16 October 1903
Lowndes County, Mississippi, United States
17 December 1982 (aged 79)
Big Joe Williams (Joseph Lee Williams, Crawford, Mississippi, October 16, 1903 – December 17, 1982) was an American Delta blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, notable for the distinctive sound of his nine-string guitar. Performing over four decades, he recorded such songs as "Baby Please Don't Go", "Crawlin' King Snake" and "Peach Orchard Mama" for a variety of record labels, including Bluebird, Delmark, Okeh, Prestige and Vocalion. Williams was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame on October 4, 1992.
Williams as a youth began wandering across the United States busking and playing stores, bars, alleys and work camps. In the early 1920s he worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930 for the Okeh label.
In 1934, he was in St. Louis, where he met record producer Lester Melrose who signed him to Bluebird Records in 1935. He stayed with Bluebird for ten years, recording such blues hits as "Baby, Please Don't Go" as Joe Williams' Washboard Blues Singers (1935) and "Crawlin' King Snake" (1941), both songs later covered by many other performers. He also recorded with other blues singers, including Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Nighthawk and Peetie Wheatstraw.
Williams remained a noted blues artist in the 1950s and 1960s, with his guitar style and vocals becoming popular with folk-blues fans. He recorded for the Trumpet, Delmark, Prestige and Vocalion labels, among others. He became a regular on the concert and coffeehouse circuits, touring Europe and Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s and performing at major U.S. music festivals.
He died December 17, 1982 in Macon, Mississippi. Williams was buried in a private cemetery outside Crawford near the Lowndes County line. His headstone was primarily paid for by friends and partially funded by a collection taken up among musicians at Clifford Antone's nightclub in Austin, Texas, organized by California music writer Dan Forte, and erected through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on October 9, 1994. Harmonica virtuoso and one time touring companion of Williams, Charlie Musselwhite, delivered the eulogy at the unveiling. Williams' headstone epitaph, composed by Forte, proclaims him "King of the 9 String Guitar."
Remaining funds raised for Williams' memorial were donated by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to the Delta Blues Museum in order to purchase the last nine-string guitar from Williams' sister Mary May. The guitar purchased by the Museum is actually a 12-string guitar that Williams used in his later days. The last nine-string (a 1950s Kay cutaway converted to Williams' nine-string specifications) is missing at this time. Williams' previous nine-string (converted from a 1944 Gibson L-7) is in the possession of Williams' road agent and fellow traveler, Blewett Thomas.
One of Williams' nine-string guitars can be found under the counter of the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, which is owned by Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records. Williams can be seen playing the nine-string guitar in American Folk-Blues Festival: The British Tours, 1963-1966, a 2007 DVD release.
Blues historian Barry Lee Pearson (Sounds Good to Me: The Bluesman's Story, Virginia Piedmont Blues) attempted to document the gritty intensity of the Williams persona in this description:
"When I saw him playing at Mike Bloomfield's "blues night" at the Fickle Pickle, Williams was playing an electric nine-string guitar through a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that. When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself. The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard".
Marc Miller described a 1965 performance in Greenwich Village:
"Sandwiched in between the two sets, perhaps as an afterthought, was the bluesman Big Joe Williams (not to be confused with the jazz and rhythm and blues singer Joe Williams who sang with Count Basie). He looked terrible. He had a big bulbous aneuristic protrusion bulging out of his forehead. He was equipped with a beat up old acoustic guitar which I think had nine strings and sundry homemade attachments and a wire hanger contraption around his neck fashioned to hold a kazoo while keeping his hands free to play the guitar. Needless to say, he was a big letdown after the folk rockers. My date and I exchanged pained looks in empathy for what was being done this Delta blues man who was ruefully out of place. After three or four songs the unseen announcer came on the p. a. system and said, "Lets have a big hand for Big Joe Williams, ladies and gentlemen; thank you, Big Joe". But Big Joe wasn't finished. He hadn't given up on the audience, and he ignored the announcer. He continued his set and after each song the announcer came over the p. a. and tried to politely but firmly get Big Joe off the stage. Big Joe was having none of it, and he continued his set with his nine-string acoustic and his kazoo. Long about the sixth or seventh song he got into his groove and started to wail with raggedy slide guitar riffs, powerful voice, as well as intense percussion on the guitar and its various accoutrements. By the end of the set he had that audience of jaded '60s rockers on their feet cheering and applauding vociferously. Our initial pity for him was replaced by wondrous respect. He knew he had it in him to move that audience, and he knew that thousands of watts and hundreds of decibels do not change one iota the basic power of a song".
Williams' guitar playing was in the Delta blues style, and yet was unique. He played driving rhythm and virtuosic lead lines simultaneously and sang over it all. He played with picks both on his thumb and index finger, plus his guitar was heavily modified. Williams added a rudimentary electric pick-up, whose wires coiled all over the top of his guitar. He also added three extra strings, creating unison pairs for the first, second and fourth strings. His guitar was usually tuned to Open G, like such: (D2 G2 D3D3 G3 B3B3 D4D4), with a capo placed on the second fret to set the tuning to the key of A. During the 1920s and 1930s, Williams had gradually added these extra strings in order to keep other guitar players from being able to play his guitar. In his later years, he would also occasionally use a 12-string guitar with all strings tuned in unison to Open G. Williams sometimes tuned a six-string guitar to an interesting modification of Open G. In this modified tuning, the bass D string (D2) was replaced with a .08 gauge string and tuned to G4. The resulting tuning was (G4 G2 D3 G3 B3 D4), with the G4 string being used as a melody string. This tuning was used exclusively for slide playing.
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