The Great Billy Williams
When I was a little kid there was this pop
song, “I’m Gonna Write Myself a Letter.”
I remember hearing it in a bar, on a jukebox,
some drunk guy singing along,
like lightly slamming the open palm of his hand
on the bar in time to the jaunty rhythms.
Well, it was just a song, kind of catchy, but I
didn’t think much of it. The bar, the building
itself was wooden, and in a low valley,
between one steep hill and a lower hill.
By the mid-sixties it was torn down and
replaced by a small brick strip mall.
But this song was a big hit, and the guy
singing, his voice sounded kind of cranky.
“Gonna write myself a letter,
make believe it came from you, oh yeah!”
Just another song. When I got to my teens,
I bought a 45 disc, “I Don’t Wear My Heart
on My Sleeve” by the Charioteers. A ballad,
the lead’s male alto was high-pitched and very
smooth. Elegant. I loved it, love it still.
Fast forward to me in my fifties. I got
a Charioteers CD and realized this alto lead,
singing ballads and up-tempo tunes like
“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” was
the same guy who, back in the fifties,
had this one smash hit. On “Letter”
his voice didn’t sound high and smooth like
on the ballads. I was astounded to learn
they were one in the same, Billy Williams.
I purchased the CD from a record shop by
mail. I talked to the shop owner, now
deceased, and he said Billy Williams
was a pretty good singer. He sure was!
A very good singer. He made other pop
things but also a lot of pretty great music.
You listen to him on “So Long,” really listen,
and you know you’ve been someplace.
So smooth, so sad it’s sadness
shed to the limits of joy, pure joy.
The sound of a singer in love with what he’s
singing. A master. A blend of passion
and control. He did enough of that, over
and over, to where he went beyond good,
to greatness. Billy Williams, a great singer,
I read somewhere, ended up living in
a basement, on the fringe of homeless.
He needs some credit, though
he’s long dead and it won’t matter to him,
but as Frost said, “The fact
is the sweetest dream labor knows.”
The truth is in the sound of the smooth alto
that is Billy Williams, alto lead
of the Charioteers, the great Billy Williams.
Peter Mladinic has published three books of poems: Lost in Lea, Dressed for Winter, and Falling Awake in Lovington, all with the Lea County Museum Press. He lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.