Out of the Darkness

Cornell Williams calls 1968 a “garbage can year.” It’s the year he lost both his eyesight and his father. “The only thing that I found good in ’68 was the music,” he says. For the last two decades, music has been his livelihood as well as his solace: under the name the Big DooWopper, he’s eked out a living busking in the dank tunnels of the CTA. If you’ve heard him, you probably remember him: his raspy wail evokes Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland, though he’s not as refined a singer as either. Sometimes he accompanies himself on a battered Casio keyboard, and sometimes he bangs out a rhythm on the plastic bucket he sits on. It’s a simple act, but in late 1998 Delmark Records house producer Steve Wagner was impressed enough by it to offer him a deal: the Big DooWopper’s debut album, All in the Joy, came out last month.

Williams was born in Grenada, Mississippi, in November 1953, the older of two sons, and in 1957 his family moved to Chicago, where his sister was born. His parents were both singers: his father, Ivory Williams, was briefly in the hep gospel harmony group the Charioteers, and his mother, Elizabeth Louise Pratt, toured with B.B. King and Mahalia Jackson. “Around that time period, around the first of April 1957, is when I first started being a doo-wopper,” says Williams, sitting on his bucket at his current regular spot, in the pedway at Washington. “I started very early and wrote my first song back then, ‘Must Be Gonna Rain.'” Although he wasn’t yet four, Williams says, phrases and melodies “popped into my mind like popcorn,” and these kernels developed over the years. He says 1957 was also the year he was saved. (For some reason he refers to the state of salvation as “the Z. Frank House,” which, he insists, has nothing to do with the local Chevrolet dealer.)

Williams says his mother bought him a baby grand piano a few months before she died of cirrhosis, in 1961, and that he immediately began teaching himself how to play it. A year later the organist from his church, Greater Harvest Baptist in Bronzeville, began giving him lessons. “These little keyboards ain’t nothing but toys, really, but you give me a Hammond B-3 with a Leslie speaker and I’ll show you some stuff that’ll saturate your soul and will virtually take you to the Z. Frank House,” he says. “I guess you might say I was bewitched by Hammond organ music all my life. Piano’s cool, but to me it’s really dull because it’s all one color. With the Hammond there ain’t no end to the different colors of sound and shades that you can create. I like to think of myself as the Michelangelo of the organ.”

After his mother’s death, his father placed Williams’s younger siblings into foster care, and two years later he remarried. Meanwhile Williams was having trouble seeing. He says he was diagnosed with cataracts early in 1968. “In January it started out with my eyes getting all pink, and then they got more and more red,” he says. “I did see a doctor when it first started happening, but they said there was nothing they could do at the time because they didn’t have that apparatus to straighten it out.” His father enrolled him at the Illinois Braille and Sight Saving School (now the Illinois School for the Visually Handicapped) in Jacksonville; within a month his vision was completely gone. Then, on Thanksgiving morning, his father had a fatal heart attack. He remained with his stepmother, but claims that after his father’s funeral he never heard from his siblings again.

He graduated from Hope School in Springfield in 1973 and worked briefly at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, helping other blind people learn to get around. In 1974 he moved into an apartment in Uptown, the neighborhood where he remained until the late 80s. He started playing on the street for change, picked up church gigs here and there, and even got some occasional club gigs, including a weekly solo stint at the Green Mill in the mid-70s. But he had trouble paying the bills and he was forced to get a roommate. “I was in a very hard bondage, which I’d rather not talk about, living for six years with some bull rider fellow who wasn’t worth two hoots in Hades, who wouldn’t let me play my music,” he says. “He tried to hoodoo me and every other kinda thing and he took pills. I’m glad that fellow’s dead.” In the mid-80s he moved in with bluesman Lucky Lopez and also joined his band, but that relationship ended at Christmas in 1987. Lopez was going on tour and didn’t feel up to taking Williams along, so he brought him to a homeless shelter downtown. There Williams ran into his first cousin Dennis Burley, whom he hadn’t seen since they were children, and they’ve lived together almost continuously since.

Williams cut numerous demo tapes over the years, some at home and some in cheap studios, and sent them to various record labels, which uniformly rejected them. He didn’t send one to Delmark, though. He just cold-called Wagner–this is the Big DooWopper speaking–and Wagner took his call because he was intrigued by the name. Wagner said he could drop off a tape, but the recording was a mess of hiss, so he gave Williams two hours at Delmark’s in-house studio to make a better one. Williams chose to do a gospelized version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” playing piano and organ and singing five-part harmonies with himself. Six months later Wagner set up an official recording session with a full band.

At times on All in the Joy, Williams’s voice doesn’t do exactly what he wants it to, and on some of the faster songs he seems to get lost in the rhythms, but his charm is undeniable. On “Busy, Busy, Busy,” another tune he says he started in ’57, he moans that his girl is always on the phone, mimicking a busy signal with a doo-wop-flavored “bop, bop, bop, bop.” And on “Purple Rain” the harmonies are a wonderful mix of silk and grit. Williams has already recorded demo versions of 40 more songs for Delmark and he’s eager to take his act on the road, but he doesn’t have a permanent band, so for the time being his subway act remains his main gig. He will, however, make a rare aboveground appearance at Jazz Record Mart’s annual Blues Fest brunch, next Sunday, June 11, at 10 AM at Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

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