Joe is one of my all time musical heroes. I made my father take me to Birdland when I was a kid to see the Count Basie band with Joe Williams. When that band started to play and Joe sang, my life changed forever. The sense of power and swing that these guys had were such an influence on me. It was contagious. Sitting in front of that band was like sitting in front of an eighteen wheel semi speeding down the highway. As I got more involved with the New York recording scene from 1959 until I moved to Los Angeles in 1967, I started meeting many people in the business. Joe was one of the people I met early in my career. He was always gracious and willing to lend an ear to a new guy trying to break in. Joe always had two things with him. Advice and great jokes. He was truly precious.
Around 1984 I ran into him in Las Vegas when I was conducting for Suzanne Somers at the Desert Inn. I told him I had a song I thought he should hear. I played him “Here’s To Life.” When I finished he was in tears. He actually stood there crying. He told me he loved the song. I could see in his face how affected he was by it. He made me play and sing it again. I figured anyone who can stomach my singing must be serious. About a year or so later he recorded it and started singing it all over the world wherever he worked. He would call me and tell me how great the audience response was.
I wrote some arrangements for Joe and we did some symphony dates and TV shows together. We became real good friends, and when he came to LA he would always call and we would try to have lunch or dinner. There were also the phone calls from each other with the latest greatest joke. He had a great sense of humor. I told him that I thought that he put a tuxedo on the blues when he sang. He gave it class. He liked that… it made him smile.
The last time I saw Joe was at a dinner in Santa Monica where he was being honored. He sang “Here’s To Life” and I accompanied him on piano. Just the two of us. There were about eight hundred people attending. He brought the house down. After we finished he leaned down and hugged me and said “I’ll see ya’ when I see ya.” Joe passed away about two weeks later. I gave one of the eulogies at his funeral. I keep thinking about the last thing he said to me. When I hear his music I still see him. I still learn from him, and I’ll always cherish my relationship with him. I am honored to be one of the performers for the annual Joe Williams Memorial Scholarship Fund Concert held in Las Vegas each year. He was a class act as a performer and as a man.