Vocalist / guitarist / songwriter
Born Lewis Wayne Williams, 12 January 1934, Chillicothe, Texas
Until 1999, the year of his Bear Family release, very little was known about Lew Williams. His eight Imperial recordings from 1955-56 were rediscovered during the rockabilly revival of the 1970s and have been reissued at regular intervals since 1977 (first in the "Imperial Rockabillies" series). Kevin Coffey from Scotland tracked him down for the Bear Family CD and his liner notes, based on a long interview with Williams, serve as the basis of this piece. An expanded version of Coffey's notes was published as "The Lew Williams Story" (in two parts), in Now Dig This # 199 and 200 (October-November 1999).
Williams was born in a small village in Texas (Chillicothe), but grew up in Dallas, listening to country music. He started playing guitar in 1949 ; by that time he was also exposed to R&B music. Lew graduated from Adamson High School in 1951 and entered Midwestern University in Wichita Falls in 1952. He began to write songs, playing occasional semi-professional gigs and made some home recordings on a friend's wire recorder. In Dallas he liked to hang out at Jim Beck's Studio, helping out in any way possible, in the hope to get a chance to record one of his songs. Four demos were recorded in June 1953 and Jim Beck managed to place two sides with Doug Sewell's tiny Flair label in Abilene. "I've Been Doin' Some Slippin' Too"/"Please Don't Tell A Lie About Me" was released on Flair 1027 in March 1954. (Not to be confused with the West Coast Flair label.) These were pure country, but by the end of 1953 Lew was already dabbling with what soon be called 'Cat Music'. In his songwriting he used phrases from everyday teenage language ; in fact Williams has been called the 'Cab Calloway of rockabilly', for his command of 40s/50s jive vernacular. Not everybody understood this 'cat language', and some of his lyrics would shock or puzzle people. Lew himself has said that he saw his brand of cat music as a transition from hillbilly to rock n roll. Bill Millar has described Lew's music as "a jazzy synthesis of jump blues and hillbilly".
Further sessions for Jim Beck followed in October 1953, June 1954 and June 1955, but nothing was released. Lew Chudd of Imperial had shown interest in Williams for some time, offered him a publishing contract, but wouldn't sign him as a recording artist until July 1955. The first Imperial session resulted in four tracks. In the Imperial files. this session is listed as having taken place on February 6, 1956, but Lew knows for certain that it was in November 1955. First released was "Don't Mention My Name"/"I'll Play Your Game", which came out in Imperial's country (8300) series, followed by "Cat Talk"/"Gone Ape Man" (Imperial 5394, June 1956). This was already the third recording of "Cat Talk", two earlier, quite different versions going unreleased. Jim Beck died in May 1956 and Lew's next (and last) Imperial session took place in September 1956 in Hollywood, produced by Jimmie Haskell. Featuring stellar session men like Barney Kessel (guitar) and Ernie Freeman (piano), these were Williams's most commercial efforts. All four tracks were released : "Bop Bop Ba Doo Bop"/"Something I Said" in October 1956 (Imperial 5411) and then "Centipede"/"Abacadabra" in March 1957 (Imperial 5429). The latter did well in some markets, but on the whole Imperial must have been disappointed with the sales results, as Lew's contract was not renewed.
Meanwhile, Williams was very active on the educational front. As a senior at Midwestern University, he was Vice-President of the Senior Class, Secretary- Treasurer of the "Boot and Spur Club', a member of the Little Theater, an officer of the ROTC and a Student Council representative. When he had time, he toured with Sonny James, appeared on the Big 'D' Jamboree and promoted his Imperial 45s on local radio and TV shows. Heady stuff for a 21 year old!
In August 1957, Williams graduated from Midwestern University with a degree in speech and education. As a member of the Texas National Guard, he fulfilled six months of active duty in the US Army, returning to civilian status in May 1958. Thanks to Mac Wiseman he was signed to Dot Records and did a session with the Nashville A-Team in September 1958. "The Girl I Saw On Bandstand"/ "I Saw You Crying in the Show" was released on Dot's Hamilton subsidiary, credited to Vik Wayne. An appearance on American Bandstand looked like a strong possibility, but in the end Dick Clark judged that "The Girl I Saw On Bandstand" capitalized on the 'Bandstand' name and the deal fell through. Lew realized that being a performer was not going to pay the bills, so in January 1959 he stopped trying to make a living as a recording artist and concentrated his efforts on songwriting and managing talent. In 1964 he quit the music business altogether and became a marketing consultant and special events producer.
Williams hardly realized how popular he had become in Europe since the 1970s until Bear Family approached him in 1998 regarding a CD release of his 1950s recordings. At first he was reluctant, unable to understand how recordings that were not popular in the USA in the 1950s could be big in Europe four decades later. But in the end he gave in and the result was a 29-track CD, 17 tracks being previously unreleased. All songs were his own compositions and in only three cases a co-writer was involved. Not everything was worthy of release, but on the whole it's an attractive collection. Bear Family also released a 12- track vinyl album in 2000, called "Teenagers Talkin' On the Telephone". Williams was also persuaded to return to live performing, first as the headline act at Viva Las Vegas in April 2000, followed by successful concerts in England, at the Rockabilly Rave and Hemsby in 2001. He had to relearn the lyrics of his songs, as he hadn't performed them for some 40 years. Lew was amazed that the crowd seemed to know his songs better than he did and sang along with him. Since then he has made several more trips to Europe.
Official website : http://www.lewwilliams.com/index.html
Rockabilly Hall of Fame page :
CD : Cat Talk (Bear Family BCD 16347, 1999). 29 tracks from 1953-1958, his complete recordings. With 43-page booklet by Kevin Coffey.
Acknowledgements : Kevin Coffey, Sheree Homer, Bill Millar.
Dik, October 2014
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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