Johnny Williams (May 15, 1906 - March 6,
2006) was an American Chicago-based blues guitar player and singer, who was
one of the first of the new generation of electric blues players to record
after World War II.
Early life and career
Williams was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, United States, to parents who
were both musicians. He was raised in Houston, Texas, and moved to Belzoni,
Mississippi to live with his uncle Anthony Williams after his mother died
around 1917. There he met local musicians such as the Chatmon brothers and
Charley Patton (with whom his uncle
played), and learned to play the guitar. After traveling North during the
1920s, he returned to Belzoni around 1930, where he occasionally played
locally. Moving to Chicago in 1938, he worked at first in the defense
industry and later for Oscar Meyer. By 1943 he was playing in clubs in the
evenings while working as a meat packer in the daytime, working with
Theodore 'Hound Dog' Taylor around 1944. In 1944 he lost the end of a finger
in a meat grinder and gave up playing the guitar for a year, until he saw
Blind Arvella Gray, who was
missing two fingers from his left hand, playing on Maxwell Street, and
learned to play the guitar without the missing finger. In the late 1940s
Williams was once more playing on Maxwell Street and in clubs, often working
with his cousin the mandolin player Johnny
Young or with harmonica player Snooky Pryor
and guitarists Floyd Jones and
Moody Jones, and with
Little Walter, and had joined the
Musicians' Union. Around this time, he acquired the nickname 'Uncle Johnny',
by which he was known among his blues associates for the rest of his life.
Williams's first recordings were made in 1947 with Johnny Young and resulted
in one of the two singles issued on the Ora-Nelle label. On one side of the
record Young sang 'Money Taking Woman' accompanied by Williams, while the
other side featured Williams singing 'Worried Man Blues'. In December 1948
Young and Williams were joined by Snooky Pryor to record a single for the
Williams continued to work in music into the 1950s, eventually joining Big
Boy Spires's Rocket Four, with whom he had his final recording session for
Chance Records in 1953. The session resulted in a single released under
Spires's name, but the two tracks on which Williams sang were unreleased
until the 1970s.
Later career and death
After 1953 Williams continued to work with
Hound Dog Taylor and others, but
stopped playing blues in 1959 after a religious conversion, and joined the
Baptist church, becoming an ordained minister in the early 1960s.
At 99 years old, Williams was interviewed for the documentary film, Cheat
You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, where he is featured extensively.
'Uncle Johnny gave us his last interview just a few months before he died',
says the film's director, Phil Ranstrom. 'He gives the most beautiful and
poetic definition of the blues I've ever heard and it brings tears to
people's eyes whenever they hear it. He is the real deal, the last of a
generation of wandering blues artist who did it because they really felt
Williams died in Chicago on March 6, 2006, at the age of 99.
Blues musicians John Lee Hooker and
Baby Boy Warren have also used the name Johnny Williams.