By Lee Eric Smith, The New Tri-State Defender
In an alternate reality, one where John Gary Williams wasn’t called up to go to Vietnam, he might have become a soul music icon, a household name mentioned alongside Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Otis Redding.
But as news spread of Williams’ death at his Memphis home at the age of 73, friends and loved ones spoke of how he persevered through trials and tribulations – with a song forever in his heart.
“My mother called and said, ‘You’ve been drafted.’ Why couldn’t they draft a winehead or junkie?” Williams says in “A World Gone Mad: The Trials of John Gary Williams,” a forthcoming documentary about his life.
‘Our passion was music’
TSD freelance photographer Tyrone P. Easley remembered Williams bursting out into song as they both rode the 31 Crosstown bus to Booker T. Washington High School. “He’d sit in the back and sing,” Easley said. “I always admired him.”
At BTW, Williams, Julius E. Green, William Brown and Robert Phillips were known as The Emeralds – perhaps no coincidence in that green is a school color.
“Our passion was music. That’s all we had,” Williams says in the film. “We were singing in the men’s room to get that echo. I said, ‘Man, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it big.”
By 1965, the group now known as The Mad Lads had scored their first hit with “Don’t Have to Shop Around.” And while they didn’t have chart-topping success, a string of solid R&B hits followed: “I Want Someone” and “Patch My Heart” among them. The Mad Lads toured with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and “every major artist that was out there. And we held our own, too,” Williams reflected.
Then, in late 1966, Uncle Sam came calling.
“Here was a young man singing love songs for Stax who was swooped of the stage of the Apollo Theater and put into the jungle with a rifle,” said documentary filmmaker John Hubbell. “Not exactly his style.”
In Vietnam, Williams served on a long-range reconnaissance patrol – witnessing and experiencing all the horrors of war up close. Like so many Vietnam vets, the war left deep mental and emotional scars that would haunt him for years.
“I just wanted to go to Vietnam and get it over with,” Williams said. “But a lot of the things I saw – the killings, the mistreatment of the Vietnam people – it was just too much for me, man.”
But it was a random encounter with a Vietnamese man that would shape Williams’ life after he returned.
“One day, a villager pointed at his skin and pointed at me, saying, ‘Same thing, you,’” Williams said. “I could see the similarities between the way that guy was treated and the way I was treated as a black man in America.”
“He came back from Vietnam very anti-violence,” Hubbell added. “John was more about justice than race. He didn’t advocate violence in any way.”
Williams’ older brother Richard noticed a change, too.
“My brother was always kind of deep and smart, but he was fun loving,” said Richard Williams, 74. “When he went to Vietnam, to me, he became more serious about life. I think that’s why he joined the Invaders. He wanted to change the conditions of our people here in Memphis and throughout the country.”
A Mad Lad, an Invader, a felon
After Vietnam, Williams rejoined the Mad Lads, who scored a few more modest hits. But he also had several friends who were involved with The Invaders, a black empowerment group. He became passionate about achieving justice for African Americans, wearing an odd pair of hats for a while – lead singer of the Mad Lads and Minister of Defense for the Invaders.
“John was drawn to that activism because he was representative of a group of African Americans who felt the pace of change wasn’t fast enough,” Hubbell said. “The ‘minister-driven’ civil rights movement wasn’t fast enough. He was one of the people saying, ‘Our people need swifter justice.’”
But misfortune wasn’t finished with Williams. In February 1969, he was implicated in the shooting of a Memphis police officer. In Hubbell’s footage, he tells the story of a cousin and another young man standing in the street with guns, saying they were planning on shooting some police.
“I didn’t shoot no police officer,” Williams said, speaking directly to Hubbell’s camera. “All the way up to the very last minute, I tried to discourage them. But they insisted. So, I said I’m leaving, man. I’m gone, I’m outta here. And before I could get back to where my car was parked, the shots rang out.
“From the moment I heard that sound, I knew that was the beginning of the end of my career – and me,” he concluded. “And when I got out of jail, things actually got worse.”
‘The Whole World Is Going Crazy’
By 1973, Williams had served his time in the shooting and was still looking to make music. His solo album, John Gary Williams, was critically acclaimed and thanks to Stax’s business problems, a commercial flop.
“It was an incredible solo album,” said Scott Bomar of The Bo-keys, who recorded with Williams later in his life. “I think it’s one of the greatest albums in the Stax library.”
Like other crooners of the day, Williams blended social commentary with a hopeful, upbeat track on his song, “The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy:”
It takes my breath away/To see people live from day to day
Without respect for each other, without love for their brothers
Stax folded in 1975.
“My label was dead, my career was dead, and my life just spun out of control,” Williams reflected. “By all indications, I should be dead, in prison, a junkie or the insane asylum or someplace. But I’m not.
“I still have something to contribute,” he said. “People who believe in me. People who remember who I am.”
It was in 2003, while Bomar was working on The Bo-Keys debut album The Royal Sessions, that he met Williams. A lot of other Stax alumni too.
“When word got out that we were making that record at Royal Studios, all kinds of people dropped by,” Bomar said. “It was like a reunion. John Gary was right there in the middle.”
Before long, Bomar had invited Williams to perform featured vocals in various live sets. “To sing again is to feel again,” Williams said. “And I’m also a survivor – trying to get back to being me.”
Along the way, Bomar’s admiration grew.
“He became like a father figure to me,” Bomar said. He was very supportive of the music I was doing. It meant a lot coming from him. I considered him a wise person and it meant a lot to have his blessing and approval for what I was doing with our music.”
And despite earning a reputation for sage wisdom and generosity, Williams still wrestled with his personal demons – sometimes with Hubbell’s camera rolling.
“For him, it was about becoming a better person,” Hubbell said. “He realized there was more to life than being a singer. We talked about some of the deepest darkest stuff of his life. He believed he could be a better person.”
Music fades out
Richard Williams remembered a bid whist party that he, his wife and John Gary attended. “He and my wife ran everyone off the card table,” Richard recalled. “We had good times about three or four weeks ago.”
But as John Gary Williams’ health deteriorated over the past several weeks, he lost his voice – and gradually, his will to live, said Richard Williams, his brother.
“His smile was gone. His drive to stay alive was gone. I could see it in his eyes,” Richard Williams said. “(John Gary) was quick-witted and jovial. But after they announced he would be on hospice . . . He tried to fight it, but as time went on, I could see he was tired.
“He told me he had made peace with his God,” Richard said. “I think he was ready to go.”
But his work will live on. Hubbell’s documentary, which includes new music from Williams, is expected to be released in 2020. And Bomar will have recordings that the two made when Williams would stop by Bomar’s Electraphonic Studios.
“It’s going to be something I can listen to, to take me back to when he was still here and we were in the creative process together,” Bomar said. “When you’re in studio, the outside world is closed off, there’s no concept of time. That’s the beauty of a recording and that’s what will be nice about having that moment with him.
“And I know he enjoyed doing it and making those recordings,” Bomar added. “Experiencing that creative joy with him . . . that means a lot.”
Williams is survived by his wife, Trenni Williams; five daughters; two sons; two brothers; 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.