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JJ 08/60: In My Opinion – Joe Williams

Sixty years ago blues master Joe Williams gave Sinclair Traill his thoughts on Dakota Staton, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan and Leroy Carr. First published in Jazz Journal August 1960

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Our fourth American commentator, like his predecessors, needs no introduction from us. Joe Williams (born in Georgia, raised in Chicago) worked with Jimmie Noone, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton and Andy Kirk before he joined the Basie band, a move which has brought him fame and, possibly, fortune. – Sinclair Traill

“Walkin’ By The River”. Dakota Staton. Capitol ST 1325
That was a good sound. The tune came from Una Mae Carlisle – she wrote it and it was her first real big record success. I tell you, the accompaniment is good for Dakota; she has everything to work with there as a singer. Occasion­ally I can hear that quality that says “this little girl is not quite fulfilled” – It’s an emotional thing, probably caused by something physical – I don’t know. This is that plaintive quality that comes through with her every once in a while. On other things I’ve heard her do – for instance “Misty” – it’s sung almost as if “I, too, can be misty,” y’know? You get that quality with Ella, who I think has the most plaintive sound of any girl singer – that very sensitive, little girl, plaintive sound which she has always had from her early days. Dakota has some of this same quality and I think it has contributed quite a lot to her success. Also, she has excellent management and chooses good tunes, good back­grounds and works for one of the best recording companies in the world. Dakota has nothing to worry about; she is making plenty of saleable recordings.

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“What Did I Say”. Ray Charles. London HAE 2226
Ray Charles is the most meaning blues singer in the world today. I like Ray better than I do any of the modern-day blues singers; he has that old-time feel, and that group of his really have something to say – more often than not they’ll have that old time rock going – plenty of feeling – but the group can still sound very, very modern. All his men can play that way, and you’ll find all musicians go for Ray Charles; he has so much to offer. His piano playing is full of interest and the group really step across that gap between the old blues and modern music.

“No ‘Count Blues”. Sarah Vaughan. Mercury MMC 14021
Yeah that’s crazy – it’s the greatest jazz I ever heard Sarah sing in my whole time. It kinda puts me in mind of a woman, working around her home with maybe the radio playing. Just going about her business in the house with no one there but her. It’s the kind of thing she’d do, just improvise and not try and make any pretty tones or pretty notes or anything – just growl if she feels like it. Sounds crazy doesn’t it – I like that very, very much. And Ronnie Bright, he hasn’t had hardly any recognition at all, and the bassist Richard Davis – those boys from Chicago, they don’t get nearly enough credit. It’s not really too hard to understand, because Jimmy Jones worked with Sarah for some ten years and was such an institution, as far as the musicians were concerned, if not public-wise, that if one thought of Sarah one at once thought of Jimmy.

For someone to come in and take Jimmy’s place and supplant him as accompanist for Sarah Vaughan was an outsize job. Her bassist for all that time was Joe Benjamin and so Ronnell and Richard Davis haven’t yet had a chance to gain their proper recognition. But musicians recognise them as fine, versatile and very flexible musicians. Of course Sassy loves the Basie band and vice versa and that feeling shows itself here very closely. Joe Newman, who plays those tasty trumpet lead-ins for her there, says this track was just a “head”. It was all improvised and only one take was made. They had some time to spare and so did this. I think the accompaniment was just enough to inspire Sassy – no one played too much.

“Blues Before Sunrise”. Leroy Carr. Fontana TFE 17051
I liked those lyrics very much, right down to the part where he sung he was going to buy a pistol and put his woman in her grave. I don’t know if he knew it, but if he did then his trouble would just have begun, really! Modern day society doesn’t want any trouble. I think modern day blues is a kind of “I’m going to walk away from it, walk away from trouble.” I even believe this is the beginning of a thing – this was how I began to write the few things I have written like – Baby Upsets Me and Five O’clock In The Morning. Walkin’ Away From Trouble will be the next tune that I write, the next blues tune – the idea just came to me now.

“…two dollars a day for twelve hours a day doing some kind of back breaking labour and then his woman gives part of it away to some other man. I know of an instance in Memphis, Tennessee, where a man came in and found his woman kissing another man and didn’t say a word but just shot her”

I feel there must be some other solution than just taking a knife or a gun to a woman and just killing her. Today when we feel we can’t stand it any more, even as some doctors prescribe it, you just have to walk away from trouble. Of course when Leroy Carr made this record you’d do well if you could scrounge together ten or twelve dollars a week; things were tough – two dollars a day for twelve hours a day doing some kind of back breaking labour and then his woman gives part of it away to some other man. I know of an instance in Memphis, Tennessee, where a man came in and found his woman kissing another man and didn’t say a word but just shot her. That was true life and she had the scar on her leg to prove it. When I met her years later she still was scared of kissing any man – that woman wouldn’t kiss anyone, thirty years later. Pity, I’m a romantic type. Those old blues singers really did have stories to tell when they sang the blues.

A bonus picture from Jazz Journal August 1960: Al Grey, Lord and Lady Montagu, Peter Burman, Marshall Royal, Joe Newman and Freddy Greene listen to Billy Mitchell at the piano

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