Obituary: Tony Williams, founder of Spotlite Records

    Leading figure in the reissue from England of key bebop sessions as well as the recording of new local material in various styles

    Tony Williams (right) clues Jim Godbolt to the latest modernist outrage. Photo courtesy Matthew Wright

    It was with great sadness that I heard recently of the death of Tony Williams – many older readers will remember him as a highly knowledgeable and dedicated member of the jazz scene.

    As a young man he had various jobs, including working at Enfield Rolling Mills and later as a lab assistant, but it was his stints at HMV and Dobell’s Jazz Shop that helped reinforce his interest in modern jazz. A regular at concerts and clubs in London, he met many of his idols, including playing chess backstage with Dizzy Gillespie during the trumpeter’s visit to the Gaumont State Theatre, Kilburn in 1961.

    He came to notice as a discographer in the early 1960s, and was one of the brigade of enthusiasts who took this further, establishing Spotlite Records in 1968, with the express purpose of reissuing bebop recordings, in particular those of Charlie Parker. With help from Ross Russell (proprietor of Dial Records and author of Bird Lives), he recovered every surviving take Parker recorded for Dial, and was given the rights to issue them comprehensively as Charlie Parker On Dial, which appeared in 1970.

    Many others followed, making Spotlite the leading label for this area of jazz. As well as further material by Parker, the recordings of musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee, Dodo Marmarosa, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Pepper Adams, Wardell Gray, Tony Fruscella, Al Haig, Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan and Joe Albany appeared. His generosity and concern for those connected to the music is epitomised by him visiting and making a donation to Chan Parker, widow of Charlie, then living in France. 

    But it wasn’t only the music of the Americans or just bebop that Tony was interested in producing and promoting. He released albums by Kathy Stobart, Peter King, Don Rendell, Barbara Thompson, Tony Kinsey, Sandy Brown, Karin Krog, Paz, Helen Merrill, Tommy Chase and Ray Warleigh and a newly discovered session by Tubby Hayes (Live At The Dancing Slipper, Nottingham) as well as music by freer players including Eddie Prevost, The Siger Band, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Barry Guy and Howard Riley.

    He worked closely with the independent distributors such as Chris Wellard and with John Jack and Hazel Miller at Cadillac, and it was always good to see him, talk and have a drink. He would support the music by visiting clubs and venues such as the 100 Club and the Seven Dials, and he even put on a concert in Harlow by the pianist Sadik Hakim, who had recorded with Parker for Savoy in 1945 under the name Argonne Thornton. (Hakim composed Harlow Homecoming as a result.)

    One of the last gigs I saw Tony at was in 2010, for, appropriately, Pete Long’s Gillespiana Big Band, at the Kings Head, Crouch End, to which he took his young son, Gabriel. His increasing health problems, associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s, started to prevent him from getting around although he managed to come along to a couple of our central London reunions a few years ago, and there were still glimpses of the genial but often outspoken person we knew.

    He will be missed but fondly remembered, and our thoughts go out to Tony’s sons Laurence (from his wife Francine, who died in 2013) and Gabriel (from his partner Stephanie, who died in 2019).

    Tony Williams: born Enfield, February 1941, died Sawbridgeworth, November 2021.

    (With thanks to Colin Marr, Tony’s longstanding friend, for early details)