On October 19, 1938, John Williams was born to Mary Palmer, who was 16 years old and from Port Allen, just outside Baton Rouge. Mary was forced to give him away at 5 days old to Adelle Gatlin Williams, a New Orleans Gospel singer.
Adelle and Lucius Williams adopted him and raised him in an uptown area in New Orleans on Terpsichore Street. Lucius was a laborer. John's mother Adelle influenced him musically because she sang and played guitar and piano. It was told to me that she once played piano for Mahalia Jackson. My father's mother was very religious and only sang gospel music, sometimes on street corners in the French Quarter. She never recorded, just travelled everywhere to spread the gospel.
In 1969, she appeared uncredited in the movie Easy Rider for a few seconds singing "When The Saints Go Marching In" in the Mardi Gras scene. I don't think she knew that she had been recorded by the film people... [although Adelle only appears on camera for four seconds, her entire performance of 'Saints' is used as the soundtrack for that fabled footage from Mardi Gras 1968, and so we've included it here. -Ed.] She didn't have a stage name but was known as Della.
I think my grandmother influenced John the most because my mother, Mary Marks, said that my grandmother told my father, "You are meant to sing", and she didn't want him to have a regular job - she didn't want him to do anything but just that. By the age of 18 he was performing. When he was very young he was hit by a car and that left a scar on his face and that's how he got the name 'Scarface'. He was called 'Tick Tock John' sometimes.
Huey 'Piano' Smith recruited my dad and Sidney Rayfield (1) in 1957 to sing with him in the Clowns vocal group for the Ace Records recording session in Jackson, Miss. that produced the original Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu.
I met Huey a few years ago to sit down and talk with him about the time my dad was part of the Clowns. He told me how my dad became the primary voice on 'Rockin' Pneumonia': While they were singing he liked the way my dad sounded and told him, "Get closer to the microphone, John, I'm trying to get a hit out of this!"
My dad was the lead singer on other songs for Huey, including
Genevieve, Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas And The Sinus Blues, Beatnik Blues and Quit My Job (2). He sang with Bobby Marchan on Don't You Just Know It, Gerri Hall on Would You Believe It (I Have A Cold) and Pop-Eye [94-450] (3). As well, my dad was on Just A Lonely Clown, For Crying Out Loud, Scald-Dog [94-451] and Talk To Me Baby. Also I hear him in other songs, and whenever you hear someone in the background shouting "Well, all right!" that's my dad.
Other members of the Clowns included Eugene Harris, Roosevelt Wright (4) and, later, Pearl Edwards, Curley Moore and Benny Spellman. My father was also on the 'Twas The Night Before Christmas LP.
It was said that my father liked Ray Charles and the Coasters, and could sing and sound so much like Ray Charles that my mother said if you put them in separate rooms and have them sing you wouldn't be able tell who is who. You can hear the Coasters' sound in some of his records.
My mother said my dad left Huey because he wasn't getting paid. Once they received $25 and had to divide that between the group, so he was paid $5. But she doesn't know why the others left. My mother said that Bobby Marchan was road manager, but wanted to control everything. That could have been another reason for my dad leaving. Once my dad went on the road with Huey and had to ask for money to get back home. There were times he wasn't getting paid but others were doing well.
I think my dad left Huey and the Clowns in 1959 and then formed the Tick Tocks. The Tick Tocks were a very energetic group and they performed all sorts of acts on stage right before they would start singing (5).
My dad would rise up out of a coffin singing. He would also do an act where he would be slumped in a chair and then one of the guys would give him a shot with a needle and he would come out of his slumber and start singing.
They performed comedy night at the Dew Drop Inn, with the group dressed in drag; my mother gathered the dresses and provided shoes for them. My mother would take a regular pair of pants and shirts and add the ruffles and lines to make that tuxedo look, because there was no money sometimes to buy suits to perform.
Louisiana Weekly has a February 11, 1967 news story on the Tick Tocks headed 'Out of Sight' stating that "this is one of the fastest rising groups in the country... that has appeared on television and radio". The group is listed as John Williams, Arthur Booker, Eugene Harris and Sylvester Temple. I haven't found out yet how my dad started recording with Allen Toussaint for the two Sansu singles at this time (6).
My dad missed a big chance for himself when a record label from New York came to New Orleans to see them perform (7). My mom said that my dad later received the phone call that they had been waiting on from the record label; they told my dad that they just wanted him because of his singing and not the group. But my dad turned it down because he didn't want to leave the group.
My mom said that the group didn't fold as such. Things had slowed down for them because of bigger and more famous names like Ike and Tina Turner, who once appeared at the Dew Drop, Ray Charles and others. The members of group at the end were John Williams, Eugene Harris and Alvin Carter.
My dad went back to record with Huey in 1970 to do updated performances of Rockin' Pneumonia, High Blood Pressure, Don't You Just Know It and more for Cotillion, the Atlantic subsidiary (8).
Aaron Neville and my dad hung out together but never did any music together... they just hung out as friends. Also I was told that he was friends with Dr. John, Earl King, Danny White and pianist Ramsey Lewis in the music industry.
My father was also chief of the Mardi Gras Indians tribe, the Apache Hunters, that he originated out of the Vikings tribe that he helped start in the 1950s. There is little doubt that this background contributed to the 'Mardi Gras' sound in Huey Smith's records.
My father was killed on March 4, 1972, from a stab wound trying to stop a fight. The Times-Picayune obituary of March 12, 1972, indicated he "was slain in an incident at a Dryades Street tavern".
The murder inspired the song Brother John, written by Cyril Neville for the Wild Tchoupitoulas (9). Said Neville, in The Brothers Neville book with David Ritz, "There have been many songs about John. I hope mine expressed that weird mixture of violence and beauty that was part of our R&B street life".
Most of this information has come from my mother, Mary, who moved to New Orleans in 1954. My father's memory has lived on in his family. Now a little more will be known about him by New Orleans R&B fans everywhere.
- Deborah Williams, 2013
FACT FILE by John Broven:
1. Sidney Rayfield is listed erroneously as Sid Raphael in The Blues Discography 1943-1970 by Les Fancourt and Bob McGrath, following incorrect transcription in a Huey Smith interview by Mike Leadbitter and John Broven in a Blues Unlimited article, 1970.
2. Quit My Job was released incorrectly in name of Bobby Marchan.
3.The Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns Billboard top 100 hits were:
- Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (#52 in 1957 - #5 R&B)
- Don't You Just Know It (#9 in 1958 - #4 R&B)
- Don't You Know Yockomo (#56 in 1958)
- Pop-Eye [94-450] (#51 in 1962)
4. Listed erroneously as Billy Roosevelt in my book 'Walking to New Orleans' aka Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans.
5. According to author Jeff Hannusch, the Tick Tocks sang Midnighters and '5' Royales-type material, and were better respected locally for their dancing than their singing.
6. The recordings by the Tick Tocks, which are not at all well known by rock 'n' roll, R&B, doo-wop and soul fans alike, are as follows:
- Snoopin' And Accusin' / This Is The Life (Fire 1014, 1960) by Bobby Marchan and the Tick Tocks, formerly Huey Smith's Clowns, for Harlem's Bobby Robinson. Marchan does not appear to be present on the top side, but takes the lead on the flip.
- Stop [101-349] / True By You [101-350] as the Tic Tocs (sic) featuring Johnny Williams (Rush 1042, 1961), with Earl King on guitar. Rush was a tiny New Orleans label, possibly owned by Victor Augustine who had a curio shop on Dryades Street, according to Hannusch.
- Mary / I'm Gonna Get You Yet (Enjoy 1006, 1962; another Bobby Robinson label) by the Tick Tocks. 'Mary' was named for Deborah Williams' mother. These tracks appeared in Ace's Gumbo Stew series from the Harold Battiste led A.F.O. label (CDCHD 450, 462, 520), along with the originally unissued Is It Too Late and
- Somebody's Got To Go. Battiste confirmed the Tick Tocks were 'very energetic on stage'. At the time, the Tick Tocks comprised John Williams, Eugene Harris, Alvin Carter and future recording artist Walter Washington (see photo).
- A Little Tighter / Operation Heartache (Sansu 459, 1966)
- Blues, Tears And Sorrow / Do Me Like You Do Me (Sansu 472, 1967) - both by John Williams and the Tick Tocks and produced by Allen Toussaint. All four tracks are on the Sundazed double CD Get Low Down! The Soul of New Orleans '65-'67 (SC 11094). The backing track of Operation Heartache was used for the Lee Dorsey Amy release of the same title, on the flip of Holy Cow, with the Tick Tocks' background vocals retained.
7. The prospective New York label could have been Atlantic or Bell, both of which were taking an interest in New Orleans at the time.
8. The Cotillion/Atlantic recordings were reissued in 2012 on the Huey 'Piano' Smith CD, It Do Me Good: The Banashak & Sansu Sessions 1966-1978 (Charly 647 X).
9. Brother John, based on a traditional tune, was the lead track on the Wild Tchoupitoulas' Island LP in 1976.
- Special thanks to Deborah Williams, Mary Marks, Adelle Williams, Huey 'Piano' Smith, Harold Battiste, Big
Chief Howard Miller, Jeff Hannusch, Cyril Neville and John Wirt.
- Label scans courtesy John Broven, Red Kelly and 45cat. Trade ads courtesy Billboard.
- This article originally appeared in Now Dig This, Issue 367, in October 2013.