Born Lawrence Edward Williams, 10 May 1935, New Orleans, Louisiana
Rock 'n' roll / R&B vocalist, pianist, songwriter, producer.
Many rock n roll fans, including myself, find it difficult to discuss the music of Larry Williams without being distracted by the excesses in his personal life : a jail sentence for drugs possession, an arrest in 1973 for selling cocaine and heroin, over two decades of pimping and finally at the very beginning of the 1980s a .38 bullet fired into his head, either by his own hand or someone else's.
The birth date of May 10, 1935 has been disputed by Bumps Blackwell, Larry's first producer. "Larry was at least 26 years old and already in the sporting life (pimping) when I first worked with him in 1957." But the date was confirmed by the Social Security Death Index after his untimely demise.
At the age of ten, Larry Williams moved from his native New Orleans to Oakland, California, where he formed a group called The Lemon Drops. In 1953, whilst visiting family and friends in New Orleans, Williams befriended Lloyd Price (his second cousin), who recorded for Specialty Records and who hired him as his pianist, chauffeur and personal valet. But this arrangement was short-lived, as Price was drafted in early 1954. Larry stayed in New Orleans, worked with Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield and drove a limo for Fats Domino, but went back to Price after Lloyd's demob at the start of 1956. Price resumed recording for Specialty, but fell out with Art Rupe (the label's owner) later in 1956 and started his own label, KRC Records. Lloyd's first release on KRC was "Just Because", whose melody was derived from "Caro Nome" from Verdi's opera Rigoletto. Larry covered "Just Because" for Specialty on February 25, 1957, at the invitation of Bumps Blackwell, who knew Williams via Lloyd Price. Here is Lloyd Price's version of the story, as told to Bill Dahl : "Larry Williams lived at my house when he worked for me. He knew about 'Just Because'. So when he saw the record hitting around Baltimore and Washington, he had information. I never thought he'd try to double- cross me, because I had taken care of this guy. He asked me to loan him money so he could come out to L.A. to see his mother. Well, by him being my cousin, I understood that. Instead of him coming to California to see his mother, he went straight to Art Rupe's office and told Rupe he had written this song, 'Just Because'." (Bumps Blackwell's side of the story is rather different.)
Though Price's version of "Just Because" was the bigger hit (# 3 R&B, # 29 pop), Larry's note for note cover made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, peaking at # 11 in April 1957. But this was just an appetizer for things to come.
Between April 1957 and March 1959, Larry Williams recorded music that constitutes the very essence of rock n roll : exuberant, rhythmic, intense, crazy. His best recordings originated in Hollywood, with the famous trio of Rene Hall (guitar), Plas Johnson (tenor sax) and Earl Palmer (drums). Occasional excursions to Cosimo Recording Studio in New Orleans yielded less spectacular results, though still exciting. The second Specialty single was "Short Fat Fannie" (# 5 pop, # 1 R&B, # 21 UK), followed by the even better "Bony Moronie" (# 14 pop, # 4 R&B, # 11 UK), a true R&R classic if ever there was one. Both records were million sellers. Then came "Dizzy Miss Lizzy"/"Slow Down" (1958), which must rank as one of the greatest double-siders of all time, but the A-side stalled at # 69 pop and didn't chart on the R&B lists. Both sides were later covered by the Beatles, as was Larry's seventh single, the humourous "Bad Boy" (cut in August 1958, released in early 1959), which was coupled with "She Said Yeah", later the subject of a Rolling Stones cover.
As Stuart Colman puts it with mild understatement, "Towards the end of his tenure with Specialty, Larry Williams began devoting too much time to outside activities, rather than concentrating on his next career move." In 1959 Art Rupe dropped Williams from the label, after he was arrested on narcotic charges. But it wasn't until the summer of 1961 that he was finally sentenced to eighteen months in prison. (Very few people knew this at the time.) In the meantime he lived in Chicago and recorded for Chess (5 singles and an LP that nobody has ever seen). Soon after his release in 1963 he did one session for Mercury and was subsequently hired as a talent scout for the Columbia subsidiary OKeh.
In 1965 Williams teamed up with Johnny 'Guitar' Watson with whom he toured the UK. During this tour they recorded two LP's, a studio album for (British) Decca, "The Larry Williams Show", which included a good remake of "Slow Down" (also released as a single, which I bought at the time and still have) and a live LP ("Larry Williams On Stage") for Sue. Back in the USA, the duo scored minor hits with "Mercy Mercy, Mercy" (1967) and "Nobody" (1968), both on OKeh and both in the then popular soul style. Larry also produced Little Richard during his tenure with OKeh.>From 1969 to 1977, Williams was almost completely inactive on the music scene. His last two albums (1977-78) came out on Fantasy, the label that bought Specialty Records in 1991 and reissued his back catalog on CD.
Williams lived an opulent lifestyle, not entirely explained by the royalties garnered from the three Beatles covers. His main sources of income were prostitutes and hard drugs. He was into dealing both cocaine and heroin. One of his clients was Little Richard, who writes in his autobiography : "Larry Williams (...) came to my house with a gun to shoot me. I had got some cocaine from him, arranged to pay later, and didn't show up - because I was high. (...) He had been with me at Specialty Records. I brought him to fame. We were very good friends - but he came to shoot me! That was probably the most fearful moment in my life. That is what drugs do to you. He said, 'Richard, I'm gonna kill you. Ain't no one going to mess around with my money.' I knew he loved me - I hoped he did! But he had this pistol right there and he would have shot me if I hadn't paid him." It will probably not come as a surprise that Larry's death was a violent one. On January 2, 1980, he was found dead in his luxury house in Los Angeles, probably by his wife (Helen Jackson Williams), who was not living with him (she lived in La Pama, CA). Whether he was murdered or shot himself has always remained unclear. No suspects were ever arrested or charged.
The big question is what Williams might have achieved as an artist if he had not led a dual existence. His Specialty records remain among the most raucous rock 'n' roll performances ever engraved in wax grooves. "Short Fat Fannie", "Bony Moronie", "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Slow Down" have all gained classic status and have been recorded by countless other artists.
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Acknowledgements : Stuart Colman, David McKee, Eric LeBlanc.
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