One of the truest living embodiments of why Memphis soul music is Memphis soul music will take the stage at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park on Saturday (Sept. 28) night.
The evening's concert has the elements that are present when the full power and reason of music spring to life. Consider the featured performers: the Bo Keys, Percy Wiggins, and the supporting ensemble Opus 1 (comprised Memphis Symphony Orchestra members), and a rejuvenated version of the Mad Lads.
The frontman for the new-look Mad Lads will be original lead singer John Gary Williams. And in that name lies a history we all share.
Others may have been more gifted technically or more successful financially, but few, if any, local artists command the respect given to John Gary Williams when his name is mentioned. Now 67 and an icon of the '60s era, Williams will be deservedly celebrated in a manner he's truly earned this weekend.
"All this really started about six years ago," Williams told The New Tri-State Defender in an interview this week. "Scott Bomar (of the Bo Keys) liked a song Carl Smith (who wrote Fontella Bass's big hit "Rescue Me,") and I wrote called "The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy." That got me to into playing with the Bo Keys and Scott introduced me to John Hubbell.
"Hubbell said he wanted to write a book about me, and he did. It's called 'I See Hope' and he's turned the book into a documentary with the same title."
John Gary, said Hubbell, is a great person who deserves a chance to tell his story and set the record straight.
"He's a kind man, and a man of principle. His journey through STAX, Vietnam, the Black Power Movement and more make him a historically and culturally significant figure. He's also been a bit misread," said Hubbell. "My goal is to give him a platform to clear things up and regain a bit of what he lost. He has a refreshing, unique viewpoint that will resonate well with audiences around the world."
'I'll never forget that day'
Williams's short-but-shining music career is a key thread in the history of one of the most fabled groups on Stax Records, the Mad Lads. The Mad Lads recorded on the Volt subsidiary label and, in addition to Williams, featured Julius E. Green, William Brown and Robert Phillips.
Brown and Williams were drafted into the Vietnam War, disrupting the Mad Lads' career path after one of it songs reached no. 11 on Billboard. For years, the two were practically inseparable. Now Brown is in permanent hospice care valiantly dealing with cancer.
"But his spirit is going to be there," Williams said of the Levitt Shell concert. "He is my dearest friend and he's always going to be with me."
Wiser and scarred after Vietnam, Williams joined a different kind of group. While the Mad Lads was a singing group that practiced making smooth harmonic changes, The Invaders was a civil rights group intent on creating changes to create better social harmony. The southern-bred version of the Black Panthers, The Invaders are as attached to Memphis's civic history as the Mad Lads are to its musical imprint.
And right at the center of it all was John Gary Williams.
The public life of John Gary Williams began to unfold with the release of the Mad Lads' signature ballad, "Don't Have To Shop Around." Flipping Smokey Robinson's up-tempo "Shop Around," the Memphis song was an instant classic. The producers at Stax recognized what they had and soon followed with the signature balled, "I Want Someone."
Reedy, but not weak, and more like a sustained high note on a distant violin or upper reaches of a guitar, Williams' voice pierced the radio waves and homes. With a heartbreaking male tenor no one had accomplished so widely since Smokey Robinson, he solidified the Mad Lads' sound.
With the two releases, the Mad Lads had an ample foundation to build a stage show on and seemed on its way up the stardom trail when the course changed unalterably. It was 1966 and they were performing at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia.
"Oh, I'll never forget that day," said Williams. "Actually, it was the second time that we had been mailed our notices, but all of our mail went to the booking agency. So we didn't find out until William's mother called us on the phone backstage to tell us he and I had been drafted.
"We had our basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., more in Louisiana, then to Fort Dix for advanced infantry training and from there to Vietnam."
He and Brown were in the active war for a year.
"Yeah, it changed me and definitely drove my involvement with the Invaders," said Williams. "You're over there fighting a people you don't even know. And they seemed to be a real easy-going people. And then you come home and you're still a nigger..."
He joined The Invaders to change that.
'...what had to be done'
As he did with his harmonizing partners in the Mad Lads, Williams found kindred spirits in The Invaders.
"They were guys I had grown up with and knew all of my lives," said Williams. "The ones that influenced my joining were John Burrell Smith, Charles Cabbage, Boree McKenzie and later, John Ferguson had a great affect on me.
"It took people a long time to realize we weren't thugs and had a real agenda on helping the community."
The thug-ethic that seems so pervasive today deeply bothers Williams, has raised seven children with his wife, Trennie. He associates that dysfunctional ethic with young people not having positive male influences such as the Invaders and a lack of personal commitment.
"I've been a cab driver in Los Angeles, put cable in the ground in Florida, worked at a meat packing house in Iowa, you name it. When I was a youngster I had a Jet magazine route, shined shoes up and down Florida Street and a newspaper route," said Williams.
"I did what had to be done to feed my family and kept the music alive in my heart."
When he walks onto the Levitt Shell stage on Saturday, Williams' appearance will signal that he still has the knack for being a sharp dresser. And to hear him tell it, he can still dance, too.
"Trennie laughs at me, but she's jealous because she knows I should be on 'Dancing With The Stars," he laughs.
"And I'm not going to be having my butt hanging out either."
Saturday's concert is just one element in Williams' reemergence. Pending is the release of a solo album that was shelved after it was recorded at Stax years ago. Williams says retro label Light In The Attic records is finalizing release plans now.