The Washington Post Sunday
Renowned as a master of electric blues guitar
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 Talkin’.”
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-band leader and trombonist 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.
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” (2002) its comeback blues album award in 2003. Ten years later, the same organization 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 stringbender 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., on Feb. 3, 1935, 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.’ ”
The court battle over “Love Is Strange” stemmed from a guitar lick that Mr. Williams began featuring in 1956 Chitlin Circuit concerts alongside Diddley. He would later accuse Baker and Vanderpool, with whom he was touring, of taking that riff and incorporating it into their million-selling recording.
“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.”
According to an account in the Chicago Reader, Mr. Williams used a variation of the lick on the song “Billy Blues,” recorded in early 1956 and featuring singer Billy Stewart. It proved a modest regional success and helped launch Stewart’s career. Months later, Mr. Williams told the Reader, Diddley pulled him aside and said he had sold “Love Is Strange” to Mickey & Sylvia for $2,000; Diddley had written the song, but it was credited to his wife ostensibly to avoid problems with his record company.
Mr. Williams felt betrayed when the Mickey & Sylvia version came out that November and soon began its ascent to No. 11 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart, minting money for Baker and Vanderpool (who later, as Sylvia Robinson, would help start the rap label Sugar Hill Records).
The record’s windfall royalties sparked a complicated lawsuit that spanned four years and involved two record labels and Mr. Williams, with each vying for what they felt was their fair share. Even decades later, he remained embittered by the experience, which he blamed on Diddley.
“You know, I can be sitting up looking at TV, some movie or something, and I hear ‘Love Is Strange’ on the soundtrack,” he said in the book “Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews” by Steve Cushing. “That just infuriates me.”
After fulfilling mandatory Army service in the late 1950s, Mr. Williams studied electronics and transitioned into a new career, predominantly with Xerox.
Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Jeanne Hadenfelt of St. John, Ind.; four children; and seven grandchildren.
When he returned to performing at the turn of the century, Mr. Williams led his own bands and focused on songwriting. Blues festivals attempted to reunite him with Diddley, even though they barely spoke to each other. Shurman had to intercede when the two performed together at the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival.
Shurman snapped a picture of Diddley unexpectedly hugging Mr. Williams when his back was turned. He gave it to Mr. Williams who — despite his professed bitterness toward Diddley — hung it on a wall at home.
“I made a promise, three things, to myself, when I started back playing my guitar,” he told the Reader. “Number one: I don’t compete anymore. There was a time I’d get on any of ’em, it didn’t matter to me, I’d get up there, play my guitar, play all around ’em, all behind my head, between my legs, and everything else. I don’t do that anymore.
“Number two: I will never, under any circumstances, perform in public any of my music that’s not published,” he added. “Never! It’s going to be published and on record before they hear it. And number three: I will not go into a studio and play on anybody else’s session . . . . If somebody says, ‘Play this chord here, play that chord there, play this chord here,’ I’m not playing my ideas. I’m playing what somebody else wants me to play.”