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IN MEMORIAM: John Gary Williams maintained music in his heart, despite tragedy, trials

NNPA NEWSWIRE — …but his work will live on. Filmmaker John Hubbell’s documentary, which includes new music from John Gary Williams, is expected to be released in 2020. And Scott Bomar will have recordings that the two made when Williams would stop by Bomar’s Electraphonic Studios.

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By Lee Eric Smith, The New Tri-State Defender
lesmith@tsdmemphis.com

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.

“Why me?”

‘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.”

The comeback

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.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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