Columbus lost a treasure and true legend of the music community when Jeanette Williams passed away in March. One of a small handful of go-to jazz vocalists in town, Williams had a long and storied career. And yet, as is so often the case with artists, and jazz musicians especially, she did not receive the accolades she deserved. Her name and music certainly deserve to be carried on.
Terry Records – 45-114
Not only has Williams not received the credit she deserves, but any credit given is also often mistakenly directed towards Jeanette Wright Williams of Miami Florida, primarily known for her group Fire and for singing with KC & The Sunshine Band. To confuse the issue even more, Terry Records owner Tommy Wills' publishing company is called Club Miami - a reference to a Hamilton Ohio nightclub rather than the Florida city. I was confused as well, until I dug in a bit on the history of the two singers. Fortunately, I’ve at least been able to get the Discogs credits somewhat sorted out.
Born in Columbus and a graduate of East High School, Williams sang her whole life and began her professional career in the early ‘60s at age 14. William "Bubbles" Holloway ran the 502 Club at the time, and he hired Jeanette as the opening act for Dionne Warwick when she was promoting her "Don’t Make Me Over" hit single. Bubbles became Williams' manager.
In 1963, Williams recorded a couple Wilbert Longmire songs for Middletown Ohio-based Terry Records. What an amazing record! Bubbles Holloway was also Hank Marr’s manager at this time. An educated guess would be that the lineup on the Terry single was similar, if not identical, to Marr’s Live at Club 502 - Marr on organ, Longmire on guitar, Rusty Bryant on sax and Taylor Orr on drums. Not a bad backing band for your first recording!
And it’s quite a debut. "To You" is a soulful jazzy ballad with impeccably tasteful organ, sax and brushwork accompanying. On the flip side is the more upbeat and rockin’ "I Can’t Wait," which sounds like it coulda been a hit. Williams’ strong and soulful voice permeates both sides. This rare single has become quite collectible, currently selling for between $150 and $300 on Discogs. British artist Janet Kumah recorded a ska arrangement of "I Can’t Wait" on her 2018 release Yellow Flower. Williams' original was reissued on the Cool Cat Club compilation out of Germany in 2020.
Williams toured Europe in 1964 with Hank Marr’s band. After returning from the tour, she went to Detroit and recorded a series of singles for the Houston-based Back Beat Records. The eccentric and influential Detroit-based performer and songwriter Andre Williams (no relation) served as producer. The first Back Beat single came in 1965 and included an Ashford & Simpson tune called "A Friend Of Mine" backed with "You Didn’t Know Then." Gladys Knight would later record "A Friend Of Mine" on her 1981 album Touch.
Stylistically, Williams' singles became part of what’s known as the northern soul genre, which was and continues to be hugely influential in the UK. She hit the charts with her 1969 single "Stuff," which peaked at #39 on Billboard’s R&B chart for the week ending May 10, 1969. "Stuff" was released in Britain on the Action label. Willimas shared writing credit with Deadric Malone (a.k.a. label head Don Robey). Robey was a notorious old-school music industry figure who’d had his biggest success with Big Mama Thornton’s "Hound Dog" on his Peacock label. When Williams’ follow up - you guessed it - a cover of "Hound Dog," failed to chart, however, Williams returned to Columbus when her mother passed away in 1971.
Although "Hound Dog" would be the last recording released under her name, Williams never stopped performing. She joined a touring cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. But ultimately jazz would be her calling and she settled into a long music career in Columbus while also raising three kids. She primarily sang as an accompanist with the likes of Vince Andrews, Hank Marr, Bobby Floyd, etc. She also performed with groups including one of Columbus’ finest fusion bands, Seeds Of Fulfillment. Their self-titled album from 1981 is outstanding and was reissued by German label Tramp Records in 2019.
“Jeanette Williams steps up to the mic on “Look Beyond Appearances” (Tibby Porter on gorgeous backings) and belts out a soulful vehicle that’s all about her and her unarguable powers,” wrote Ian Ward for ukvibe.org. I’ll be highlighting the entire Seeds Of Fulfillment album, which is right up my alley musically, in this space at some point.
Williams “came out of the womb” singing, and she never stopped - singing with virtually every Columbus jazz band and musician you can think of. Her final performance was July 21, 2019 at the Jazz & Rib Fest with Tom Carroll’s Women in Jazz featuring herself and vocalists Mary McClendon and Tia Harris. Her songs have appeared on no less than 20 compilations, mostly out of Europe, where her reputation and influence have continued to grow. Her legacy carries on.