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Joey Williams: Down In New Orleans With The Blind Boys of Alabama

What began as an opportunity to do something other than making brooms and mops at the Talladega Institute for the Blind turned into something much more, something that has spanned nearly seven decades and continues to bring new audiences to the uplifting sounds of gospel. The Blind Boys of Alabama had been performing for a few decades when vocalist/guitarist Joey Williams joined its ranks. Over the past 15 years, he has been a part of that group while also exploring a host of outside projects including R&B sessions, the funk outfit Trulio Disgracias and tour dates with Robert Randolph & the Family Band.

Although Williams has had a busy career playing within the context of the church and secular worlds, specific and illuminating information for research purposes was hard to find. So, I allowed him to develop the picture of his musical life from childhood to the Blind Boys latest album, Down In New Orleans.

Our conversation takes place shortly after Williams leaves a recording studio session with original Blind Boy Jimmy Carter and the night before the group is due to appear on The Tonight Show.

John Patrick Gatta: Give me some idea of your background and how you came to join the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Joey Williams: When I was a little boy, my father started me out playing drums and guitar. I've been playing ever since. I played with his band as a child until I was a teenager. I'm from New York and some of the local gospel artists would have me sit in with them as a youngster and when the major gospel groups came to town like the Blind Boys, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar…

Fast forward to the early '90s, I'm with the Mighty Clouds of Joy and we are on the same gig with Blind Boys. Their tour manager approached me and asked if I could find them a guitarist that wanted to go out on the road. I said, 'I'll look for you.' Then, I did some research on the Blind Boys and I called him back and told him, 'I found the guy,’ and it was me. I've been there ever since, for 15 years now. (laughs)

JPG: I like the way you did that. (laughs) So, when did you switch from drums to guitar, and why?

JW: I was playing drums like three or four or five, just a snare a and cymbal and I was playing for all the groups in the church. Then, my father brought the guitar home when I was seven or eight. There's a lot of drummers but there's fewer guitarists. So, he wanted to see if I could play guitar because he played guitar and sang. He showed me that A’ chord and that was it. It was over. I haven't put it down since.

JPG: Was everything you were involved with related to the church or did you do secular work as well?

JW: I did mostly gospel. I've done secular work in the studio but not a lot of touring with R&B bands. I've played on albums. Keith Sweat, Dave Hollister, Blackstreet, Coco, SWV...

JPG: Years ago I interviewed Robert Randolph and we discussed his move from playing sacred steel in the church to playing in front of secular crowds. He received a lot of flak for that. Did you experience the same reaction?

JW: Yes, I did. Once you come from the church, any one of the gospel church musicians will tell you, once they step into the studio or onstage with a R&B or blues or rock 'n' roll band, they do get that feeling that, 'I think I might be getting in trouble.' The preachers in the church are like, 'You've got to do gospel. Stay in the church and only do gospel.' Different people have different outlooks on it. Music is music, and I love so many different kinds.

We met with Robert Randolph in 2001 at the same place, the Knitting Factory, where Blind Boys were last Friday, where Prince came onstage. That's another story…

JPG: Wait! Prince came onstage with you? We’ll come back to this. Tell me about Prince joining you onstage.

JW: We were at the Knitting Factory in L.A. He had called ahead and asked if he could see the Blind Boys. We were [onstage] singing, and I didn't know anything, and some guy came up to me and asked, 'Prince wants to know if he can come onstage.' I said, 'Who?' He said, 'Prince.' I said, 'Prince?' He said, 'Yeah, Prince.' I said, 'Prince.' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Yeah!' (laughs)

After that he walked on and just started clapping and getting into it. By that time we locked eyes and I started taking my guitar off my shoulders right then. He took it and I gave him my pick. From that point on he started moving and grooving, and he enjoyed himself. It's all on Youtube now.

We were in the middle of "Look Where He Brought Me From," which is Gospel Drive. We call it a 'drive' in our community. Jimmy Carter was down on the floor in the audience and that's when he chose to come up. To be honest, Prince, he didn't want to be seen, he wasn't trying to upstage anyone. He came on when all the focus was on Jimmy in the audience. A lot of people didn't even know that he was up there. He came in and he started jamming with the band, like he's been playing with us the whole time. It was one of those Gospel Drives that I think he wanted to get some of that…. Drive. (laughs) And he said, 'Well, by God I'm going to get some.' And he got some. I really enjoyed it. It was really, really cool.

JPG: Now, back to Robert Randolph, you also play with him…

JW: I play with Robert Randolph when I'm not with the Blind Boys. As a matter of fact, both bands got together in 2002 and we won a Grammy together for the Higher Ground album. The Family Band, that's the band that played on the album, and Robert and Ben Harper and Leon Mobley.

I started touring with both of 'em back then, and I've been doing double duty ever since, which has been really cool.

JPG: Also, there’s the Joey Williams Project ( /jwilliamsproject)

JW: That was just the name on the MySpace page. So many people have been asking… On MySpace there's a live one of me and Robert Randolph and the Family Band doing a song, "People Get Ready." I was sick that night. I think it was my birthday. He says that, 'You got the sniffles but we're gonna be alright.'

JPG: For the Joey Williams Project, do you have anything ready to come out?

JW: I'm just recording songs and using musicians and people that I know. I know a lot of people in the business. Just doing some songs in the area. Pull 'em in the studio and get 'em to do some playing or singing.

JPG: Is that what was going on when you were in the studio earlier today with Jimmy Carter?

JW: That was for Joey Williams Project and his project.

JPG: When I did a web search I saw a Joey Williams listed with the band Trulio Disgracias (a side project of Norwood Fisher of Fishbone and a revolving list of musicians including members of Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers and HR of Bad Brains).

JW: I played three or four songs on their latest project. And their horn players are on my project. I did it awhile ago so it's either just coming out or it's out. It's real funky.

JPG: You are a busy guy. Back to Blind Boys, though. What was it you saw in them that made you want to join?

JW: I grew up on gospel, and when I heard the guys I was on the same show together with them. I was with the Mighty Clouds of Joy and they were on the same bill. I hadn't seen them in years, and I was able to watch them a second time and I was like, 'These guys are really doing it.' At that time they weren't getting the notoriety that they should be getting. I was so happy to see 'em still doing it and doing it so well.

I remember when they were in that play, "The Gospel of Colonus," which was really big. That was very important for me. That's when I caught back on to them again. I took a chance and went up there.

JPG: You look at how music gets categorized. And I see the Blind Boys albums placed in the gospel section, separately from the Christian music section. I’m wondering if you can explain the difference.

JW: To me gospel might be a little harder, a little rougher around the edges.

JPG: I had heard of Blind Boys but my biggest impression came about with your album, Spirit of the Century (2000). That album caught a lot of people by surprise because it blended secular and gospel elements such as "Amazing Grace" sung to "The House of the Rising Sun." For something like that, I would think with your background, it wasn’t too hard to convince you to do that, but was it difficult to convince the older members?

JW: Definitely that. You hit the nail on the head. Some of the songs they were really fighting against. Clarence [Fountain] was like, 'No, I don't want to do that.' Different ones had different problems with different songs. But when it came to "Amazing Grace," they ALL had a problem. They were like, 'Hey! Wait a minute! This is "Amazing Grace." Don't mess with this.' Jimmy said, 'It's sacrilegious.' The producer John Chelew was like, 'Just to try it and see how it works out.' Sure enough, we tried it, the chorus, and it was fitting so well with it. Each time we did it, which was only two or three more times, it got easier and easier and it started to flow. Next thing you know we had a record and a Grammy for it.

JPG: Did you have similar problems with 2005’s Atom Bomb and its use of loops and raps?

JW: By that time we were real trusting in the producer. And we had big success with him, three Grammys in a row. It didn't win a Grammy but it turned out pretty good. We had Billy Preston on there, one of his last recordings. He and Clarence Fountain did a duet and he played on a couple of other tunes.

JPG: Speaking of Clarence, I interviewed him when Spirit of the Century came out. He’s not recording or touring with the Blind Boys now. How is he doing?

JW: He had some health issues, dialysis a few times a week. Makes it a little tough to travel. We still keep in touch.

JPG: We haven’t touched on working with Ben Harper on the There Will Be A Light and the Live at the Apollo albums.

JW: That is one of the highlights of my life. From the time that we met up to the time we won the Grammy, it was magical. We met in New Orleans. Ben was doing a gig and he wanted us to come down an encore with him. Some of the guys didn't know Ben Harper. It was so late. We did our gig already. (laughs) We do the early hours, like 8 o'clock to 9:15 or 9:30. He was playing until midnight and the encore was after midnight. So, me and the guys, we went down and we waited in the dressing room and we did the encore with him and it went absolutely fantastic. The crowd went crazy. He went crazy. So, the next thing you know we opened in France and we sat in. And we just kept getting together. Then, he wound up writing a song for the Spirit of the Century album, "Give a Man a Home."

From that point on he was on every album. He did "People Get Ready." He and Robert Randolph got together and played on the Stevie Wonder tune, "Higher Ground." After that it was time for us to do another album and we came together and we tried to do a song. You know, every album, Ben Harper, he's got to write a song for the Blind Boys. He's like a part of it now. That's how we roll. (laughs) In doing that, we did the one song in no time. He said, 'You wanna do another one?' So, we did another one. That one went equally as fast. So, we tried another one and next thing you know Ben's on the phone talking to Virgin Records saying, 'You should consider a Ben Harper and the Blind Boys venture.' They talked about it and the next day they said, 'Well, it's on.' And we had a deal to do a full album, he and us.

It wound up being a great experience in the studio, experiences that you really wouldn't imagine from jumping up and shouting to crying. Every kind of emotion went on through that session. It was one of the best experiences in my life and then doing the same thing at the Apollo. It was the best and I'm such good friends with all the guys — Juan, Leon, Oliver, Jason, all those cats. We're like brothers now.

JPG: I guess you could say that we pretty much caught up on matters to get to Down In New Orleans. Tell me how this project came about because a lot of New Orleans projects relating to Hurricane Katrina came about shortly after that tragedy.

JW: Jimmy had said that there were things that we couldn't really do. We couldn't go down there with a hammer and nail. Besides just sending relief money, there really was nothing we could do. It put a weight on our heart. [Producer] Chris Goldsmith came up with the idea, 'What about doing an album down there?' That really was the solution. That was the answer to the prayer. I don't know if God spoke to Chris and told him, 'Go answer those guys' prayers. They need some direction.' (slight laugh)

JPG: Does Chris come up with the songs to record or do various members bring them in because they do a good job of relating to the situation in New Orleans?

JW: Yeah, "How I Got Over," "You Got to Move," "Free at Last," "Down By the Riverside." We had some songs that we already do and then Chris came up with some songs that he ran by us. So, we chose some songs from there. All the songs that were done fall into place on the CD.

JPG: The use of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Allen Toussaint and the Hot 8 Brass Band, was that an effect of recording in New Orleans?

JW: Our manager Charles Driebe is from New Orleans so that's right down his alley. He knew some of the people personally, and he knew his way around New Orleans. (laughs) So, he was able to get things done and get some people in the area. It got a little easier as it went along. And the people in New Orleans were so helpful. They were so willing to do what we needed to be done. So, it would be fitting so well.

JPG: In the press kit Jimmy mentions that New Orleans musicians have a “different feel to their rhythm.” How did you develop a method where your style meshed with theirs?

JW: The Blind Boys are gifted like that. They approached it the same way we've done studio sessions with other people. We've done everyone from Peter Gabriel to Ibrahim Ferrer, Lou Reed, Solomon Burke…so many different genres of music. When we get in there we have to conform to what it is they're doing. It was sort of like that. They had their rhythm. We weren't far off, the two styles. We're kind of related. It wasn't such a hard fit. We got right in there a couple of times around. It was happening.

JPG: I read in the liner notes for the new album, Down in New Orleans, Jimmy Carter mentioning that his whole music world isn’t just gospel, that he appreciates Blues artists such as B.B. King and Sonny Boy Williamson and even Country artists such as Jim Reeves. What about you?

JW: A lot of R&B and Blues and pop radio. I used to listen to Eric Clapton playing and I’d always bring it to the gospel quartet. I'd use some of those licks when I was a little boy — Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Benson who was one of my favorites. I would try to take some of that when I'd sit in with somebody.

The gospel quartet is one of my biggest influences. It's such a big part of me. That's where I get most of my inspiration from. I grew up with that music, and it's such a part of me no matter where I go and what I play, it comes out. I can't deny it.

JPG: Now, you play guitar and sing with the Blind Boys. So, you’re dealing with the two elements of its sound.

JW: You're absolutely right because there were a lot of times, especially when it was Jimmy, George [Scott] and Clarence, and I was the other vocal with those guys. And we would go to a lot of places and I wouldn't have a guitar. I'd only be a vocalist. Then, in concert I'm like the musical director for the band. When I'm playing with Robert, I'm just guitar and doing some vocals. Each one brings a different dynamic, but I love playing most of all. The Blind Boys taught me about singing; where I thought I knew I didn't really know. I learned more about singing from the Blind Boys than I could have learned in a lot of schools. Some of the best schools I don't think I could have got the education in vocals that I got from the Blind Boys.

JPG: What have you gained, besides vocals, from all these years of working with the Blind Boys?

JW: I've learned a lot about harmonizing. I've learned a lot about life because the Blind Boys have been through so much in their lives. We couldn't even grasp the amount of things that they've been through. I've learned how to deal with trivial things, to appreciate the things that I have. To travel with a blind group of guys for 15 years, a lot of things we take for granted. I learned to appreciate all the things that I have and all the places that I get to go, around the world. It's a blessing to be able to do that. They taught me the ways of the South. They taught me how to handle going overseas the first time.

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