Career highlights include work with Count Basie, Grammy for solo album
One of a handful of great male jazz vocalists, Joe Williams collapsed and died on a Las Vegas street after walking away from a hospital Monday. He was 80.
Williams, considered the last of the big band singers for his work with Count Basie, apparently died of natural causes, Clark County coroner Ron Flud said. He had walked several miles Monday and was a few blocks from home.
His wife, Jillean, said he had been admitted to Sunrise Hospital a week ago for a respiratory ailment. The hospital reported Williams missing several hours before his body was found.
Born Dec. 12, 1918 in Cordele, Ga., Williams began his career in the late 1930s singing with Jimmy Noone. His first break came in 1943, when Williams worked as a security guard at a theater and wound up meeting jazz stars such as Duke Ellington. From there, Williams joined Lionel Hampton’s band, which had its own powerhouse blues singer, Dinah Washington.
A 1946-47 tour with Andy Kirk’s Mighty Clouds of Joy, which followed his work with Coleman Hawkins and Hampton, led to his first recordings.
He scored a minor hit in 1951 with “Everyday I Have the Blues,” a song that would eventually become his signature tune. Basie, who had hired him in 1950, brought the smooth baritone back into the band in 1954 for a seven-year run. Since then, Williams has been repeatedly chosen top male jazz singer in readers’ and critics’ polls for Downbeat and other magazines.
Basie, who had been working with smaller groups prior to rehiring Williams, saw a revitalization of his big band throughout the late ’50s, creating the definitive Basie-Williams disc “Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings” in 1955.
After a stint with Harry “Sweets” Edison in 1961 and ’62, Williams toured and recorded on his own, receiving a Grammy award in 1984 for his album “Nothin’ But the Blues.”
On television, Williams played Bill Cosby’s father-in-law, Grandpa Al, on “The Cosby Show”‘ in the 1980s. He and Cosby were longtime friends.
Williams was working about 40 weeks a year at the time of his death, singing on cruise ships, at festivals, in hotels and clubs. He was an avid golfer.
Besides his wife, Williams is survived by his son, Joe; and his daughter, Anne.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)