The Williams Brothers at LeMoyne-Owen College’s Sunday Celebration
Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Admission is free. Tickets are available at the Office of Institutional Advancement at LeMoyne-Owen. For more information, call 901-435-1527 or visit loc.edu.
The Williams Brothers feel a special connection to Memphis.
After all, the city gave the Mississippi gospel greats one of their first big breaks when it embraced their 1974 album debut, Help Us Jesus, Help Us Lord.
The record, and especially the single “Jesus Will Fix It,” was immensely popular in Memphis, thanks in part to the support of radio station WDIA and deejay Brother Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade.
“Memphis has been one of our biggest fan-base states for a long, long time,” says Melvin Williams. “Just coming back there this weekend is kind of like a little family reunion.”
The brothers perform Sunday at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts as part of LeMoyne-Owen College’s Sunday Celebration.
Family, of course, is very important to the trio. Melvin Williams, brother Doug and family friend Henry Green make up the Williams Brothers today.
The group was formed in 1960 on the front lawn of the family home in tiny Smithdale, near McComb, by patriarch Leon Williams. He had been involved in gospel music his entire life, singing in the Big Four Gospel Singers and later forming the Southern Gospel Singers, made up of the oldest of the nine Williams children.
One day, Leon Williams was standing at the door when he noticed his youngest children making noise outside, wielding broomsticks and mops like microphone stands.
“We were very small and out in the front yard singing — Melvin, my brother Leonard, my sister Marilyn and myself,” recalls Doug Williams, the youngest in the family. “We made up a little tune called ‘Hobadeebydobada.’ Of course to this day, we don’t know what that means, but that was the first song that we wrote.”
Papa Williams soon formed the children, some of whom were barely out of diapers, into the Little Williams Brothers. Taking cues from groups like the Dixie Nightingales, they quietly charmed audiences in regional churches for more that a decade while the older family members grabbed the spotlight in groups like the Williams Family.
Finally, in 1973, the Williams Brothers, as they had come to be known, went professional. Following the success of Help Us Jesus, Help Us Lord, they recorded more than three dozen records over their career, winning two Stellar Awards and earning seven Grammy nominations.
“There was a couple of years in particular where we felt, with the record’s success, we could have or should have won,” says Doug Williams of their Grammy no-win streak. “But we’re not bitter about it. All in all, it’s something that would be great to have, but we don’t put a lot of emphasis on it because it’s just a material thing.”
The Williams Brothers’ latest is a sequel to the successful My Brother’s Keeper, their 2008 disc with frequent collaborators Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC’s. My Brothers Keeper II was released a month ago, and the single “Count It Victory” is already doing well in black gospel markets.
That record, like almost all of the Williams Brothers’ output since 1991, including solo releases by its members, was issued on the family’s Blackberry Records label. The 22-year-old company, a powerhouse in gospel with acts like the Canton Spirituals on its roster, is based in Jackson, Miss., with the brothers’ award-winning Terminal Studios.
“That was a dream of our father’s,” Melvin Williams says of the label. “We had signed with so many different labels over the course of our career, but one day it hit us we didn’t really own anything. We didn’t even own the rights to our own music. We took a giant leap of faith when we founded Blackberry Records. We actually turned down several lucrative contract offers from other labels. But we knew God had commissioned us to start Blackberry Records.”
The move has paid off several times over, allowing the Brothers to reap the benefits of their labor and to grow artistically.
“We try to keep our ears to the ground and keep our music and arrangements fresh, even though we never lose our traditional base,” says Doug Williams, explaining the hip-hop and R&B influences that have crept alongside their traditional gospel harmonies. “We try to keep our music compatible with whatever you hear on the radio. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to attract not only the baby boomers but also the young people. We have a lot of teenagers and people in the early 20s who are big fans because the music is fresh but the message never changes.”
Fans of all ages have a lot to look forward to in the Williams Brothers’ 53rd year, with a new Doug Williams solo project and the group’s sequel to 2011’s popular Live at the Hard Rock due in the coming months.
“The thing that keeps us going is that we know that we’re affecting people’s lives in a positive way,” says Doug Williams. “People are still being blessed and healed and set free and delivered through the songs that we sing.