Jody Williams, maestro of electric blues guitar, dies at 83
WASHINGTON — Guitarist Jody Williams helped modernize the sound of Chicago blues in the 1950s while accompanying such headliners as Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf. His musical signature — a bright, stinging instrumental style — appeared on treasured blues recordings of the era, including Diddley’s ‘‘Who Do You Love,’’ Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘‘I Wish You Would,’’ Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘‘Evil’’ and Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘‘Don’t Start Me Talking.’’
Fellow guitarist Otis Rush acknowledged Mr. Williams’s 1955 work ‘‘Lucky Lou’’ as an inspiration for his oft-covered song ‘‘All Your Love (I Miss Loving).’’ Among Chicago musicians, Mr. Williams’s electric guitar mastery was so renowned that big-bandleader Buddy Morrow used him on sessions when an authentic rock-and-roll guitar style was needed.
After losing a lawsuit in 1961 stemming from the distinctive guitar hook of Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool’s pop hit ‘‘Love Is Strange’’ — Mr. Williams had claimed the lick was copied and stolen from him — he gradually became disillusioned with music and vanished from records and clubs.
‘‘We were playing that song at the Apollo Theatre in New York and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., just trying it out,’’ Mr. Williams told the Mercury News in 2002. ‘‘One day I looked over at the side of the stage and saw Mickey stealing what he could steal.’’
He felt fleeced by record-company executives and enraged by Baker’s boasts about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had collected from the song, which experienced a resurgence after it was featured in a seduction scene in the movie ‘‘Dirty Dancing’’ (1987) and later in the Martin Scorsese film ‘‘Casino’’ (1995).
Mr. Williams kept his guitar, a red Gibson, gathering dust under a bed for more than three decades while working as a technician for Xerox.
A few years into retirement, Mr. Williams was persuaded to step into a nightclub for the first time in nearly three decades to hear an old friend, bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. It inspired him to start listening afresh to tapes he had made long ago, and it stirred thoughts of lost time.
‘‘I was watching my weight go up and my arteries harden,’’ he told the San Jose Mercury News. ‘‘My wife told me I can’t sit around the house all day doing nothing.’’
Reemerging on the blues scene, he found himself embraced as an eminence and mobbed by a new generation of fans. A record company official approached him in 2000 about entering the studio once again and he agreed, in part, he told an interviewer with the Australian Broadcasting Co., to ‘‘eat a little higher on the hog and bestow some of the luxuries of life on my family.’’
The Blues Foundation awarded his album ‘‘Return of a Legend’’ its comeback blues album award in 2003. Ten years later, the same group inducted him into its Blues Hall of Fame.
Mr. Williams, 83, died Dec. 1 at a hospital in Muncie, Ind. He had prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, said his record producer, Dick Shurman.
‘‘He was the first great string-bender in Chicago, a bridge between those who were influenced by Delta guitarists like Muddy Waters and more urban stylists like B.B. King,’’ Shurman said. ‘‘He was the first in Chicago to absorb B.B.’s influence.’’
Joseph Leon Williams was born in Mobile, Ala., and at 5 moved to Chicago with his mother, a domestic. His first instrument was harmonica, but he took up guitar after meeting Diddley at a talent show.
‘‘He [Diddley] was playin’ out on the street corner, passin’ the hat, and so we had two guitars and a washtub and I played the bass line,’’ Mr. Williams told writer Larry Birnbaum in the book ‘‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists.’’ ‘‘This guy Casey Jones, he trained chickens — he had chickens jumpin’ through hoops and everything. . . . He’d be on one corner with the chickens, hollerin’ ‘No dime, no show!’ and Bo Diddley and I, we’d be on the other corner playin.’’’