Unsung Figures No. 1: Paul Hucklebuck Williams

We contribute a little to give Paul Hucklebuck Williams the recognition he deserves!

As many of you will know by now we here at MVD have musical tastes which cover a broad range of both genres and eras. Last week we presented you with the first of our Musical Decades playlists covering the 50´s, and we like to think we covered a pretty eclectic array of music from that important era. The first record in that playlist was Rocket 88, which we included to show that rock and roll didn´t just magically spring up from nowhere the moment Bill Haley sang ´Rock Around The Clock´ or when Elvis seemed to beam down from another planet to become the music´s first superstar. No, the roots of rock and roll can be traced back to the blues, country and R&B and a number of important figures who laid the foundation for a music which would go on to dominate the cultural landscape in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. And it is one such figure, a relative unknown these days that we wish to celebrate in the first of an occasional series celebrating musicians who for whatever reasons never got the recognition they deserved.

What prompted this? Last week we were contacted by the Granddaughter of Paul ´Hucklebuck´ Williams who had been made aware of our celebration of the 50´s and wondered if we were aware of Williams´ music and his role as a musician who helped define a sound the world would come to love. Now I´ll be honest, we were only aware of his signature hit ´The Hucklebuck´ and Chubby Checker´s version at that, as well as an 80´s version by a band called Coast To Coast. When we started to listen back through his records we discovered some truly wonderful R&B/Jazz featuring a fantastic band and of course the blazing saxophone style of the man himself. This led us to the idea of writing about music´s hidden figures, people whose influence outstrips their popular standing and who we think you may like to know about. And with that, let´s take a look at the life and music of this overlooked figure…

paulwilliams

Williams was born on July 13th 1915 in Lewisberg, Tennessee but would eventually move with his family to Detroit at around age 13. A couple of years later Williams received a Christmas present from his mother which would define the whole course of his life – a saxophone. Private tuition followed, as did his first experiences as a working musician playing with his high school friend LLoyd Henderson in a Detroit club. Like many black musicians of the time he was playing for white audiences and was required to learn the popular hits of the day. It was only after WWII that he would find not only black audiences but the music that he loved to play, first as part of Clarence Dorsey´s band and then with the legendary King Porter. It was whilst he was with Porter that he gained his first experiences of the recording studio, cutting sides for the Paradise and Savoy labels.

35-30

It was during a session for Savoy that he cut a record called 35-30 which featured Williams prominently, and from this record the Paul Williams Band was born. It was in December 1948 that the record which would make him a star musician in his own right was recorded, again for Savoy. Taking an Andy Gibson tune known simply as ´D-natural Blues´ and infusing it with influences from a Charlie Parker record called ´Now´s The Time´ Williams and his band created the hit record of 1949. ´The Hucklebuck´, with it’s shuffle emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar and it’s honking powerful baritone sax solo became a dancefloor smash spawning a dance craze and innumerable covers in 1949 by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Kay Starr and Lionel Hampton amongst many others. However, it was the Williams version that record buyers really loved, with something like half a million copies snapped up making it the biggest selling R&B disc of 1949. From this point onwards his band went by the name of Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, and that record was an important part of the then nascent sound that would be defined properly a few years later.

The Hucklebuck

And it was a few years later – March 21st 1952 to be precise – that Williams and his band would be involved in another piece of rock n´roll history, when they appeared on the bill at the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland, Ohio, an event promoted by the Disc Jockey Alan Freed, the man often credited with coining the phrase “rock and roll” and being one of the first white DJ´s to bring R&B or so-called ´race´ records to white audiences. As it turned out Williams´ band was the only one to play that night. Reports suggest that some 20,000 tickets had been sold for an event in a hall that held half that number. The mixed race audience that had turned up to see the mixed race bill – something almost unheard of at the time – had filled the place to overflowing and after just one number the authorities were forced to shut it down. Despite this, the event would come to be seen as the first rock n´ roll concert, helping cement Freed´s reputation and further popularize the music. Some 40 years later, Williams would be invited back to play the anniversary celebrations of this historic event and would be honoured with a Resolution of Welcome from the City of Cleveland.

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Williams would have other hits including ´35 – 30´ and ´Bouncing With Benson´ but would leave Savoy records in 1952, with his band going on to become the backing group for many of the 50´s biggest R&B stars including Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner, with a line-up that featured his son Earl on drums. They would regularly feature in Show Time at the Apollo and below we´ve included a clip featuring them backing Brown in a raucous rendition of ´Teardrops In My Eyes´. In the 60´s Williams would go on to become the musical director for none other than James ´Soul Brother No.1´ Brown.

He would live to the age of 82, passing away on September 14th 2002. He left a legacy recognized by music historians but unfortunately largely obscured to most music lovers by the passage of time. We can´t recommend enough not only the tracks included here but all of the sides he and his band recorded which can be found here on Youtube, and also on Spotify. Lovers of music from this era will take great pleasure in discovering these records if you are not already familiar with them. They are full of raw energy and great musicianship and left us here at MVD enthusing over them with big smiles on our faces. Great music isn´t always remembered as it should be but that never stops it from being great music to those who take the time and effort to listen. We urge you to do just that.

With grateful thanks to Lisa Y. Williams. The official Paul Williams site can be found here.

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