Jody Williams

at Rosa’s Lounge, March 29

“For someone who hadn’t played this guitar for 30 years,” Jody Williams told a packed house at Rosa’s Lounge last Friday, “I’m not doing too bad.”

The show was the first of two celebrating Return of a Legend (Evidence), the legendary blues guitarist’s first new recording since 1966 and a milestone in the comeback he’s been mounting for a little over two years. He’d introduced a few songs from it in his first set, and during the break he promptly sold every copy he’d brought with him. Now he hoisted his vintage Gibson electric hollowbody, the guitar he calls Red Lightning, and zipped his fingers up and down the fretboard to create a sound more like a throaty chuckle than a riff: the intro to “Lucky Lou,” an instrumental originally released on Argo in 1957.

It was his second “Lucky Lou” of the evening. The earlier version had sounded playful–spiraling ascents, cackling single-note spurts laid over the tune’s dark minor-key chord structure–but this time, as he guided the song from a rumbalike lurch into a 4/4 shuffle and back again, his attack became increasingly harsh. By the end his chords had taken on a clanging metallic timbre. He was smiling, but his brow was furrowed and his eyes were squeezed nearly shut. If you looked closely, you could see he was fighting back tears.

To understand why the song affected him so deeply, you have to go back to the early and mid-50s, when a teenage Williams was gigging around town with the likes of Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf. Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1935 and brought to Chicago at age five, he’d picked up the guitar and begun playing on street corners with Diddley’s band just a few years earlier; now he was backing everyone from the still-potent veteran Memphis Minnie to the fiery young Elmore James. He sat in with Bobby “Blue” Bland when Bland’s guitarist didn’t show up; he even played some dances with Johnny Moore, the smooth-blues guitar maestro from the west coast, in a trio that featured legendary balladeer Charles Brown.

Williams melded the diverse styles he heard into his own distinct take on blues guitar. He was one of the first Chicagoans to appropriate B.B. King’s sensual string bends, and he also learned from the advanced harmonic construction of King’s leads, which King himself had adapted from jazzmen like Django Reinhardt. He absorbed the melodic and harmonic elegance of Moore and T-Bone Walker, but added the piercing tone and aggressive attack that characterized the burgeoning Chicago sound. The result was a blend of sophistication and grit, seasoned with his own considerable improvisational imagination.

Soon Williams was ensconced as a session player at Chess Records. That’s him on raucous Howlin’ Wolf classics like “Evil” and “Forty-Four”; those are his leads snaking over Bo Diddley’s reverb-drenched chords on “Who Do You Love.” He appeared on sides by Jimmy Rogers (“I Can’t Believe”), Billy Boy Arnold (“Don’t Stay Out All Night”), Floyd Dixon (“Alarm Clock Blues”), and many others. He also kept up his grueling live schedule, and toured the country in rock ‘n’ roll caravans along with Diddley, Clyde McPhatter, Bill Haley, and other stars of the 50s.

But it didn’t take him long to see that some of his most important contributions were lining the pockets of others. At the time, few artists had even a rudimentary knowledge of copyright law. Money was something you got paid for a gig or recording session; cash in hand was better than hypothetical long-term gain. Record companies, then as now, aggressively exploited the artists’ ignorance. In the 70s, Scott Cameron, manager of both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, brought a lawsuit against Chess after he discovered that his clients had unknowingly signed employee-for-hire agreements, under which the songwriters were paid salaries, but Arc, the publishing company owned in part by the Chess brothers, owned the songs. In Dixon’s autobiography, I Am the Blues, Cameron says, “They were both shocked to find out what employee for hire meant. Muddy signed his for $2,000…it was in fact a retroactive employee for hire signed in the early 1970s but dating all the way back to the 1950s.” In her own autobiography R & B pioneer Ruth Brown–whose struggle to recoup her own long-lost royalties from Atlantic Records resulted in the 1988 formation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation–scathingly described standard industry practice as “date rape.”

Artists weren’t innocent either. In 1958, about a year after Williams had recorded “Lucky Lou,” Otis Rush waxed one of his best-regarded sides, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” which starts off in a nearly identical minor-key rumba cadence, progresses through virtually the same sequence of rhythmic variations (although Rush modulates into a major key in the 4/4 passages), and features a very similar series of string zips. Williams’s solo on “You May,” the flip side of “Lucky Lou,” was also appropriated in ’58 (probably also by Rush) for the guitar break on Buddy Guy’s debut for Artistic, “Sit and Cry (The Blues).”

The worst such incident in Williams’s career came in 1957, when guitarist Mickey Baker and vocalist Sylvia Vanderpool (later Sylvia Robinson, who cofounded the legendary rap label Sugarhill Records) launched their career as Mickey & Sylvia with the million-selling hit “Love Is Strange.” Williams maintains that it was based on a riff and melody that he had been playing with Bo Diddley for some time. Over the years, covers by artists ranging from the Everly Brothers to Peaches & Herb to Kenny Rogers have brought in fat royalties for Baker, who shared the original writing credit and whose company Ben-Ghazi Enterprises owns the publishing.

Baker and Vanderpool, according to Williams, saw the Diddley band play the song at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. “We oughta stop playing these new songs,” he told Diddley at the time, “because too many people, certain people, are taking an interest in it.” Not long after that, in March 1956, Williams brought pianist and vocalist Billy Stewart to the Chess offices and played a song he’d written for him. “Billy’s Blues” was built on the same melody, rhythm, and sharp-toned, swirling guitar pattern that had attracted Baker’s attention in D.C. It didn’t chart nationally, but it made enough of an impact around Chicago to kick-start Stewart’s career, which continued until his death in an automobile crash in 1970.

A few months after it was released, Williams says, he was back at Chess when Bo Diddley came in. “Bo pulled me over to the side. He said he let Mickey & Sylvia have ‘Love Is Strange,’ and for me not to say anything to Leonard Chess about it. And don’t worry about it, I’m gonna get my writer’s royalties; they gave him $2,000.

“Must’ve been two or three weeks later, the record came out. I happened to be in the studio when I heard it–they always had a radio in there. I think it was Phil [Chess] first said, ‘Hey, that sure sounds familiar, that’s a nice tune! Where have I heard that?’ Well, what he was hearing was me! He was hearing me, my style! Few days later, this time Leonard said something. Both of ’em, they’re trying to figure it out, it sounds familiar to ’em, but they still haven’t pinpointed me yet, as to where it came from. Bo Diddley said if I keep my mouth shut I’m gonna get my money, so I didn’t say a thing.”

“Love Is Strange,” issued on the RCA subsidiary Groove, hit the Billboard pop chart in January 1957 and remained there for 14 weeks, peaking at number 11; on the R & B chart it reached number one. It was a big moneymaker from the start: according to Baker, as quoted in George White’s biography Bo Diddley: Living Legend, “RCA sent me a check for $50,000 one day, and $27,000 the next. They told me they had to stop pressing Elvis Presley records to keep up with the orders on mine.”

Chess, recognizing the publishing royalties at stake, sued RCA. The case dragged on for years; in 1961, after Williams returned from a two-year hitch in the army, the company sent him to New York to testify. But the court ruled against Chess. Williams, embittered but still game, soldiered on for a while with a show band that played Top 40 and pop standards along with R & B, but by the middle of the decade he’d grown so disgusted with the music business that he stashed Red Lightning under his bed, fully intending never to play another note for as long as he lived. For three decades he wouldn’t set foot in a nightclub–not even the Checkerboard Lounge, where his wife, Delores, ran the bar. “As good as I thought I was,” he says, “that’s the way I wanted to be remembered.”

A few years ago, at the urging of Chicago producer and blues historian Dick Shurman, Williams broke down and went to Buddy Guy’s Legends to see his old friend Robert Jr. Lockwood. He ventured out again in March 2000, this time to HotHouse, where the warm welcome he received from Lockwood and other old friends began to weaken his resolve. About three months later he returned to HotHouse with Red Lightning in tow and played a few numbers on a Chicago Blues Festival after-hours set that included Billy Boy Arnold. More local appearances followed, as did a call from California promoter and producer Randy Chortkoff, who’d been at HotHouse with harpist Scott Dirks and was so impressed that he added Williams to a bill he was putting together for the prestigious Blues Estafette, a festival in the Netherlands that November. To Williams’s amazement, the fans there treated him like a long-lost hero.

Since then it’s been full steam ahead. Return of a Legend, originally scheduled for release in January, features nine new compositions that sound as if they fell out of a time capsule. Williams also revamps “You May,” “Lucky Lou,” and a couple other vintage instrumentals, “Moanin’ for Molasses” and “Jive Spot,” which was called “Five Spot” when Otis Spann recorded it with Williams and B.B. King on guitars in 1954.

Though he’s been honing the new material for several years, he has staunchly refused to play any of it in public until now. “I made a promise, three things, to myself, when I started back playing my guitar,” he says. “Number one: I don’t compete anymore. There was a time I’d get on any of ’em, it didn’t matter to me, I’d get up there, play my guitar, play all around ’em, all behind my head, between my legs, and everything else. I don’t do that anymore. Number two: I will never, under any circumstances, perform in public any of my music that’s not published. Never! It’s going to be published and on record before they hear it. And number three: I will not go into a studio and play on anybody else’s session. Only time I go into the studio, if somebody say, ‘Play this chord here, play that chord there, play this chord here.’ I’m not playing my ideas, I’m playing what somebody else wants me to play.”

True to his word, in recent live performances Williams has largely eschewed any sort of flamboyant stagecraft, but his guitar sound remains one of the most ebullient in blues. He can still make old tropes sound new by inserting them in novel places, coming at them repeatedly but with different tonal attacks, or tweaking them into unexpected shapes. He’s especially adept with the riffs and techniques he’s borrowed from T-Bone Walker: he nudges the rhythm by coming in with solos slightly ahead of or behind the beat, unfurls extended arcs and then cuts them into short, crisply articulated phrases, dialogues with himself in a call-and-response pattern, bending upward to a note then hitting the same note on a different string. At Rosa’s, on “T-Bone Shuffle” he playfully altered that trick by omitting the response, letting the upward bend dissolve into thin air, recapturing the melody in a higher or lower register, then slowly bringing it back to where he’d left off. By slowly rotating his right hand as he picked, he evoked the swirling tonal alterations of a phase shifter; the effect sounded uncannily like a jazz chorus singing bebop vocalese behind his leads.

Occasionally, especially on minor-key numbers like the old New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary,” he summoned a melancholy tone that seemed to evoke his years of frustration and disillusionment. He pounded out deep bass chimes, then slowly twisted his way up into the middle and upper registers, as if he were groping his way out of the darkness. His cynicism found more direct voice on tunes like “She Found a Fool and Bumped His Head,” a she-done-me-wrong number from the new disc he sang with such acerbic bite that it seemed to express a broader sense of betrayal. The effect was heightened on his incendiary reading of the Walker classic “Cold, Cold Feeling,” which he’s done at almost every show since his return to performance. By the final verse his voice had coarsened into a hoarse shout, and he bellowed the closing lines: “There’s been a change in me, baby / Once I was blind but now I can see / I’m gonna put down everybody that ever made a fool of me!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.