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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is an NEA Jazz Master

Singing a mixture of blues, ballads, popular songs, and jazz standards, Joe Williams was an elegant and sophisticated baritone known for his clear pronunciation and jazz styling. His name may not as well known to the general public as it should be, but Joe Williams is nevertheless counted among the masters of jazz and blues singing; he has, in fact, earned the title "Emperor of the Blues." His singing style, which he developed over a long and consistently successful career, contributed to the success of the Count Basie Orchestra and influenced the style of many younger singers.

Joseph Goreed was born in the small farming town of Cordele, Georgia, on December 12, 1918. His father vanished when Williams was very young, His mother, who was no older than 18 when she gave birth to her only child, provided a strong emotional bond until her death in 1968.

Soon after Williams was born, his mother moved them in with his grandparents, who had enough money to support an extended family. During this time, she was saving up for a move to Chicago, Illinois. Once she had made the move alone, she began saving the money that she earned so that her family could join her. By the time Williams was four, he and his grandmother and his aunt were on a train to Chicago, where they would live for many years.

What became most essential to Williams's life was the music scene that thrived in Chicago in the early 1920s. Years later, he recalled going to the Vendome Theatre with his mother to hear Louis Armstrong play his trumpet. Chicago also offered a host of radio stations that featured the then rebellious sound of jazz, exposing Williams to the styling of Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Joe Turner, and others. By his early teens, he had already taught himself to play piano and had formed a quartet, known as the Jubilee Boys that sang at church functions.

In his mid-teens, Williams began singing solo at formal events with local bands. The most that he ever took home was five dollars a night, but that was enough to convince his family that he could make a living at it. At the age of 16, Williams dropped out of school. After a family conference, the name "Williams" was chosen as a better last name for a singer, and he began marketing himself in earnest to Chicago clubs and bands. His first job was at a club called Kitty Davis's. Hired to clean the bathrooms, Williams was allowed to sing with the band in the evening and keep the tips, which would sometimes amount to 20 dollars a night.

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