Larry Williams

Larry Williams (center) meets some fans, 1958.


Picture sleeve for his two sided smash.

Specialty Records gig poster– The Atomic Rock Buster.
Larry Williams was born May 10, 1935 in New Orleans, where as teen he put in some time as Lloyd Price’s chauffeur. Price, then riding high on Lawdy Miss Clawdy remembered the well dressed teen– “Larry couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a musician or a pimp”. Worried about his future, his family sent him to live with relatives in the Bay Area, and it was in Oakland, fronting a group called the Lemon Drops he came to the attention of Specialty Records producer/A&R man Bumps Blackwell. Blackwell saw the nineteen year old Williams as a possible successor to Specialty’s meal ticket of that time– Little Richard, who having seen the trail of Sputnik in space while touring Australia (or more likely, seen how small his royalty checks were, having signed a publishing deal with Art Rupe that gave him a mere half-cent a disc), threw his jewelry into the ocean, denounced rock’n’roll and enrolled in Bible college.
Lloyd Price, whose own career had lost momentum when he was drafted, was no longer recording for Specialty, and attempting to launch his own label (KRC) with manager Harold Logan (later assassinated at his own Times Square nightclub– The Turntable). Price and Logan knew they had a sure fire hit in the tune Just Because. Specialty’s owner Art Rupe had Blackwell and their newly newly inked young protege Larry Williams record a note for note cover of Just Because, and with Specialty’s better distribution and more money for promotion, Williams cover beat out Price’s original, to rise to #11 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1957.
Larry Williams was more than a good mimic however, he was an excellent singer, pianist and songwriter, and backed by the greatest studio band ever assembled, was soon churning out classic, original rock’n’roll discs. He was indeed the crown prince to Little Richard’s claim as the King Of Rock’n’Roll, and in the years 1957-1958 he would give Richard, and everyone else a run for their money.
Larry Williams’ Specialty sessions, produced at various times by the aforementioned Bumps Blackwell, and later by Art Rupe, Harold Battiste and finally, Sonny Bono, employed the creme de la creme of West Coast session musicians, many of them New Orleans transplants, and veterans of countless rock’n’roll classics by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, Shirley & Lee, Ritchie Valens, etc. ad infinitum. Drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Rene Hall, bassists Ted Brinson and Jewel Grant, saxophonists Plas Johnson, Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, and Harold Battiste played some of their most inspired rock’n’roll behind Larry Williams. At least one of Williams sessions was done in New Orleans with Charles “Hungry” Williams on drums, Frank Fields on bass, and Roy Montrell on guitar.
It was Larry Williams sophmore disc that set the template– — Short Fat Annie b/w High School Dance (the b-side from the pen of future U.S. congressman and ski spazz Sonny Bono), a Little Richard styled rocker, lyrically rather dumb in fact, it still rocked like crazy and it became a #1 R&B hit, rising to #5 on the pop charts, and for the moment Larry left behind his stable of whores for the equally sleazy pastures of rock stardom.
That same year (’57) came Williams third disc, another lyrically trite, but musically smokin’ platter– Bonie Moronie b/w You Bug Me Baby, the a-side, another Williams original, it would be the commercial zenith of his career when it peaked on Billboard’s pop charts at #14 (#4 R&B), while the flip, co-written with Bono– You Bug Me Baby had its own chart run, where it rose to #45. Larry Williams was white hot shit, appearing on American Bandstand (one of the few to refuse to lip sync, where is that clip today?), and in February of ’58 he hit his musical pinnacle of his rock’n’roll style with another two sided slammer– Dizzy Miss Lizzie (heard here in the extended version that appeared only on the 78 rpm pressing) b/w Slow Down. Although it only got to#69 on the pop charts, it was a steady seller and over the next two years probably sold as many discs as his previous three hits. Rupe understood the importance of jukebox play, mastering Specialty’s 78’s especially “hot” (i.e. loud), and jukebox hits would sell over a long period of time. Most especially to juke box operators, since most jukes at the time still used 78’s, which would wear out after several dozen plays, and a tune that took in the coins would have to be replaced every week, and would stay on the juke for many months, if not years.
Of course, Larry Williams hit the road, where he could make some real money, billed as “The Atomic Rock Buster” he tore up package shows, appearing with virtually every big name rock’n’roll and R&B artist of the era, while still maintaining a regular schedule of club gigs.
Larry Williams cut two more records for Specialty in ’58, neither as good as what had come before– Hootchie Koo b/w The Dummy and Peaches and Cream b/w I Was A Fool both failed to chart. By 1959 Art Rupe was tiring of the record biz, having lost Little Richard, he also made the ill advised decision to give Sam Cooke (who’d been recording for Rupe as a member of the gospel shouting Soul Stirrers)’s contract to Bumps Blackwell in lieu of royalties owed, he started to concentrate on his other investments, mostly in real estate. Hence, when Larry Williams recorded one of his finest discs– She Said Yeah b/w Bad Boy it failed to chart.
Bad Boy was one of the greatest rock’n’roll records of all time and some of the alternate takes might be even better than the issued verion. One alternate, created by splicing various takes together showed up on the 1986 LP The Unreleased Larry Williams (the splicing was done by Little Walter DeVenne who was transfering the tapes) and was not included by Ace on their definitive Larry Williams-At His Finest (The Specialty Years) double CD as the compilers of that package thought that Billy Vera (who compiled the LP) and Little Walter were re-writing history by fucking with the original master tapes, which is true, but it’s still fun to listen to, since Rene Hall lets loose a blistering guitar solo that seems to burn right through the stylus. For more on the subject see my Rene Hall posting from June 2009. Specialty would issue three more singles by Larry Williams that year– Steal A Little Kiss b/w I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You, Give Me Love b/w Teardrops, and his swansong at Specialty– Ting A Ling b/w Little Schoolgirl, the best of the three. Specialty also issued the LP Here’s Larry Williams, a collection of his singles that year. Rupe had some excellent un-issued material in the vault which wouldn’t see release for three decades or more.
His days as a hitmaker over, and Williams drifted back into the life– pimping and dealing drugs. He spent part of late 1959 in jail on a narcotics charge. His next recordings would be a on the Chess label– starting with My Baby’s Got Soul b/w Everyday I Wonder. He was attempting to update his sound, and was a bit ahead of the curve. Four more singles were issued by Chess (1960-1), solid but unspectacular R&B, not quite soul, not quite rock’n’roll, they garned little airplay and almost no sales. He had no discs released in 1962 and only one in ’63, on Mercury, I Can’t Help Myself b/w Woman, a below par soul outing. In 1964 Williams struck up a partnership, musical and other, with another giant talent from rock’n’roll’s gravy years who had fallen into obscurity– Johnny “Guitar” Watson, although their first disc together– Beatle Time pts 1 & 2 on Jola was less than something to shit your panties over.
One can understand why Williams would want to pay tribute to the Beatles, since they covered no less than three of his tunes–Dizzie Miss Lizzy, Slow Down and Bad Boy, while the Rolling Stones opened their Out Of Our Heads (UK) and/or side two of December’s Children (US) LP with a seething rendition of She Said Yeah, sporting one of Keith Richard’s coolest guitar riffs ever, and paced at a balls to the wall tempo.
In the 1965 Larry Williams toured the U.K., bringing along Johnny Guitar Watson, where he cut two live LP’s– Larry Williams On Stage (Sonet), a live run through of his hits filled out with Little Richard and James Brown covers, and The Larry Williams Show featuring Johnny Guitar Watson with the Stormville Shakers (Decca) which was highlighted by a version of the Yardbirds’ For Your Love. From here he’d leave the old sound of rock’n’roll behnd for good.
Back in the States he signed to Columbia’s Okeh subsidiary, first re-cutting his old hits with modern, horn heavy arrangments, and producing a similar venture for Little Richard. Both are fairly dreadful. Larry Williams was not the type of guy to look back, and was constantly trying to keep up with the times. His most successful attempt at a comeback would come with his next LP, recorded in tandem with Johnny “Guitar” Watson– Two For The Price Of One (Okeh), a soul album in the style today called “Northern soul” (not because it was recorded in the Northern U.S. but because it gained popularity in Northern England at clubs like Manchester’s Twisted Wheel). Two For The Price Of One produced one minor hit, a version of Cannonball Adderly’s Mercy Mercy for which they added lyrics. Actually my favorite part of the record is the cover on which the two players, decked out in their finest sharksin pimp wear are seen surfin’ (or is that water skiing?) on their new Cadillac Eldorados.
They followed it up with a psychedelic soul single on which Williams and Watson were backed by the Frisco rock group Kaleidoscope (featuring a young David Lindley on electric sitar)– Nobody b/w Find Yourself Someone To Love, which went nowhere, but stands up today as an interesting piece of cross cultural confusion. They pre-dated Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul productions for Motown by a good year or so. Mercy Mercy would be Larry Williams final commercial success, and after the Okeh stint, Williams cut sides for Venture, MGM and Bell, all with Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They would part musical ways in the mid 70’s, after which Johnny Guitar Watson would finally strike gold in the late 70’s, re-igniting his career as a funk meister with A Real Mutha For You and Love Jones. By this time, Williams had once again returned to “the life”, not only pimping but dealing coke. In her autobiography I, Tina, Tina Turner blames Williams for turning Ike Turner onto freebase, Andre Williams who spent a lot of time around Ike at his Bolic Sound studio around the time remembers Larry as Ike’s main connection in the early 70’s. Somehow I think Ike would have found his way to the drugs with or without Larry Williams, but pimping and dealing are how Larry Williams supported himself for most of his life. He would record one last album, in 1978 for Fantasy– That Larry Williams
appeared with little fanfare. It opened with a disco remake of Bonie Moronie, the rest of the songs all had the word funk in the title, the less said about this disc the better.
On January 7, 1980, Larry Williams was found in his Laurel Canyon home with his hands cuffed behind his back and a bullet in his head. The LAPD deemed it a suicide but most people who knew him thought he was murdered. Various theories on who might have killed Larry Williams have been floated over the years, suspects named include Watson (which is almost certainly not true) and the LAPD. The rumor that the words Space Guitar were carved into his chest however can me traced back to yours truly and my own sad attempt at humor when writing the liner notes for the CD re-issue of Two For The Price Of One. I made it up, thinking most fans would get the joke, unfortunately I’ve seen the story re-printed as evidence that Watson had something to do with Williams murder. Not everyone gets my jokes. Anyway, at this late date it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth about who pulled the trigger on Larry Williams.
From the mid-80’s through 2004 many outtakes from his glory days at Specialty have surfaced, and not all of them created artificially. The aforementioned Ace package– At His Finest, is an essential part of any record collection and contains a wealth of previously un-heard material including versions of Sugar Boy Crawford’s Jockamo (Iko Iko), Huey Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Little Richard’s Heebie Jeebies, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and among the originals left on the shelf are alternate takes and unnisued tunes like Baby’s Crazy, Bad Boy (take 5, take 6), Hocus Pocus, You Bug Me Baby, The Dummy, Slow Down, and Hey Now, Hey Now.
Larry Williams– pimp, rocker, fashion plate. He sure was something.
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