[Note: Prior to May, I had never heard of John Gary Williams, nor had I knowingly heard The Mad Lads. However, I have spent considerable time ‘catching up,’ purchasing all The Mad Lad tracks I could locate on iTunes and eMusic. So, yes again—a review that costs me money; there is something wrong with this model! Worthwhile exploration, though; glad I did it.]
John Gary Williams John Gary Williams Stax
One of the summer’s most eagerly received soul/R&B albums comes with a distinctively 70s vibe, for good reason.
If you’ve grooved to Charles Bradley, Leon Bridges, or the late Miss Sharon Jones, you owe yourself the opportunity to hear John Gary Williams eponymous album from 1973. Recently reissued as part of Stax Records 60th Anniversary, during its concise 32-minutes, this eight-song release pulls the listener back more than 40 years.
Williams was in his early thirties when his sole album was released on Stax, already a veteran of the music business not to mention life. Williams was lead singer of Memphis group The Mad Lads, high school friends signed to Stax subsidiary Volt, and who had limited chart success through the mid-60s. The Mad Lads never came near to the upper half of the US pop charts (1966’s “I Want Someone” hit #74, which had more success as a R&B hit, peaking at #10), but also had significant appearances on the R&B charts with “Don’t Have To Shop Around” (#11, 1965) and other songs, last hitting the chart with a shattering take of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in 1969. In the midst of the group’s existence, Williams left The Mad Lads to serve in the Vietnam War, and upon returning to the group found himself completing a jail sentence after being involved in a shooting (according to what I’ve read, Williams wasn’t the shooter, but took the blame.)
In 1973, largely producing the album himself, Williams released John Gary Williams. And the record sunk with little trace. While Stax hit #1 in 1973 with both The Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor, the label was floundering and gave Williams’ effort scant support. Forty-four years later, it again sees the light of day including on 180-gram vinyl, which (unfortunately) was not available for my review, which is based on provided download.
Listening to this album, one imagines Williams saw a different future for American society, one with more promise than has been delivered, one perhaps without gerrymandered Congressional districts, targeted voter suppression, and young black men shot while driving with their family. The story goes that Williams returned from service more politically aware, ready to give voice to his increased social consciousness.
The Mad Lads approached southern soul, as a vocal group, a bit differently than some. The Mad Lads’ earliest records had more in common with doo-wop and Frankie Lymon than they did boundary-pushing contemporaries such as The Temptations. Later songs reveal appreciably more sophistication, and this is where we join Williams in 1973.
Bookended by two songs of considerable significance, John Gary Williams is an incredible listen. Obviously a song of faith, with reference to sweet chariots, baptism, and the conflicts of the light and dark, “I See Hope“—”we’ll be able to walk down the streets in peace and harmony,” Williams sings, “and we’ll be able to experience equal opportunity”—calls for improvements in this life, not beyond it. The album’s coda, “The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy,” is as relevant today as when composed. A lush number of Williams’ observances of promise—
“It take my breath away, to see people live from day-to-day,
without respect for each other, without love for their brothers—
without a second of kindness, or a minute to be reminded,
that we all have a common cause, and together we could conquer all—”
—we are left instead, with what we now experience. These are two beautiful, uplifting songs, ones that hit the listener right upside the head intellectually while also encouraging one to dance about the room (or drive a little faster.)
Between these concrete indications that the world hasn’t progressed far since the 1970s are six songs that assuredly reflect the soundtrack of their day. Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” is given a gentle love loop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lou Rawls or Donny Hathaway lp. “Loving You (Just Ain’t Easy)” is absolutely perfect, a performance that should be heard on oldies radio as often as “Let’s Stay Together” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” With a bit of funk coming through, it is a poetic, visionary, and romantic expression of its time.
The album sways with lush strings, innovative guitar flourishes, and rhythms that keep the listener fully engaged. Slow jam shuffles, highlighted by Williams’ soaring falsetto, provide a complementary sample of R&B of the early 70s. And, that voice. Amazing–I could listen to it all day, and today I have. Effortless, and yet fully committed. Not necessarily groundbreaking, Williams’ interpretations of songs like “Open You Heart (And Let Love Go)” and “Ask the Lonely” reveal how unjust it is that this album isn’t remembered as a classic of its era.
Reissued previously in 2010, perhaps the third time around will be kinder to John Gary Williams. Extraordinary. Give this version of “Don’t Need to Shop Around,” from 1975, a view.