During his lifetime, Joe Williams was an internationally renowned jazz singer, touring the world with his songs, recording albums, and appearing on television. While today’s young audiences are not familiar by name, Williams’ life bears witness to history while remaining relevant in today’s world. He came to prominence in the 1950s with the Count Basie Orchestra, and their 1955 recording of “Every Day I Have the Blues” hit the top of the charts. More than the blues of a love lost, the song resonated with that year’s events that included the lynching of 14-year- old Emmett Till and Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus. The struggle continues today.
As an African-American performer Williams faced and surmounted the racial impediments of his time. He had his share of both personal and cultural trials and tribulations, including tuberculosis, being hired to clean toilets without pay but allowed to sing for tips, a year in a mental hospital, three failed marriages, and being relegated to sing ‘the blues’ when his heart’s desire was to sing beautiful ballads. In 1961 he left the Basie Band and continued to be recognized as one of the world’s great jazz singers, backed by musicians of his choosing until his death in 1999. He was nominated for several Grammy Awards and won in 1984 for Best Jazz Vocal, and his recording of “Every Day I Have the Blues” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992. Among his many awards and citations were a number of jazz poll commendations and honors. Late in life, he had a recurring role on the Cosby Show television program as the star’s father-in-law. In 1993 he was awarded a Jazz Master Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.