Viola Wills (December 30, 1939—May 6, 2009) was an American pop singer, best known for the 1979 UK Singles Chart #8 and U.S. Hot Dance Club Play #52 hit, "Gonna Get Along Without You Now". This wa also the track that cast her as a stereotype. Thenceforth she became the "disco diva", with an enthusiastic gay following, but the term belied her musical range, which encompassed soul, jazz and gospel.
Although uncertainty surrounds the date of her birth. She was born Viola Mae Wilkerson in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but despite the unpromising surroundings she showed potential as a budding classical musician. Victory in a singing competition, sponsored by the Federation of Baptist Churches, when she was eight led to her securing a scholarship to the LA Conservatory of Music, where she majored in piano.
But she found it difficult to devote herself to her classical studies. She married in her teens and found herself struggling to bring up six children when she was barely into her 20s. She was in dire financial circumstances, and decided to resurrect her singing skills and try to make a living in soul and R&B music.
Opportunity knocked when she was given a chance to work as a session vocalist with Barry White. Not yet the gravel-voiced soul superstar he would become, White was working as a producer for Bob Keane's Bronco/Mustang labels. In 1965 White signed Wills to Bronco as a solo artist and she recorded a number of tracks, including Lost Without the Love of My Guy, I Got Love and You're Out of My Mind. While the first of these enjoyed some local success around LA, Wills did not achieve any significant chart success.
Meanwhile, White moved on to greater things with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, leaving Wills to flog herself around LA in pursuit of the elusive break. She recorded You've Got My Blessings and The First Time for the A Bem Soul label, which again misfired commercially. Her luck began to change when she met James Gadson of Watts 103rd Street Band, who believed she had songwriting talent and offered her some tips. She went on to write You Got the Will and Sweetback with Gadson, which earned her an appearance on the television show Soul Train.
In 1974, at the urging of Gloria Jones (of Tainted Love fame), Wills was hired as a backing singer by Joe Cocker for a European tour, joining a quartet of singers known as the Sanctified Sisters. She made enough of an impression to be given her own solo spot in the show, singing the Chips Moman/Dan Penn classic Do Right Woman. While in the UK, she signed a deal with the Goodear label and recorded the solo album Soft Centres. Released in 1974, it was another chart flop.
Wills remained in Europe and put together a band which included her teenaged children, dubbing it Viola Wills and the Iveys. After a debut at Ronnie Scott's in London, they toured Europe and south America and opened shows for Smokey Robinson and George Benson. She also toured on her own with the jazz-fusionists the Crusaders.
She then went back to the US, where her dance version of the jazz standard Stormy Weather became a clubland hit. She returned to the singles charts with Dare to Dream in 1986, but having undertaken a gruelling bout of international touring, she found herself (according to her official website) "bankrupted, cold and husband-less". She took time out to gain a degree in music therapy, and settled in England.
She lived in Brighton for a time, where she performed regularly with her so-called "Jazzspel" band ("a little bit of jazz and a little bit of gospel"). In 2006 she returned to the US, where she made her final recording, What Now My Love?
Wills died of cancer on May 6, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Her funeral was held at the Macedonia Abbey Baptist Church in Los Angeles on May 15, 2009. (Info mainly Adam Sweeting, The Guardian)