John Gary Williams today in Memphis.EXPAND
John Gary Williams today in Memphis.
Photo by Lance Murphey/Courtesy of Reckoning PR

A Lost Soul Star Re-emerges from the Stax

One of the most promising aspects of the recent unification of the entire Stax Records catalogue and massive reissue campaign is that – in addition to the endlessly anthologized Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and Booker T. and the MG’s music – Rhino/Concord are going deep into the vaults. That means that records which have not seen the light of day since their original releases in the ‘60s and ‘70s are getting remastered, repackaged, re-liner noted, and reappraised.

Early out of the gate is the lost 1973 effortJohn Gary Williams. It’s the one and only solo release by the former lead singer of the Mad Lads. And Williams is very jazzed. “I am ecstatic that it’s been released. I always wanted to see what feedback I would get as a solo artist, and now people can hear it again,” he says.

Barely passing the 30-minute mark, its eight tracks showcase Williams’ crisp, tenor voice on original songs in the romantic vein (“I’m So Glad Fools Can Fall in Love,” “How Could I Let You Get Away”) and covers (Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” the Four Tops’ “Ask the Lonely”). But most important are two tracks that stand apart for their sharp political/socially conscious lyrics, album opener “I See Hope” and closer “The Whole Damn World is Going Crazy.” And some of which Williams wrote about in 1973 is still true today.

Williams started on the pathway to political consciousness after he and a fellow Mad Lad were drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966. Williams served two years in the jungles of Vietnam before returning to the group and to a much-changed United States.

“It was no accident that I wanted both of those songs on the record,” he offers. “After I wrote ‘The Whole Damn World,’ I wanted to put something else on there that had hope. I didn’t want to leave things hanging and dismal. We had to have hope.”

He also says the album’s cover was designed to show some of this dichotomy – the purple tuxedo on the front show him in his “work clothes,” while the denim street attire (vest, no shirt) he sports on the back offers a glimpse into his “real life.” For a time, Williams was affiliated with a Black Panther-like group called The Invaders.

Asked if he knows what ever became of that tux on the cover, Williams lets out a laugh. “No man, I don’t have a clue!”

The Mad Lads were one of Stax’s earliest acts, and had mid-level hits with “Don’t Have to Shop Around” (1965), “I Want Someone” (1966), and a cover of Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (1969). But they never truly broke out, in part because as a smooth vocal group with hints of doo wop, they seemed like a throwback to another era. Their music was at odds with the southern fried soul ‘n grits that Stax was best known for unleashing on the would out of that studio at 926 E. McLemore Ave in Memphis. They also didn’t get perhaps the highest quality songs to work with.

“Stax was going through its own thing, it was funky and the blues, and they didn’t always know what to do with the Mad Lads as a group. We were more east coast and Philadelphia sounding, because that’s what I liked,” Williams says. “My heroes were people like Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, and Nat Cole.”

He adds that label publicist Deanie Parker gave them the name because the teenage group (Williams was the oldest at 18 when they signed to the label in 1964) was always acting goofy and playing practical jokes. Originally The Emeralds, they needed a new moniker anyway after it was discovered that another group already laid claim to the name.

Today, John Gary Williams still lives in Memphis and performs occasionally with a new lineup of The Mad Lads. He’s just released two new solo songs, “A Natural Kind of Thing” and “My Kind of Lady.” Both were written for the soundtrack of I See Hope, a documentary on his life that is currently in the editing stages. He is a frequent visitor to both the Stax Museum of American Soul and the Stax Music Academy.

“Man, I go there all the time, and it’s beautiful. Deanie was really responsible for the resurgence of all that. And the tour is wonderful. They have Isaac Hayes’ customized Cadillac and his Oscar in there!” (Hayes won the statute in 1972 for Best Original Song with “The Theme from Shaft”).

“It was a family, a beautiful family at Stax. And everybody was learning on the job together,” Williams sums up. “It was healthy competition, but we all helped each other.”

For more on John Gary Williams, visit www.johngarywilliams.com

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