Sweet soul music. Is there anything which brings more delight to the record collector than obscure soul records being reissued? Probably not. Even your most devoted genre-specific vinyl nerd is going to find something wonderful to appreciate in John Gary Williams’ self-titled solo outing.
Formerly of the Mad Lads (“Don’t Have to Shop Around”), Williams created a record in 1973 that came right at the end of Stax’s time as a label. Per John B. Smith’s contemporaneous album notes on the back cover, Williams was looking not to “the recreation of Otis Redding, but the reformation of the ‘Blues.’”
It’s an interesting assertion: the record was created with members of Isaac Hayes’ Movement backing band providing the instrumentation, and it shows through. This is a lush, almost orchestral recording, and anyone who’s listened to the likes of Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses, or …To Be Continued will definitely recognize the arranging styles. There are horns and strings all over each song, lending John Gary Williams a silky sweet texture over which float the singer’s yearning vocals. So, how does crazy smooth ‘70s soul reform the blues?
Going back to Smith’s album notes, it should be apparent, because Williams is looking to combine the insight of W.C. Handy with the eloquence of Nat “King” Cole and the “melodic sensationalism” of Sam Cooke “into an integrated whole.” When you listen to this album over and over again (as you will), there’s a certain sadness to the whole affair. It’s majority love songs, with a full three featuring some variation of “love” in the title, but there’s an equal number of songs of lost love like “Honey,” “Ask the Lonely,” and “How Could I Let You Get Away.”
That combines the three artists into a whole, here and there, but it’s album-closer “The Whole Damn World is Going Crazy” which journalist John Hubbell aptly refers to as Williams’ landmark song, describing it as “a theme song for the End of Days.” It’s the inverse of Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Whereas that song’s closing lines have hope, with Cooke singing, “There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/ But now I think I’m able to carry on,” Williams sings of “Lovers without anyone to love/ Because hate is taking over” and references “a man in the Holy Land/ With a gun in his hand,” crying out that “love should be in demand.” He ends by hoping that “people make a liar out of me” and “save humanity,” but until then, he believes “the whole damn world is going crazy.”
40 years and more on from its release, Williams’ song is far too relevant, but if he can manage even that smidgen of hope — even after an LP’s worth of lost love and longing— the song should be taken not as a pair of hands thrown up in defeat, but as a challenge to prove the singer wrong and make things better.
As stated before, this is a lushly-orchestrated and silky-smooth ‘70s soul production, and it comes out of the speakers like it’s been soaked in honey. John Gary Williams is perfectly-balanced between the vocals and instrumentation, although one wishes the bass were just a hair less muddy in the mix. The strings and horns are exquisite, but when you give this a closer listen with headphones, the rhythm section sounds like it got a little less attention. It’s the only flaw in an otherwise superlative recording.
The album comes in a heavyweight tip-on jacket, with a printed inner sleeve featuring the essay by journalist Hubbell. It’s on 180-gram vinyl, and it seems that Concord Music/Craft Recordings once again spared no expense. These 60th anniversary releases are very reasonable priced for all the effort which went into reissuing them, and any fan of soul should gratefully fork over their dough to have them in their collection.
“John Gary Williams” is available on vinyl from Amazon.