and was being treated for acute obstructive pulmonary
“He indicated to the staff he was leaving and that he
would be back in a moment, that he’d be right back,”
Lynch said. ”When he did not return we began a search and
we called the police.”
Williams, whose powerful baritone voice could deliver
blues, standards and ballads with equal force or tenderness,
was among the last of the big-band singers.
He sang as a regular with the Count Basie Band from
1954 to 1961 and became an international star. After the
big-band era, Williams continued to perform with small
groups and in 1985 he won a Grammy Award for best jazz
vocal performance for his album “Nothin’ But The Blues.”
President Clinton said he and his wife, Hillary Rodham
Clinton, were deeply saddened to learn of Williams’ death.
“He was a national treasure. For the better part of this
century, America was blessed with Joe Williams’ smooth
baritone voice and peerless interpretations of our favorite
ballads,” the president said in a statement.
“Hearing Joe Williams sing at the White House in 1993
remained one of my favorite memories,” he added.
“At the age of 80,” said singer Robert Goulet, “Joe
could sing better than most people at the age of 20. He was
one of the greatest jazz and blues singers of all time, and he
was such a good man, too.”
Williams’ appeal stretched to other mediums: He
played Bill Cosby’s father-in-law, Grandpa Al, on “The
Cosby Show” in the 1980s. He and Cosby were friends,
and the childhood memories Grandpa Al spun on the show
were his own from Chicago.
But his fame was in jazz. Williams became a sensation
in 1955 when he recorded “Everyday I Have the Blues”
with Basie, and the two were together for seven years.
Williams repeatedly was chosen the top male jazz singer in
readers’ polls for Downbeat and other magazines.
“I’m most pleasantly surprised at what still comes out
of my throat,” Williams said in an 1986 interview. “I’m
thrilled and thankful. I remember Edward (Duke Ellington)
saying, ‘I’m just a messenger boy for God.’ Much of what
we do comes through us. I thank God for what comes
Born Joseph Goreed on Dec. 12, 1918, in Cordele,
Ga., the entertainer was raised by his mother and
grandmother. He found fun in playing the piano and singing
the spirituals he heard at the Methodist church where his
mother was the organist.
In his teens in the 1930s, he led the singing group The
Jubilee Boys in performances in Chicago churches. He later
sang solo in a Chicago club, and made his professional
debut in 1937 with the late Jimmy Noone.
His big break came in 1943, when Williams was
working as a security guard to support himself. He wound
up guarding the front door of the Regal Theater and met
jazz luminaries such as Duke Ellington. The Regal’s manager
sent Williams to the Tick Tock in Boston to join Lionel
Hampton’s band, which had its own powerhouse blues
singer, Dinah Washington.
The magic came with Basie. Williams said Basie hired
him on the advice of his band.
“Basie said, ‘I can’t give you what you’re worth. But,
things get better for me, they get better for you.’ I had the
good sense to go with him,” Williams recalled.
The two played together from 1954 to 1961, and
Williams often performed with Basie until his death in 1984;
Williams dedicated his renditions of “You Are So Beautiful”
“As a talent, he was one of the best blues singers in the
world and also one of the best ballad singers,” added friend
and singer Buddy Greco. “There will never be anyone like
Tony Bennett recalled Williams once telling him: “It’s
not that you want to sing, it’s that you have to sing.”
“He defined who I really am,” Bennett said in 1992.
Even in his later years, Williams sang on cruise ships, at
festivals, in hotels and clubs, working about 40 weeks a
year. He was an avid golfer.
Williams is survived by his wife, Jillean; his son, Joe;
and his daughter, Anne. Funeral information was not
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