Billy Williams (December 28, 1910 – October 17, 1972) was an African-American singer.
Born Wilfred Williams in Waco, Texas, Williams became the lead singer of the Harmony Four. This singing quartet was formed by Howard Daniel at Wilberforce College in central Ohio during 1930. This group began with traditional gospel music but eventually became The Charioteers.
They soon made the jump to network radio with Bing Crosby and others. Bit parts in movies followed, as did records-first with Decca and Vocalion, and finally a long term deal with Columbia Records (on both the parent label and its affiliate Okeh). By the early and mid 1940s they specialized in pop and jazz standards with tenor lead by Billy and smooth harmonies by the rest of the group.
In 1947 they had their own top ten seller in everybody's big song of the year with "Open The Door Richard" and followed that with their cover of other artists songs of the time. One final chart hit for The Charioteers came in 1949; the version of the song "A Kiss And A Rose." By late 1949 after close to two decades as the front man for the group Billy Williams decided to call it quits with The Charioteers and form a new vocal quartet and give himself more of a say in matters musical and financial. The Charioteers lost their leader and also the long association with Columbia and were seldom heard from again.
The new foursome was the self named Billy Williams Quartet who landed a guest spot on the television weekly called "The Admiral Saturday Night Revue" for the NBC television network. In May of 1950 MGM Records signs the group to its label and soon has appearances at New York's Roxy Theatre and Blue Angel nightclub and they land a spot on the Henry Morgan radio show. In September the quartet is signed on as a regular feature of a revamped Saturday Night Revue show called "Your Show Of Shows" to star Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca for NBC.
They become one of the first Black performers to have a regular spot on a network variety show, and used a memorable opening with a dramatic line-up by the group as they led into their songs. Their television exposure helps the group as they spend the summer of 1951 doing an extended and well received stay in Los Angeles at the Tiffany Club. The quartet also has their first charted record during the summer with "Shanghai" on MGM records that is a top twenty seller. As they begin their second year on the NBC tv show, their cover of the Four Aces "Sin" hits the pop charts.
During the 50’s the group also made some notable recordings on the Mercury and Coral labels, but by 1957 the quartet was no more. Billy hung on trying to make it as a solo performer without much luck until he unearthed a tune written in 1936 called "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter", gave it a pop flavoured delivery spiced with a few Timmie Rogers derived "oh yeahs", and lo and behold, a pop smash was hatched. It was incomprehensible, but there it was-a number three nationally, and close to five months on the pop charts.
The record was huge, and it was at the right time for Billy to make history when he became the very first guest on the national telecast of American Bandstand. Summing up his life at that point, to Dick Clark's question of what was keeping him busy Williams answered slyly "oh yeah !" And so Billy Williams had done that very special characteristic of entertainers-the re-invention of oneself. He followed up his huge and unexpected success with similar attempts including "Got A date With An Angel" and "Nola." Both charted briefly, and once again Billy Williams was adrift in the world of pop music. He kept at it even though such releases as "Good Night Irene" and "Begin The Beguine" went nowhere. A duet with budding songstress Barbara McNair also disappeared. And soon so did Billy Williams who became a fifties memory throughout the sixties.
Sadly, Billy Williams faded into obscurity and in the early 1960s he lost his voice due to complications from diabetes. His final years were spent living in donated quarters in Chicago, where he did social work, contributing to a model cities project and helping alcoholics. This man whose vocal talents were featured for three decades unfortunately came to an inglorious end. In October of 1972 at the age of 61, he passed away.
The city authorities could not find anyone to claim the body or to provide for a decent burial. He deserved better. But luckily for us, we have the music. From the soaring tenor singing of The Charioteers, to the dramatic vocals of the Billy Williams Quartet, to the playful oldies of his solo days, Billy Williams was a true American original. Remember his music, and most of all, remember him.
(Info from various sources, but mainly edited from “The Charioteers, The Quartet, and Billy Williams” by J.C.Marion)
Here's a vintage clip from The Charioteers
Here's a vintage clip from The Charioteers