The story that I am about to share with you is the story of Tess Williams. It isn’t the complete story but a condensed version for this cd packet. It is my attempt to try to introduce and outline the life of an amazing soulful singer and performer who should have been a huge star. This is not an easy task to but a heartfelt one. Tess Williams is my mom. We lost her this year to diabetes at the very young age of seventy-three.
The year was 1949. The war had been over for a couple of years and the country was trying to get back to a post-war normal. Army Private First Class James G. Williams (a “Yankee” from Southern Illinois, and a recent re-enlistee) had just been transferred from Camp Breckenridge, Ky. to Fort Campbell Ky.
A paratrooper, (6′ 5 1/2″ and skinny as a rail) He and his buddies headed into Nashville, Tn. to check out the bars & women. They walked into the “Paradise Club” in Bordeaux on the outskirts of Nashville on old Clarksville Hwy 41. On stage, in that smoke-filled club fronting a small combo was a captivating and engaging bluesy young white woman singing “Walkin Blues” and she was tearing it up! PFC Williams soon found out that her name was “Tess!” She was from East Nashville and performed at the “Paradise” on a regular basis. On that fateful night, my parents Jim & Tess Williams met. They’re lives would change from that night forward and would effect many more lives for many years to come.
Mary Odessa Knott was born dirt poor in Lincoln County Tn. Her father was of German descent and her mother was a local. After dating for two years, in 1951 Dad & Mom decided to get married. My sister Paula (the first born) arrived at Fort Campbell September, 11 1952. Soon after, my dad got orders to ship-out overseas. He was being sent to Linz, Austria. He had to go over with his unit ahead of wives & dependants. Somehow, my mom’s mother had talked mom into not going over seas. She had convinced her that it was too dangerous a place to take a child…
My dad was furious, and somehow had to convince his battalion commander to give him a leave to go and get her! Mom was pregnant with me at the time and I guess that the voyage on the ship over the Atlantic was pretty rough. Being born in a Army Mash Unit in Linz, Austria is a pretty unusual thing to explain to people, but over the years I have accepted it as the norm. We all returned to the states and were living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where my sister Teresa was born. Dad then got orders for his first M.A.A.G (Military Advisory Assistance Group) duty assignment. The destination was Iran. No wives or dependants were allowed on this assignment. Dad got us all settled in a little house in Marshall. Ill. (our grandmother Flossie lived in Marshall) We (my sisters & I) really considered Marshall our family’s home and we always hold memories of that place close.
Marshall didn’t hold well for mom, she was homesick and really felt out of place in this small “flat” farming town with cornfields everywhere. We all rode in a limo-cab to Terre Haute, Indiana (pulling away from the modest house the song “easier said than done” was on the radio in the cab) we boarded a train and went to Nashville to stay with her mom Flora Mae. Mom was pregnant with Cindy (the youngest) and she gave birth to her while dad was in Iran. When dad came back from this duty assignment, We all moved to Laredo, Tx. After about 8 months there, He got another M.A.AG assignment. This time to Africa! We were all going, In 1960 we moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. No television or radio but lots of good old fashioned shots, malaria tablets, boiling our drinking water and more!
What an adventure this turned-out to be. Mom was singing with a group of guys in Addis and also a group of guys (military) from Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea. Dad was now a Sergeant, and a real good golfer. He was the Club champion and had become the one of the officer’s of Haile Sellasie’s Imperial Golf Club! Not a bad gig for an enlisted man, playing golf with the general on a regular basis and getting into his pockets playing skins!
Mom performed quite a lot at the golf club, This place was the central social gathering spot for all the Americans living in Addis. One night during a performance at the club ( in between sets ) Bob Graham the trumpet player in mom’s band “Tess Williams and the High Notes” from Canada who had played with Billie Holiday, told my dad that mom had “impeccable meter” and dad replied “Hey, that���s my wife your talking about buddy!” Dad would later confess that he didn’t know what Bob had meant and that the “scotch” was doing the talking!
I remember being at band rehearsals at the golf club when I was in second grade. The guitar player was so cool !I remember that he stuck his cigarette between the strings up at the top of the neck while he was playing.
This time period also dates my earliest memory of bigotry. I remember on a couple of different occasions when my parents came home from evenings of socializing with people at the club or elsewhere where mom would have been singing, that she was crying. I later found out that mom had suffered persecution from white people chiding, chastising and demanding to know why she tried to sound “black” when she sang. She would reply that this was just how she sang. Remember, this was pre-civil rights movement time back in the States. It was also at this time that my first real musical influence (besides mom) would be playing on our hi-fi (with a voltage transformer attached) wearing the grooves out of that vinyl… Ray Charles sings the Modern Sounds of Country & Western! God! How I loved that record and still do.
Note: Mom and I shared a special love of real singers like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Tom Jones, Brenda Lee, Elvis etc
Dad & mom would travel occasionally to Kagnew Station where she would perform at the officer’s & Enlisted Men’s clubs. Dad later returned to Kagnew to stay in the hospital after nearly dying from hepatitis.
One day while our way home from the club in our 1951 grey Studebaker, mom, the girls and I came around a curve on the road when two different groups of olive drab uniformed military guys in foxholes manning 50 caliber tripod mounted machine guns opened fire! Tex Sallier, a friend of mom and dad’s had told my mom at the club that something was about to happen, so she was getting the hell of there. These idiots were firing at anything and everything! Mom pulled-off the road through a pair of metal security gates into a compound where a man named Migliachio an administrative Italian man lived with his family. We holed-up there for 2 days. Mom taking charge and barking commands at everyone. While we waited, this coup was being squashed by the troops loyal to Haille Sellase. Meanwhile ,bullets were coming through the wooden security window shutters scaring the hell out of the women & girls. We didn’t know where dad was or what was going on outside the gated compound.
We were finally rescued by dad when he showed-up in a V.W. bus. We later learned that dad was almost shot by machine gun fire in downtown Addis while driving a jeep (laying across the passenger seat watching the rounds ricochet off a wall overhead) down the street. He made it back to our villa, and to further his horror to find us gone! He and our sabania (Guard) holed-up in our home drinking scotch and listening while the tanks fired rounds overhead. Not being able to bear it any longer, Dad took-off to find us. After the coup was over, All of the henchmen (including Mengistu, the head of the Palace Body Guards )were hanged in the middle of Addis for all to see… Life got back to normal and we spent another couple of years in Ethiopia.
We returned to the States and moved to San Bernardino, California. Dad had been assigned to an Army Reserve unit there. We lived in San Bernardino for 8 months. While, living there Dad & Mom met with an agent and a club owner who encouraged and recommended that they continue to pursue her career singing & performing. They were convinced that she could & should be a big star.
This is where the fateful crossroads presented itself…
She would have to go on the road without her four kids. No way, she just couldn’t even entertain the notion. What a decision to make. It was at this time in 1964 that she gave-up on performing professionally. What a crying shame.
President Kennedy assassinated, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and mom giving-up on singing were a hell of a lot of important milestones to rationalize in my life during the fourth grade. We then moved to Washington State. Dad was transferred to Fort Lewis. During a Fourth of July cook-out in our back yard that summer of 1965, it snowed about 2 inches! We ate hamburgers and threw snowballs…
Soon, another M.A.A.G assignment came for Dad that summer, this time to North Africa. Bengazi, Libya was to be our new home. No television or radio but lots of shots (you know the rest) etc. We went back to Marshall first to spend 30 days with our grandmother Flossie. My sister Paula, her friend Karen Arbuckle and I went down to the local IGA grocery store to hear a band play in the parking lot. They were called “The Outcasts” and performed top 40 songs that were current on the radio.
Soon after we flew off to Libya. We settled in our new villa, started school and realized real quick that Libya was real hot! Mom got to sing at a few house parties and once at the British Army Mess to some records. A British friend of my parents was going back to England and stopped by the house one day to ask if I wanted his guitar. I had no notion of playing guitar at the time but gladly accepted. It was a red and white “Silvertone” double pick-up with single coils without the case. This particular model offered by Sears & Roebuck was the deluxe model with a built-in tube amp in the hard shell case. No books, chord charts or chord. I don’t really know how I figured it out but I rigged-up a din plug to Dad’s Grundig Stereo reel to reel tape recorder and used it as an amplifier It worked great! The BBC would send a reel to reel tape copy once a month of the British top twenty over from England to the British Army. The army guys would tape down the transmit button on a crystal microphone and broadcast over short wave radio. The day I got my Silvertone I tuned-in and heard Steve Cropper’s fingers slidin on “Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay”, George Harrison on electric 12 string on “the Beatles Eight Days a Week” and Jimi Hendrix rippin “Purple Haze”! That was it, I was hooked! I had to figure out how to play this thing! I still don’t know the names of half of the chords that I figured out. Come to think of it… How did I tune that thing?
Mom and I had what we always felt was some sort of telepathy. I would be walking home from school humming a song in my head and she would always be singing the same song at the same part when I walked in the house! She got me and I got her. She was real happy that I was learning to play the guitar. I tried to impress my dad by learning “The Shadow of your Smile” and “The Girl form Ipanema.”
Mom told me once that her guitar player in Ethiopia, “Reggie” used to play for Elvis…
On a hot day in 1967 without any notice, a war erupted between Egypt and Israel. The British Army came by our villa to notify us to pack what we could carry. A bus arrived around forty-five minutes later (with expanded metal screening welded over the windows) to take us to safety at the British Army “De Osta” barracks. We took just what we could carry. We left almost everything that we owned including my guitar. On the way angry rioters were throwing anything that they could at us as we drove down the road. Deja-vu all over again! We were behind the safety (we thought) of the walls at this installation while the Libyan rioters cut-off our water and tried to kill us by throwing molotav cocktails and dynamite over.
Dad split duties with the obvious military thing and our well-being and Mom took her usual charge of us four kids and anyone else that started to panic. The violence subsided after three days and we were granted “safe passage” from The Monarch, King Idris to the airport via escort. Two C-130s and an old C-124 were waiting to fly us to Wheelus Air Force base in Tripoli. Also at the airport in Bengazi, was a squadron of (Algerian flown) Mig-23 Russian Fighters and a couple of transport planes.
The Algerians were on their way to help the Egyptians fight the Israelis. A couple of these fighters escorted us along the way until they were intercepted by American f-4 Phantoms. We landed in Tripoli and waited there for a few more days in some transit billets with no word from Dad before being sent via C-141 “Starlifter” to Madrid Spain.
After a couple of weeks in Spain still with no word about our Dad, we were sent back to the States to Marshall and Grandma Flossie’s. To our amazement, television was in color! Dad showed-up one day about 3 months later and surprised us. He had our dog “Penny” with him. He was given orders for Vietnam. This was it for him and the Army. He had twenty-one years of service and decided to retire. Dad took a position with a company in Robinson, Ill. called Case. So we moved there.
I had been playing guitar for a couple of years and had been in a few bands. “The Star Spangled Banana” was my first real band in Junior High. We won the talent contest. Dad let me buy a brand new (pre cbs) black face Fender vibrolux amplifier with my paper route. I had heard that a band in Robinson was looking for a rhythm guitar player. I auditioned and got the gig. The band was “The Outcasts”! Yes, the same band that I had heard years before in the IGA parking lot in Marshall before we went to Libya.
Dad informed us one day that he had been given a promotion and we were going to move to California again. This was great exciting news! The summer of 1968 found us on our way back to beautiful sunny southern California. Mom was singing at home in the kitchen and I was joining bands. By 1971, Paula was married, I was in the Army at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and soon after Dad, Mom, Teresa and Cindy moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Dad would eventually retire (living on the golf course) with Mom. In 1994 I moved my family to Nashville after the Northridge earthquake. My wife Deborah was not thrilled at all. Our son Jason was sixteen at the time and was not happy about the move. Our youngest, Lauren was ok with it.
The L.A music scene seemed to be played-out (with the emergence of the Seattle grunge wave) and Nashville looked real good for a change.
I had been coming here for music business and always wanted to come here and produce music and manage quality acts. Nashville has turned-out to be real good for us and somehow it worked out to be the vehicle and the “full circle” catalyst for this wonderful project “Totally Tess.”
Dad and Mom have been coming to visit us here every year. Mom had been on kidney dialysis (three times a week for four hours at a time) for many years. We arranged dialysis locally so they could travel here to visit. On one particular trip (in the spring of 97′), as a surprise, I took Mom into a recording studio. I had a couple of songs tracked by some buddies, Jimi Nichols and Tom Wild. “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “Baby You’ve got What It Takes” both Dinah Washington gems. I have included these first recordings as bonus tracks on this cd. Mom had never recorded before. This is almost hard to believe after you listen to this cd, but it is true. She was a live singer for all those years on stage in smoke-filled joints with lots of scotch and water. It’s a real shame that those kind of opportunities were never realized in her earlier years but we are lucky and thankful to have had the time to do this. Dad and Mom had gone back to Phoenix and I was in the studio mixing these first songs with John Smith (son of J. Gary Smith who I affectionately refer to as the “White Wilson Pickett”) Gary sang the fantastic duet with Mom on “Baby, You’ve Got What it Takes”) when Jim Malloy walked in and asked if we were mixing some old Dinah Washington? “This is Steve’s mom Tess” John replied. I later told Mom about this and she was thrilled beyond explanation.
Now we get to how this project came about.
While attending the annual summer N.A.A.M convention here in Nashville, I picked up my complimentary copy of “Vintage Guitar” magazine. It caught my eye because of a cover story on studio guitar playing great Reggie Young. I had known Reggie since being in Nashville, and had used him in the studio. Reggie, a living legend in Memphis from 1955 to 1972 and 1972 to present here in Nashville, had played some of the most memorable guitar licks ever( “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Drift Away,” “Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto” and “Hooked on a Feelin” are a few. I took the magazine home and started to read the article and as I turned the page, I was shocked when I saw a photo of Reggie and the Bill Black Combo taken in 1964. They were backstage somewhere in England with the Beatles standing there with there arms around them. The Beatles, The Kinks and the Dave Clark Five were touring and taking turns opening for them.
I picked-up the phone and called Reggie at home. He thought I was calling for a session. I told Reggie that I had just got a copy of the Magazine and he laughed and said “Oh, You read that article on me? I told him that I did but that I was freaking-out! I asked “Reggie, you got drafted in 59′ didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I sure did” he responded. “Do you know where Asmara, Eritrea in East Africa is” I asked. “Well heck yea! Kagnew Station was where I was stationed doing military intelligence stuff.” “Do you know Tess Williams?” “Heck yeah” he responded. “Reggie, Tess is my Mom!”
This was unbelievable, I was looking at a picture of my mom, Reggie and the rest of the band hanging on the wall in my office. Is this a small rock that we are spinning on or what?
This is when I knew that I needed to do a real record on mom. I put mom and Reggie in touch with each other. It had been 43 years since they had last seen each other! After some pre-production, dialysis logistics, and encouragement, Dad and mom came to Nashville.
Mom, confessed to me during phone calls on a number of occasions that she didn’t think that she had the strength to sing on this project. “Please…” I remarked astonished,” Just bring that attitude!” She did.
This record was recorded old school style on 2″ tape with a MCI tape machine through a vintage Harrison console. It needed to be warm and fat.
Mom sang her vocals (sitting in her walker, without any lyric sheets) through a vintage Neuman U-87 microphone. Thank God that mom was able to hear most of the unfinished record before she left us.
Much love and respect to the wonderful, talented musicians, singers and friends who played a part in the making of this record. Reggie Young and his 57′ strat, both are true living legends, The Memphis Horns featuring Wayne (Blow, Gabriel Blow!) Jackson and Johnny Henrich. Leon Russell, Billy (Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsies) Cox, Monty Byrom of Big House, J. Gary ( The White Wilson Pickett) Smith, Reese Wynans of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Double Trouble”, Dan (Dude!, How do you fit all those voices in there?) Shafer, Motown drumming legend Ed Greene, Terry Feller, Bob Marinelli, Spady Brannon, Mike Joyce, Ilya Toshinski of the Russian Group Bering Straight, Joel Carr, another great guitarist. Our good friend and recording legend Jim “Playback” Malloy, Ken Kittenger, and the wonderful backing vocals of: Britt Savage, Billy Davis, Amaleia Davis Ruble, Etta Britt and Vicki Carrico.
Because of you, we have been able to create a piece of work that is timeless and will remain “Totally Tess.”
This record is dedicated with love to you mom, you are and will always be my true musical inspiration.