Joe Williams, considered by many to be the finest jazz singer of his generation, died on a Las Vegas street after collapsing while apparently trying to walk home from a hospital. He was 80.
Williams was found Monday afternoon a few blocks from his home after hospital personnel alerted police that he was missing.
Williams’ manager, John Levy, said the singer had been in the city’s Sunrise Hospital for the last few days and was hospitalized earlier in Seattle because of breathing problems. Levy said Williams became angry, thinking hospital medication gave him the shakes, and Monday called his wife, Jillean, to take him home.
Before she arrived, according to Levy, Williams “just walked out.” Levy said Williams walked about two miles from the hospital, became disoriented and “in the heat, and without an oxygen tank, he just didn’t make it.”
The manager said Williams had experienced respiratory difficulty during a performance run at the Jazz Alley in Seattle about a week ago. Levy said Williams had a history of such bouts but always recovered with oxygen and other treatment.
Williams’ international visibility traces back to his years with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1954 to 1961. With Basie, Williams recorded his hit, “Ev’ry Day I Have the Blues,” now a National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame recording.
But Williams had been active in jazz since the late 1930s, with a CBS radio show in 1937, and a succession of performances with Jimmy Noone, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. He toured with Andy Kirk in 1946 and ’47.
Born Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Ga., on Dec. 12, 1918, Williams was raised in Chicago by his mother and grandmother. His first exposure to music came at a Methodist church where his mother was the organist.
When he was 14, Williams organized a gospel quartet, the Jubilee Temple Boys of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and they sang at many area churches. With his own voice transforming into a rich baritone, he began singing with bands that played for dances for black society on Chicago’s South Side.
“I’m very fortunate, I think. At first I never wanted to embarrass my parents,” Williams recently told the Seattle Times. “Later, you didn’t want to embarrass humanity, especially if you were fortunate to have a gift, a gift to give society. And I learned the rules of the road very early. . . . You start by not killing yourself.”
Williams’ partnership with the Basie orchestra represented one of the most perfect combinations of singer and instrumentalist in all of jazz history. And it came at a time when Williams and Basie were in need of career springboards.
Basie had just reorganized his big band after working for a few years with smaller ensembles. But he was doing it at a time when big bands were on the way out, as young audiences turned to Elvis Presley and rock music. Williams, at 36, still hadn’t had the breakthrough hit to establish him as a major artist.
Both artists’ needs were met very quickly by each other.
Leonard Feather, the late Times jazz critic, described what happened in a 1985 Williams profile:
“During a single two-day marathon, they recorded a series of blues hits that did as much for the band’s reputation as Basie had done by rescuing Williams from years of semi-obscurity. Overnight, the songs leaped . . . to the history books: ‘Ev’ry Day I Have the Blues,’ ‘The Comeback,’ ‘All Right, OK, You Win,’ ‘In the Evenin’,’ ‘Teach Me Tonight,’ and others, including Joe Turner’s ‘Roll ‘em Pete.’ Virtually all became an essential part of Williams’ repertoire with the Basie band, and later when he moved on to pursue his own career.”
On his own, Williams’ singing blossomed, often via collaborations with artists such as Harry “Sweets” Edison, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and occasional Basie reunions.
In January, he performed to rave reviews at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with a frequent associate, George Shearing. Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson described his Jazz Alley appearance as “crisp and caressing, gallant yet roguish, funky and fine.”
Williams was a regular at the Playboy Jazz Festival, making 10 appearances, initially at the first festival in Chicago in 1959, and most recently at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996, when he sang in tandem with Tony Bennett.
“Joe was not just a legendary jazz artist,” said Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder, “and he was not just a gentleman. He was a gentle man, a one of a kind performer who was loved and respected by his audiences, other musicians, promoters, producers—in short, all who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.”
Despite his many successes, Williams—like other African American male singers such as Al Hibbler, Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman—never quite managed to break through to the wider popular music audience in a fashion comparable to his white contemporaries.
In a 1995 Times profile, he offered his explanation for why he has generally been categorized as a “blues singer” rather than, simply, a singer.
“There’s a reason for that,” he said. “You can’t put down a people on one hand and treat them as romantic heroes on the other, can you? How can you do that and still keep up the status quo?”
But Williams made his social adjustments with the same kind of reasoned sensitivity that he brought to his music.
“A friend of mine once said that hate is too important an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like,” he said. “And I’ve tried desperately to get my psyche in shape to more or less fend off any of the feelings that are going to mar my life. And hate is certainly one of those.”
If he did not achieve the kind of pop icon status accorded to, say, Tony Bennett, Williams nonetheless managed to reach out well beyond the blues tunes that gave him his first prominence. His last years were filled with concert performances and the opportunity to record ballads such as “Here’s to Life,” an inspirational song that could easily serve as testimony to his own way of dealing with the world.
“I’m basically doing exactly what I want to do these days,” he told The Times in 1995, “You go into a town, you rehearse, you get a bite to eat, you look around a little bit, you get some rest, and then you go out and do a concert. It’s a full life.”
Williams is survived by his fourth wife, Jillean Hughes Dath, to whom he was married for 40 years.
Services are scheduled at 11:30 a.m. April 7, at the First Church of Religious Science, 1420 E. Harman, Las Vegas.