CLARENCE WILLIAMS (c. 1895-1965) Bandleader, pianist, composer, accompanist, singer, arranger and music publisher Clarence Williams was talented and driven; a bandleader and composer who wrote many jazz and blues classics.
He was wildly successful as a publisher and music director for jazz and blues record labels.
During the 1920-30s he worked for Okeh Records and other labels directing production of nearly one thousand jazz and blues records by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, King Oliver, Fats Waller, and he composed for early black musical theater.
Successful Entrepreneur Williams was a prolific tune-smith whose publishing business was the most successful African American owned seller of sheet music in the 1920s and ‘30s. Williams wrote, co-wrote, or possibly misappropriated a few of, some 500 tunes. In 1943 his music catalog of 2000 songs sold to Decca for a reported $50,000.
Born near and raised in New Orleans, Clarence Williams began writing and publishing his own music at a young age. In New York City during the 1920s he was a tremendously successful songwriter, publisher and record company insider. His greatest talent might have been composing and marketing his excellent tunes, many of which became classics of the jazz canon.
His company became the leading African American owned publisher of sheet music in the 1920s. He was a powerful force in the recording industry as an arranger, pianist, A & R (artists and repertoire) man, and song supplier. For instance he brought Bessie Smith to Columbia Records, managed her early career, and penned or published some of her biggest hits including “Gulf Coast Blues.”
Among Williams most popular, perennial and favorites are:
Royal Garden Blues was published by Clarence, with Spencer Williams in 1919, and was first made popular by the the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
New Orleans Origins
Clarence was ethnically Creole and Choctaw Indian, born in the 1890s near New Orleans. He was raised in the crescent city and started in show business at age 12 singing, dancing and playing piano. In addition to his performing, while still a young man his entrepreneurial drive led him to start several enterprises: a suit-cleaning business catering to performing piano professors, and he managed a cabaret.
Williams music business began in his mid teens when he first went door-to-door peddling his first self-published tune and sold out in a short time. He had found the trade that would be the central endeavor of his life, and soon partnered in a publishing company with A.J. Piron.
His early colleagues included Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet and W.C. Handy. In the early 1920s Williams moved to the booming metropolis of Chicago launching yet another successful music publishing venture.
Pt. 1 - Introducing Clarence Williams
Clarence Williams Pt. 1A.mp3 BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME -- Clarence Williams and his Jazz Kings, 1931 MIDNIGHT STOMP (excerpt) -- Clarence Williams, 1928 MIDNIGHT STOMP -- Claus Jacobi’s Bottomland Orchestra, 1998 GRAVIER STREET BLUES (excerpt) -- Clarence Williams’ Jazz Kings, 1927 GRAVIER STREET BLUES -- The New Jazz Wizards, 1992 WILDFLOWER RAG -- Clarence Williams solo piano, 1928 GULF COAST BLUES -- Bessie Smith accompanied by Clarence Clarence Williams piano, 1923 CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME -- Clarence Williams Blue Five, 1925 ORGAN GRINDER’S BLUES -- Ethel Waters acClarence Clarence Williams, 1928 ACHING HEARTED BLUES -- Black Diamond Blue Five, 1995 HOLE IN THE WALL -- Jazz Classics, vocal by Liesel Mack, 1983
Clarence Williams Pt. 1B.mp3 BOZO -- Black Diamond Blue Five, vocal Robert Young, 1983 AIN’T GONNA GIVE YOU NONE OF MY JELLYROLL -- Clarence Williams Washboard Band, 1934 BIMBO -- Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band, 1933 EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY... -- Clarence Williams, vocal Eva Taylor, 1924 SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT -- Clarence Williams Washboard Band, vocal Eva Taylor, 1930 CHIZZLIN’ SAM -- Clarence Williams & his Washboard Band, 1933 ROYAL GARDEN BLUES -- New Orleans Rhythm Kings, 1934 ORGAN GRINDER BLUES -- Black Diamond Blue Five, vocal by Regina, 1995
Much of the racialized, segregationist marketing and distribution of the record industry that was standard practice until about 1940 is shocking today.
Music Industry Pioneer and Insider
Williams recorded prolifically, partly because of his connections with the record companies. In particular his various Williams Washboard Band (right) sold well. Its popularity was due partly to a funky, rural, outdated sound featuring washboard, that still sounds good today.
His Hokum records from the early Thirties were a throwback, at a time when Swing and modernism were in ascendancy. They revel in nostalgia for an earlier, earthier, more rural style of music. The excellent washboard player for these sessions was Floyd Casey, and Ed Allen offered fine open or muted cornet. Clarence himself was a good singer, and smart enough to choose a relaxed pace for singing his own classic, “I Ain’t Gonna Give You None Of My Jelly Roll.”
Because Williams was often recording for competing labels, his 150 or so records were issued under some two dozen different names, a common industry practice at the time: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five Clarence Williams Novelty Four Clarence Williams Washboard Four Clarence Williams Jazz Kings or more anonymously, Memphis Jazzers Seven Gallon Jug Band Jamaica Jazzers Dixie Washboard Band and Red Onion Jazz Babies.
Williams also had a knack for finding and bringing good talent to the record companies. He was responsible for organizing some of the earliest recording sessions of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. He was energetic helping build the blues and jazz catalogs of Okeh Records during its most innovative and productive era. And he took maximum advantage of his position at a busy intersection of music and commerce to become a very successful entrepreneur.
During the 1920s and ‘30s in New York, Williams wore many hats and played several roles: record company director of A & R (artists and repertory), studio piano accompanist, song plugger and publisher. His musical associates included James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, King Oliver, Bennie Moten, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and fellow songwriter Spencer Williams (no relation).
Bringing Jazz and Blues to the World
As a bandleader and pianist Williams recorded more frequently than just about any other black musician of the 1920s, contributing to some 750 records, over 150 of them band recordings under his own name. The most treasured today are his Blue Five sessions, that marked the emergence on record of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, 1923-25: “Cakewalkin’ Babies,” “Wildcat Blues,” “Kansas City Man Blues.”
Clarence worked prolifically with the top female jazz and blues singers of the 1920, as accompanist, A & R director, song plugger and manager:
Mamie Smith, Sara Martin, Rosa Henderson, Clara Smith, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.
The most popular of all was Ethel Waters (right).
West End Blues was co-authored by Williams with King Oliver.
Williams was full of talent and energy, which earned him an impressive music empire, writing and publishing sheet music, composing for black musical theater, leading bands, accompanying some of the top jazz and blues singers of his era, and capitalizing on his role directing sessions for top labels.
Clarence didn’t take himself or his music too seriously. But he did take the business of music quite seriously, and today the repertoire and history of classic jazz are richer for his talent, energy and enterprise.
Pt. 2 - Introducing Clarence Williams
Clarence Williams Pt. 2A.mp3 CUSHION FOOT STOMP -- Clarence Williams Washboard Five, scat vocal Clarence Williams, 1928 CUSHION FOOT STOMP -- Le Petite Jazzband de M. Morel, 1997 WILDCAT BLUES -- Clarence Williams and his Blue Five, featuring Sidney Bechet PAPA DE DA-DA -- Clarence Williams and his Blue Five, vocal Eva Taylor, 1925 I’M A LITTLE BLACKBIRD -- Black Diamond Blue Five, 1995 ANY TIME (excerpt) -- Clarence Williams’ Jazz Kings, Clarence Williams vocal, 1928 ANY TIME -- Black Diamond Blue Five, 1995 BOTTOMLAND -- Black Diamond Blue Five, 1995
Clarence Williams Pt. 2B.mp3 HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY? -- Clarence Williams Washboard Five, 1928 BIG FAT MAMA -- Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band, 1934 MAMA STAYED OUT ALL NIGHT LONG -- Clarence Williams Washboard Band, vocal Ed Allen, 1933 WEST END BLUES -- Ethel Waters acClarence by Clarence Willliams piano, 1928 AFTER TONIGHT -- Clarence Williams & his Washboard Band, 1933 I CAN’T DANCE, I’VE GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS -- Claus Jacobi’s Bottomland Orchestra, 1998 DIXIELAND JAZZ -- The Swedish Jazz Kings, 1987
Clarence and wife, singer Eva Taylor
Clarence’s wife, Eva Taylor was herself a major a show business celebrity and pioneer. She and Clarence wed in 1921, remaining married until his death in the mid-1960s.
Born Irene Joy Gibbons (St. Louis, 1895) she began performing onstage at age three. By her teens Eva had toured Australia, New Zealand and Europe, and was soon successful on the Vaudeville and minstrel circuit. In the early-1920s she became popular in Harlem nightclubs.
Eva appeared on the first African American owned label in
the early 1920s. The short-lived Black Swan record company that billed
her as “The Dixie Nightingale.”
Eva recorded about three-dozen songs, due largely to her connection with Clarence.
Oddly, Taylor did not have a particularly authentic blues or jazz singing style. She retained perfect diction from her theatrical upbringing, and a rather elocutionary style that didn’t work well in a jazz setting. Still, thanks to her charisma, popularity and long marriage to Clarence she was often in great recording sessions with Williams and his bands.
Among the first African American singers to be heard live on radio in
the early 1930s Eva broadcast her own program on NBC and for many years
on WOR, both with Clarence and as a guest on Paul Whiteman’s radio
Eva Taylor in later years (right).
Clarence’s death in 1965, Taylor resumed singing, performing in
England, New York, Sweden and Denmark. She was laid to rest in 1977
beside Clarence in a New York church cemetery. As a coda, their
grandson Clarence Williams III is a Tony Award nominated film, theater and television actor.
“Papa De Da-Da”
was one of their best records. The remarkable 1925 lineup included
Louis Armstrong, with Sidney Bechet and Don Redman playing soprano and
Theatrical Productions on Broadway
Among his numerous theatrical works, in 1927 Clarence Williams wrote, staged and performed his own musical revue. “Bottomland” (or “I’m Going Back To Bottomland”) starried Clarence and and wife Eva Taylor.
Bottomland opened for a month in New York and Atlantic City, closing after twenty-one performances. Not much is known about the staging or content, but Williams recorded some of the tunes from the revue, and there is sheet music extant. In recent years some of the show’s music has been recorded. “Anytime” has an upbeat lyric and melody; the theme song “Bottomland” is a solid orchestral number in these 1995 recreations by the Black Diamond Five.
His lyric for the classic, “I’m A Little Blackbird” sung by Taylor, is a poignant cry for racial and romantic equality. It was written for the 1924 theatrical, “Dixie Comes To Broadway.”
Notes on Horn Player Ed Allen
Cornetist Ed Allen was on most of Williams’ records starting in 1927. He played the “Bottomland” revue orchestra and recorded frequently with Clarence for the next decade.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Edward Clifton Allen (not to be confused with trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen) began his musical career at age 19 in St. Louis and on the riverboats steaming between there and New Orleans. By the late Twenties he was working with various bands mostly in New York or Atlantic City; besides frequently recording with Williams.
Opinions vary on Allen: some are critical of his technical skills hearing missed notes and flawed tonality. But I side with those who hear a warm sensitive tone and appealing muted ‘wa-wa’ effects.
Allen’s plaintive sound is a fine contribution to the Clarence Williams Washboard band of 1933-34. He’s not trying to steal the spotlight, but adds bluesy melancholy or scorching heat as needed. Ed’s languid vocals highlight the dry wit of Clarence’s lyrics for “Big Fat Mama” & “Mama Stayed Out All Night Long.”
Clarence Williams was a prolific composer and successful bandleader whose music is built into the fabric of Classic Jazz. His drive and enterprise enriched the published literature and recorded repertoire of early jazz and blues.