Big Joe Williams Biography

Joe Lee Williams, 16 October 1903, Crawford, Mississippi, USA, d. 17 December 1982, Macon, Mississippi, USA. Big Joe Williams was one of the most important blues singers to have recorded and also one whose life conforms almost exactly to the stereotyped pattern of how a ‘country’ blues singer should live. He was of partial Red Indian stock, his father being ‘Red Bone’ Williams, a part-Cherokee. ‘Big Joe’ took his musical influences from his mother’s family, the Logans. He made the obligatory ‘cigar box’ instruments as a child and took to the road when his stepfather threw him out around 1918. He later immortalized this antagonist in a song that he was still performing at the end of his long career. Williams’ life was one of constant movement as he worked his way around the lumber camps, turpentine farms and juke joints of the south, playing with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1929. Around 1930 he married and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, but still took long sweeps through the country as the rambling habit never left him. This rural audience supported him through the worst of the Depression when he appeared under the name ‘Poor Joe’. His known recordings began in 1935 when he laid down six tracks for Bluebird Records in Chicago.

From then on he recorded at every opportunity, including his durable blues classic ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. He stayed with Bluebird until 1945 before moving to Columbia Records. He formed a loose partnership on many sessions with John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson that has been likened to that of Muddy Waters and Little Walter. In 1952, he worked for Trumpet in Jackson, Mississippi, then went back to Chicago for a session with Vee Jay Records. Other recordings made for smaller companies are still being discovered. During 1951/2, he also made recordings of other singers at his St. Louis base. Williams found a wider audience when blues came into vogue with young whites in the 60s. He continued to record and tour, adding Europe and Japan to his itinerary. He still used cheap, expendable guitars fixed up by himself with an electrical pick-up and usually festooned with extra machine heads to accommodate nine strings. With his gruff, shouting voice and ringing guitar - not to mention his sometimes uncertain temper - he became a great favourite on the club and concert circuit. He had come full circle and was living in a caravan in Crawford, Mississippi, when he died. The sheer volume of easily accessible albums recorded during his last years tended to obscure just how big a blues talent Williams really was.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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