Legends come in a multitude of forms. While some are catapulted into the spotlight through eye-catching headlines, which garner a following of millions, others are bore out of their immense dedication. Having mastered rock ‘n’ roll, folk and anything else that tickled his fancy, Jack Williams, whose career spans an impressive 54 years, falls into the latter category.
Williams will bring his musicianship to locals thanks to Listen Up Brunswick County, a local nonprofit that hosts noteworthy concerts in southeastern North Carolina. He’ll kick off Listen Up’s 2014-2015 season at Holden Beach Chapel Fellowship Hall on October 10.
Williams got his start when his mother gave him her Arthur Godfrey ukelele at 4 years old. Williams showed an intrinsic knack for the instrument, which was somewhat of a musical fad that swept the nation in the ‘50s.
“I had music in my DNA, I guess—though we can’t find it anywhere else in our family,” Williams quips. “We just hoped there wasn’t a mistake made at the hospital in 1943.”
His interest in music didn’t stop there: By the time he was 6, he had tried his hand at the piano. At 9 years old he picked up the trumpet and immediately assumed playing in a jazz band would be his destiny. That all changed once he took up guitar at 15 years old. Within a week or two, he had formed a band.
“I was listening to the pop and big band stuff,” Williams tells. “But in 1955 we were listening to Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, and some of the earliest rockers. When I picked up the guitar, I realized I could be a part of that.”
His father was in the Army, which prompted many moves throughout Williams’ childhood; he went through 17 schools in 12 school years. At the time he upstarted his new rock ‘n’ roll outfit, his family got stationed in Washington. He and his band would play at clubs for teenagers and enlisted men, as well as local school’s sock hops.
In 1960 Williams founded his first band: The Statesmen. “We did pretty well around the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “It was during the time when The Kingsman, The Ventures and some other Pacific Northwest groups were coming out. We didn’t get that far, but it certainly helped give me a career.”
Williams remained a Statesman until he moved across the country to attend the University of Georgia. He studied for nine years, and dabbled in jazz, classical music, rock, R&B, and even folk. He also played in a string of bands, including a bossa nova trio. As well, he served as lute and classical guitar player in a Renaissance ensemble. However, the most influential experience for Williams was learning how to write and arrange, which afforded him the opportunity to be a hire-gun electric guitar player for bands that played for fraternities and the student union. Artists like John Lee Hooker and Jerry Butler would perform for the university, but they wouldn’t bring their bands. “Being an arranger was a big pull because I could put people together [for the backup bands],” Williams says. “I could form how we presented the music.”
At the time, Williams also was playing his own gigs with various bands. In 1968 he did solo jobs here and there and began writing original songs in 1970. “It was ongoing and constant for me,” he comments.
Despite his scattered work, he toured small venues with Fools in Love until 1988. It was then that he decided against building another group or trying to craft playing chemistry again.
“I went off on my own and left the bar-restaurant-college scene,” Williams describes. “I started playing in listening rooms, concert rooms, some of the bigger coffee houses, and music halls, arts centers and other places.”
His solo career yielded nine CDs of original music and appearances at The Kerrville Folk Festival, The Philadelphia Folk Festival and The Newport Folk Festival. Though successful, he still maintained a safe distance from the music industry.
“As the music industry—which I find to be an oxymoron—has changed, I’ve not changed with it,” Williams states. “I’ve ignored the music industry. Yes, I make a living in it. I admit it: I’m in a capitalist society, so I have to do the capitalist thing. I found that I have chosen, in my career, not to accommodate the greater public—not to try to appeal to millions but to be happy with a few well-chosen hundreds of people.”
Early interactions with the biz spurred his disdain. He wrote “We’re Wasting Our Time,” which was recorded by Tom Jones, in 1980. While it gave him a taste of the money, the constraints of writing popular music wasn’t worth it. Williams stuck to his guns so much so he even turned down a full record deal with Liberty Records and a full publishing deal with PolyGram Publishing.
“The Nashville, New York and LA industry don’t want you to say anything that’s going to engage or challenge the audience to any great degree,” Williams elaborates. “That’s the nature of the business: The public does not want to be challenged; they want to be entertained. I love what I do too much to change it radically just to earn a few more bucks.”
Williams’ music aims to engage with songs that tap into humor and intellect. He tries to evoke memories of childhood and the places his listeners came from. His song “Mama Lou” reflects his mother. He tells of her beginnings as a cotton-farmer’s daughter, her experience meeting Amelia Earhart, and becoming a piper cub pilot in the Civil Air Patrol at 17—not to mention her time as a champion golfer (she took home seven holes in one during one golf tournament). Most of all, he relays the undying support she gave him throughout his career.
He also tells the story of his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, infusing humor into the touching tale. “The audiences in the folk world are much more attuned to the communication with an artist,” he says. “Stories being told about how songs were formed and where they came from [are better received] than in my bar-playing days. In the bars people don’t want you to talk. All you can ever say to an audience at bars is, ‘Please, tip your waitress and bartender.’”
With a five-decade career under his belt and having touched thousands of lives, he will come to Wilmington this Friday. “All I want to do is please the audience that is in front of me,” he says. “I still stand up and play energetically. I’m still a rock ‘n’ roller like I was when I was 27.”
Friday, October 10, 7:30 p.m.
Holden Beach Chapel
107 Rothschild St., Holden Beach