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Interview with: Lester Williams
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson
Date: October 25, 1989
Archive Number: OH 463
LM: This is Louis Marchiafava and Charles Stephenson interviewing Mr. Lester Williams. Today’s date is October 25, 1989. This interview is part of the Texas Heritage Jazz Society’s program with the use of the public library’s public archives. We’re very glad to have you here today Mr. Williams and look forward to interviewing you.
LW: My pleasure.
LM: Mr. Williams, we’d like to begin the interview by obtaining some background information on you. When and where were you born?
LW: I was born in Trinity County, June 6—I mean—6/24/20, I’m sorry—6/24/20. That’s June 24, 1921. That’s a little town out from Groveton, Texas. Groveton is the county seat of Trinity County. Of course, in those days back then, most people lived out from the major towns. Even though it was a small town we was out there on a farm.
LM: Can you tell us something about your family life—your parents and any siblings you might have had?
LW: Yeah, well, my parents were mostly agrarian people. In those days, most of them were. And that, fortunately for me, my mother moved us from the country here to Houston, Texas in 1927. And so I had training in the Houston public school system here.
CS: So you came here when you were 2 years old?
LW: No, 1927. I was born in ’20.
CS: 1:44.6 I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon.
LW: And so when I was 7 years old—and I went to Crawford Elementary School in the fifth ward and then later on Phillis Wheatley High School. And that’s where I graduated, played on the football team, and also was associated with the band. I was a vocalist with the band there.
LM: We have a lot to cover right in that small sentence that you just gave us. I assume then, when you said that your family was agrarian, that you were raised on a farm in the early days.
LW: Yes, when I said “out from the town,” yeah. We were mostly agrarian—raised practically everything we ate right in the back of the house. And people worked—laboring. I know you’ve heard of the term of sharecropping—own thirds of whatever that was. That was then—so I considered that really a blessing in disguise that my parents—matter of fact—my mother and my father—they separated, and mostly my grandmother raised us because my mother’s not that much older than I am. And we ended up moving here.
LM: Was it a hard life for you in those early years?
LW: Not really for me because—the only thing that was hard for me was the fact that my dad was somewhat of an alcoholic and he was kind of abusive. And that particular thing I hated, but then—that’s why I said blessing in disguise, because had he and my mother stayed together, then I might have ended up dead. See what I mean? But she brought us here. And then I have always been—being accustomed to working. We always worked. And in those days, we had the respect from—everybody respected mother and father in those days, or whoever the hell their family was. And what little money we made, we always brought it home to our grandmother and gave it to her.
LM: So essentially—correct me if I’m wrong—your mother moved to Houston with you and lived with her mother?
LW: Yes, that’s right. And she was—my grandmother—was the head of the family, so to speak.
LM: Okay. Where did you live in Houston? What area of the city?
LW: We lived in the fifth ward and—most everybody know because the – mentioning – so many guys went to—that just happened to be our station out there because we had some relatives there already. But that’s why I ended up going to Phillis Wheatley High School than the fifth ward. And then they had a—fortunately had a good football team. I was on the football team there, by the way. And I was also a vocalist in the band. Fellow named Sam Harris was the band leader at the time, and he had got his training—gotten his training in Tuskegee, Alabama.
CS: 04:43.0 How were you able to be in the band and play football too?
CS: We normally think of them as sometimes being conflicting interests.
LW: Yeah. Well, it could be, but what happens is that at the point you are—I guess—aggressive and want to do something. In those days, guys that really wanted to do it—do things. They were like, multitalented, so to speak. And, of course, I was interested in the football team and I was interested in music. I always sang on church choirs. As a matter of fact, back in the country when we had no instruments at all, we used to do what you call a cappella singing. You’re part singing and things like that. Some leader would take—one would take tenor and bass and like that—and did quite well. And in the early days you had a lot of a cappella singing and good harmony. And so at least I had that kind of ear training.
LM: How were you introduced to music? I know we just mentioned the band, but certainly there’s a history behind that.
LW: Well, basically we had people in the family who could strum guitars and things like that. And as I said earlier, church choir was a thing I—as soon as I got here, I went to Sunday school and I was United Methodist. Mom running United Methodist then—fifth ward—which I started attending Sunday school there in 1927—as soon as I got here. And then that from that and having what they would consider—I guess—a pretty good voice and residual memory—where you could remember tones. At that particular time, didn’t read music, but you sang a passage as well as you could do it. And so then I was pretty good at that. And so I ended up singing with the church choir. And then when I was in high school with the college—with the glee club they call it. So I did quite a bit of that. And then early on we had a little quartet—that we used to sing at the clubs around here in Houston, as a matter of fact. That old station here called KTRH—they’re still in business, but it used to be in the Rice Hotel then. And during times that I was in high school, our quartet used to broadcast from KTRH 1 day a week about 15 minutes on air.
CS: Was this a regular broadcast?
LW: Yeah, it was just the same as regular. Guy named Harry Grier and Edward Fitch were the guys on the program. And, of course—you know—and maybe you know or don’t know, but Jesse H. Jones—that was one of his enterprises. And we used to broadcast when we were still in high school yet. So I do that, and when we—the football team would go to different towns in Texas or Louisiana—I was also in the public speaking class, by the way. So they would use me to tell about the boys. The coach would push me out front—things like that. And I liked it. I was just telling Mr. Stephenson earlier that I’ve always been an academic buff and a history buff, so it just fell right in line with me.
LM: You mentioned there were some family members who were musically inclined—talented.
LW: Well, I had an uncle who played bass fiddle and guitar.
CS: And he travelled with—
LW: Earlier—you see—even. Early on when I was just a kid—and he travelled into Mexico and later on he moved to California, but I didn’t have any training from him. It was just members of the family I know. But we used to always do, like, porch singing, and—you know—in daytime when the work was over and you’d sing and everybody—it was just a singing community in those days. That’s meaning if—I didn’t get any training from any person, because most my people that could do that did not have any formal training, see? So that’s where mine came along.
LM: That was how you passed the evening.
LW: Beg your pardon?
LM: That was how you passed the evening.
LW: Right. And church programs and things like that. And so we used to sing and then sing around camp fires, so to speak. And it goes way back. The reason I say this is because I’ve always had this memory. I could remember things from when I was just 2 or 3 years old and my mother would say, “Boy, you don’t remember those things that far back.” But I had this residual memory. Now, some people believe in that and some don’t, but I’ve always had that—that I could remember things that I would tell my mother and father that I remember and they would say, “Well, you were too small to remember that.” And I did—vividly I could remember things.
LM: Let’s talk a bit more about your education—music education in schools. It started off, you said in the lower grade.
LM: 09:43.5 How did it start off? Did you—were you asked to participate? Did you want to participate?
LW: I wanted to participate and, of course, I was—we’d always have little singing groups in the church in Sunday school, so I was with that group—like the children’s choir at the church. And, of course, I used to appear on programs where you would sing a song. In those days, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was popular and Cab Calloway was popular, so you would try to imitate those guys. And then The Mills Brothers were popular. That’s how we come up with this quartet—see—The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots, things like that. So come up—imitating these guys, so to speak, and those things would happen. And so when I went to high school, well, they—if you tried for the glee club, so to speak, well, they’d have you to sing something. Well, it was easier for me to sing something maybe I’d heard Bing Crosby sing, something like that. Because back in the country, now—and this is why I believe—I’ve always said to him earlier—I believe—always believed compatible vibrations gravitate to one another. I used to listen to, on our old crank record player—you know—where you had to crank them up? His massive voice—I think there was Victor.
LM: RCA Victor.
LW: Okay. I used to listen to Blind Lemon and I used to listen to Caruso. Now, they say, “Well, why were you interested in listening to Caruso?” You know—he’s a great opera singer from Italy. I never would have dreamed that eventually I’d end up having a chance later on in life to visit the—Milano—you know—where this great opera house is in Italy, but then I’ve always had this admiration for Caruso. It’s not just a one straight line of music, but the whole gamut of it. And then my experience over the years—I’ve had access to things like that— I’ve appeared in operas. I saw my first opera in Genoa, Italy, and I was saying earlier that I visited the little cottage that Christopher Columbus was born in in Genoa, Italy. I’ve been to Venice during the time I was in service. And my interest was the Doge’s palace, and all through there—Michelangelo painting. I’ve been to Cremona where the Stradivarius family lived. Many times I would be the only soldier there, but that was my interest. And being an—I tell people all the time that even in high school and now, I’m an oddball entertainer, but I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, my wife and I’ve been together 50 years, I’m an academic buff, I’m a history buff, and I have a—I have this universal brotherhood attitude. I got along with people quite well in Italy. I just feel like it had to be divine providence that sent me there. I was saying earlier that I had a—at Wheatley—a lady named Ilma Smith was my Latin teacher and she gave me a good background in Latin. There were only about eight of us in class so it was almost like private instructions. And then it would be maybe about four or five that were really interested. But I was interested, and I don’t know why I was interested, but I was intensely interested. So when I—during World War II when I was sent to Italy, it was like being sent home, because I knew more about Italy than the native did because they live in provinces and they were interested in that particular province—see. But being a person who’s interested in their training and the whole thing—well, and then I was sent to Provencia di Lucca where there’s supposed to be the really high intelligence. That’s where I first ended up. And so I could tell them things about Mount Vesuvius. And—you know—and they said, “How do you know these things?” I said, “And the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—” And I could tell them about things—when Hannibal the Conqueror almost captured Italy and things like that. And so—and I already knew about Italian Somaliland at a time when Italy had a protectorate on the coast of Africa. And we even go back as far as the time when Italy and Africa might have been—the continents might have been merged. But I have always had an interest in studying things like this so it kind of makes me an oddball musician—Saturday night club musician. You know what I mean? (laughs)
LM: Somewhat unusual.
LW: Yeah, rather unusual.
LM: So you apparently had a pretty good—you felt you got a good education here when you—?
LW: Very good education in Houston and a very good education almost everywhere I’ve been. See—because earlier I was saying, as soon as I finished Phillis Wheatley High School I joined the reserve army in the Signal Corps. So I had a very good background in Latin, but my first interest—my first interest was medicine. And so I had a good background in human anatomy. That made me an oddball too, I guess.
LM: Where’d you pick that up?
LW: What’s that?
LM: The anatomy course. Did you get that at—(speaking at the same time)
LW: Well—you know—I had physiology and things like that in high school. We had access to things like that in high school, and whatever your interest was. So—and then one of my first jobs as a youth was at Jefferson Davis Hospital, which is an odd name because I worked in the morgue. And it was beautiful. I loved it. And they said, “Well, you’ve got be crazy.” And I said, “What better way to learn human anatomy, the vascular system, the skeletal system—you know.”
LM: You must have watched them do an autopsy?
LW: 15:44.5 Oh yeah, many. And it was most interesting. And so that’s why I tell people—if you listen to me, I end up being somewhat of an oddball because these things I’m intensely interested in—and it’s just one of those things. And Galileo—I’ve been atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I was very interested in that. As a matter of fact, I got my name niched in the marble atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But they have a building called a baptismo, and when I was visiting there, it was so arranged acoustically until one voice singing sounded like a choir. So I asked the guy, I said, “Say,” I said, “It sure is a beautiful choir in there.” He said, “That’s only one person singing.” And I said, “Well, how can that be possible?” And sure enough, he took me in there and they knew. Now, regardless how they happened to know it—they knew something about acoustics that we don’t even know now, because they would never build a building flat cornered like this for—you know—to sing in. And so, sure enough, I went in there and they was—(singing)—and they just four-part—the harmonics, so to speak. And those into music understand harmonics.
LM: Let me temporarily get you out of Italy and bring you back here to dull Houston just for a minute and then we’ll get to Italy later. I’d like to find out about your first musical—music job here. Do you remember what it was?
LW: Well, what happens—my first music job is still while I was still in high school. See, out this way—as a matter of fact—we had the Gulf building and the Mellie Esperson building. Those were the two tall buildings here. And then going out South Main—and the Hermann Hosptial was the only building out that way and then going further out—like—west, you had farms and things like that. Well, our high school band—a nine-piece group—used to sing at—used to perform at a nightclub out there. And I was the band vocalist. As a matter of fact, I got some clips in some of my notes. They called me the “boy with the golden voice.” (laughs) So, anyway, that happened—that started happening right then. And I might have mentioned earlier—when—even when I was still in school—elementary school and high school—I used to go—they had what they call “party houses” in those days. And there was a time when—I can say this to archivists because they understand that—that was a time when black musicians used to do most of the entertaining. And so we had this system in where you play in these little towns Saturday night for whites and Sunday night for colored. But then we had almost total separation then. But what happened in my case—and this is why I said your intelligence and your ability to communicate on a compatible level pays rich dividends. When I would talk to these men that I would entertain, they would take an affinity to me. So—and so I never had it—plus the fact that most of the people who were having the town—were in control—and so if they said, “Well, Lester Williams is working for us,” you had kind of like free passage, so to speak. And which was like, a beautiful asset. You understand what I’m saying? And this has happened for me all over the United States. And then coming—when I got out about—wait—when I was in the service in Italy, a touring show came over there with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake—called it Shuffle Along. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of it, but some people would have heard of it. But it was a fantastic show. And they played on—the boys played around. But in my—the guy who was over our band named Bobby Plater, he was a great saxophonist. He was the one who wrote Jersey Bounce. He played earlier with a guy named Tiny Bradshaw. So he was the one—you’ve heard of Tiny Bradshaw?
LM: 2016.4 Yes.
LW: Okay. So he was a personal friend of mine, and we came back from Italy together on the same boat. And he got a wire to join Lionel Hampton’s band when we was on the boat together. And so, anyway, I came back to Houston and, like I said, I started singing with a guy named I. H. Smalley. We had a good talent show, see, and I would start singing with I.H. Smalley’s band. And then we sang at the place—the Eldorado Ballroom was a real popular place then. And so we had a real good band. Then many of the guys that I knew that were much younger than I, they were making recordings, and so I told Smalley—I says, “Say, why don’t we make a recording?” I had a very good band. We’d play places like Columbus and around. And I said, “But we need to make recordings, because we can play almost anything anybody else played—Louis Jordan—anybody.” We could play it. And so he was somewhat lethargic along that line, and I guess not being that business motivated. So what I did—I took a few members of the band. And they had a guy named Holford, ACA Studios out on Westheimer. I went out there and made a dubbed recording and had some friends in radio that played it for me. So, as a result, then I got a recording contract and then started recording. So, I formed my own group and then I started playing Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and around.
LM: What year was this?
LW: What year? My first recording was released in 1949.
LM: This was after you came back from the service?
LW: After I came back from the service. While I was with Smalley’s band—then I started taking—I was going to—in earlier days it was Texas Southern University for negroes. That was the name of the school, and I was a veteran student there. But, I had left Smalley’s band to go to Boston and study because I wanted to know—what I was hearing in my head was more than what they understood. See, teachers—I was taking a guitar lesson from a guy named Melvin Martin and I was—I wanted to hear some of these things. I’d heard our big bands play in Italy and I could hear them and—of course—he didn’t understand inversions. Many people who play, if they haven’t had extensive training, they wouldn’t understand inversions. Everything would be played—
LM: Are you talking about the seventh and ninth chords and the inversions?
LW: 23:08.9 Okay, right. And thirteenth, tenth, eleventh—and I was hearing these things. So for—since they couldn’t give me that, one year the band—the club that we were playing in had a shut-down for vacation. And that year I left and went to Boston instead to The New England Conservatory of Music. That is where I ran into—well, because Arnett Cobb—that I mentioned to you earlier—he is a personal friend of mine. We were teenagers together and friends from the same high school. So then he had branched out. He—first he went to—he went with Lionel Hampton’s band. He used to be with Milton Larkin’s band around here. So he went to Lionel Hampton’s band, so I would see him—I saw him in Chicago when I was in the—in service there attending Illinois Tech and Chicago University. I was in the army then, but I was going to see these shows. I was always interested in shows, and I would see bands like Erskine Hawkins. And they had this famous band out of Omaha, Nebraska—Nat Towles and people like that. And then I see Stuff Smith, violinist. And listening to the great piano player—what was his name? “Father” Hines—Earl “Father” Hines.
LM: “Father” Hines.
LW: See, I had a chance to hear all these guys and it stuck with me. See what I mean? But it was—to me—it was a constant moving thing. So I guess that—so when I made my recording, my wife—we lived in Boston—Roxbury. And I think I had a chance to hear many of the people up there. There were great entertainers moving around then. So—but my wife didn’t like Boston, so before I finished my training in Boston, I came back to Houston. I was going to Texas Southern University when I made my first recording—Wintertime Blues. And it was an instant hit. And so then I started running out, playing engagements, trying to make it back to school, and so it got to the place where the demands on my time for a nightclub engagement was more than I could handle, as far as getting back to school. And so I said, “Well, you go to school and learn how to make a living and so if a living comes on—” And I don’t say this egotistically, but I’ve been self-employed since before I finished high school, so—
LM: I’m sorry, you—?
LW: Beg pardon?
LM: I didn’t hear what you said. I’m sorry.
LW: I said I’ve been self-employed since before I finished high school and had me a little savings and things like that. Matter of fact, one of the banks that I first started with ages ago—even though it has grown—they’re still in business and the counter has never been closed. So you have to be a different kind of musician to have fiscal management. Now, some people—I hope I can say this here with impunity, but some people would think you’re being an egotist. But, I told him earlier and I think I mentioned here, I’m—right now and for the last—like—25 or 30 years—I’ve entertained basically the elite and corporate heads all over the country. I worked for 5 years for Friendswood Development Company in the early days of the shots—the spaceshots, so all the early astronauts—as a matter of fact, we were the first—King’s Inn—we were the first motel down there in Webster in the early days of the shots. And see, at that particular time, then I knew that Friendswood Development Company—because it was on my check—was a subsidiary of Exxon Oil—biggest oil conglomerate in the world. So when people like that, of that stature and fiscal magnitude—when they recommend you for something, it’s tantamount to being heard. But they will only recommend you if you’re something that they can stand behind. So then I end up getting sent to different places in Florida, in Minnesota, in New Mexico, and California and Oklahoma. So you want to ask me something else? Because I don’t want to—look, I told you I was in the public speaking class. So I can go on and on.
LM: You’re self-propelled here.
LW: Yeah, and now, just like I said, I can do it because there’s much to tell.
CS: I would like to go back to your studies in Boston. You were at the New England Conservatory.
LM: In what year?
CS: In what year was this?
LW: That was 1947.
CS: With whom did you study there?
LW: I had a—I have it in some of my notes. But I had a pianist—I was taking piano and voice—piano and voice. And then you really had to measure up. And I’ll tell you what happened—due to the fact that—when I first wrote them and told them I was interested in coming, and since I had not had private instructions, they wrote me back and told me at my advanced age—see I was 27. In ’47 I would be 27. They wouldn’t recommend that I start at the primary level. I’m going to tell you about when you have motivation and intent. So I wrote them back a letter and told them how intensely interested I was and to the degree—what degree I would apply myself to try to measure up. They wrote me back and told me, “Well Williams, if you’re that interested, come on.” And they accepted me as a student. And—of course—when I finally left, they expressed regrets that I would not finish. See what I mean? Because I was a good student and I—really, the training that I got in that part of the country—and if you was a musician at all you can understand this. The training that I got there in my primary years was tantamount to 4 years of training in this part of the country.
LM: 29:37.7 How long were you there?
LW: I was there just one semester.
LM: What made you leave?
LW: I said earlier, my wife. See, I had a wife and a daughter. My daughter was born when I was still in service and in college in Chicago. I was in electronics then—Signal Corps—transatlantic—things like that. I had a good background in electronics. During the time that I was in Chicago, that’s when I first visited Flint, Michigan and the Ford plant. Then I went to Canada—Ontario, Canada, because I always had this probing mind to explore. And they said, “Well, boy you doing these things—” And I would do that on my own. I’d been in—the biggest crowd that I’d ever been in in my life was at Soldier’s Field when they had in excess of 100,000 people way back in the early ‘40s. I used to go out to Northwestern and watch Otto Graham. I don’t know whether any of you all remember this football player Otto Graham, but in those particular days I just watched through the fence. And when I was a kid, I used to go out here to Rice University and look through the fence and watch those guys practice. I was on the football team then at Wheatley. But, as I said earlier—you know—about the fence was about as far as we could get, but they’d let me look through the fence. (laughs)
LM: I’ve got to turn the tape off.
(End of OH 467_01)
(Start OH 467_02)
LM: Continuing interview, side two.
CS: While you were at Boston, you were involved with the theory that ear training, the sight-singing, the keyboard, the harmony, the chords—chord progressions, the inversions—
LW: 00:26.1 Right, hey, I’ve got to ask—what’s your instrument? Because, you see, you’re quite knowledgeable. Are you a voice major? Beautiful, beautiful.
CS: Yes, yes.
LW: You see—I said earlier, before we started tape going, that compatible vibrations gravitate to one another. And then I said, if a fellow is into it, he knows—he can discern what’s going on. And one thing I never did, and—of course—my teacher in psychology in high school—and also in college—told me, “Never give an unqualified evaluation.” In other words, if you’re doing something that’s complimentary, I’ll tell you. If you’re not doing something complimentary, I can still compliment you, but I’m complimenting your ability to make music. “Oh, what a nice shirt you’ve got on—beautiful tie.” But if you’ve got a bad voice or you’re making a dissonant sound, I’m not going to compliment that. So—(laughs)
CS: Well, that’s—see, you’re talking to a musician.
LW: Okay, I didn’t know it.
CS: Yes, yes.
LW: Then you can understand where I’m coming from.
CS: I know exactly where you are coming from.
LW: Oh good. Beautiful.
CS: I have—virtually have had the same type of experiences.
LW: Oh, okay.
CS: Maybe not as extensive, but the same type.
LW: Beautiful, beautiful.
CS: So when you came back from Boston, you went to work. Is that when you went to work for Friendswood?
LW: Later. I went back to the same band that I was playing with, but then I was more of an asset because I could play an instrument. See what I mean? I could sing and then I could, of course, read notes and things.
CS: What instruments did you play?
LW: I played guitar. I played guitar and also clarinet. In the college band I played B-flat clarinet. See, because at Texas Southern then—TSU we called it—the people could relate to that. At TSU we were studying to be band directors, so you had to know the nomenclature of all the different instruments—you see—trombone, trumpet. I was a clarinet player.
CS: You had to know all the hand positions that the—
CS: Valve positions and so on.
LW: Right. So then that was it, and that’s what—then I decided, rather than to stay there to be a band director—you see—I was adventurous. Band directors get stuck in a vice. And I’ve had the—what I considered—tremendous blessing of being with different bands all over the country and with different types of people. Like I say, I’m not hemmed in. I’ve never been hemmed in. I’ve—just a case in point—I have talked with Dr Von Braun, this great German scientist.
CS: Werner Von Braun?
LW: 03:38.6 Just as I’m rapping with you. Because—like I said—they used to have all those seminars in our rooms down at The King’s Inn in NASA, and then I’ve been all through the museum—Dr Robert Goddard—his rocketry. He’s considered the father of rocketry. You probably know this. And being from around the Boston area, I’ve been all through there, and many times—I used to spend hours in the museum looking at all his old instruments and—then White Sands, New Mexico and things like that. And so this was my interest. That’s why I tell people all the time—an oddball musician. (laughs) But it’s been beautiful.
CS: Well, there’s no such thing as a dull subject. There are only disinterested persons.
LW: Beautiful, beautiful.
CS: So, where are we now as far as years are concerned? What years are we talking about—in the ‘40s—late ‘40s?
LW: 04:42.3 Yeah, it’d be the late ‘40s.
CS: And you came back here?
LW: Came back here.
CS: And you—
LW: Made my first recording.
CS: —you made your first recording.
LW: In 1949.
CS: And that opened up—
LW: Right, a vista—it did, because I formed my own group and started playing. And then we had an old newspaper called the Pittsburgh Courier and they ran—they were pretty popular in those days and they ran a national theatrical pole, and—of course— I have pictures and things here to substantiate that. So I entered the pole, and—of course—not just on my popularity, but also I used my ability to make contacts over the country. I had friends in California, friends around Chicago, fellows that I had gone—been in the army with. So I wrote them and told them I was in this pole, and even though some people who were evidently much better known than I was at that time—we called this strategizing and networking. And so, anyway, I won the pole. Hey, and then so I added an invitation to come in 1952 to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
CS: Oh, wow.
LW: And here’s that program—and that concert at midnight at Carnegie Hall—and you could see some of the different people that I have on there. See—Sugar Ray Robinson here, Milton Berle, Lionel Hampton—
CS: There’s Lionel Hampton again.
LW: Yeah, Lionel Hampton again. And then Nat King Cole is on there somewhere. Then—let’s see—there’s Billy Eckstine. Lionel Hampton was the background band at the time. And Clara Ward, she was a great gospel quartet. This might be the—this is Nat King Cole—there it is.
LW: 06:57.0 There it is, see? And I treasure this thing here. Billy Rowe, he was a popular person then—a lot of people there. And then—so—
CS: Are they all autographed? That night?
LW: That night, and at that time, Milton Berle was Mr. Television.
LW: And so things went quite well for me. And—of course—everybody was surprised that—you know—Lena Horne—that a little guy from Texas—from a small town in Texas—see, there’s Lionel Hampton—would win this thing. But, at that particular time—of course—you can relate to this—when you have an ability to communicate with certain people on more than just one level—and I know some great artists could only perform in a nightclub, but if you call them in a room and ask them to elaborate on something, it would be a different story all together. Here’s my picture of how I looked then, and then all my votes. And they’ll call me—in those early days—that’s the way of the King of the Blues. (laughs)
CS: King of the Blues.
LW: And there’s Milton Berle and Carol Ward and Donna Washington. And so I had this contact with these different people.
CS: And that’s really opened up the world to—
LW: Really, really. That really opened it up nicely for me. And as a result, I have pictures and contacts with Duke Ellington—there’s—you’ve heard of—maybe you have—Charles Brown. I saw him recently in Berkley, California when I was in Oakland. Matter of fact, last year about this time, I was with this fellow Charles Brown. And this is Willie Mae “Hound Dog” Thornton. She’s passed on. And this fellow was my bass player. There’s my name on my guitar. Now here’s I.H. Smalley with the band that I sang with when I got out of service.
CS: He was also a singer.
LW: He sang and he plays, yeah. And here I am when I was—I was on KPRC TV. That was in ’52, just as I was getting ready to go to Carnegie Hall.
CS: 09:21.6 Who’s playing for you there?
LW: This fellow is just a guy I picked up, and I don’t remember his name right now. He wasn’t a local guy. He came here from somewhere. And here I am with this famous singer, Dinah Washington; she has passed on. And this is Roy Hamilton; he was a great singer.
LW: My band played behind him in Texas and Louisiana.
CS: And he’s a good voice.
LW: Yeah. Oh, he had a tremendous voice. Here I am with Duke Ellington. This is at a club in San Antonio, Texas. He had played some private party in Victoria, where I used to entertain quite often. And I was playing there in San Antonio. Anything else?
CS: Well, that’s—
CS: I would like to hear it sort of develop.
LW: Well, here—after I left my first—Mesa label was the first label, then Lela Macy Henry had a little label and she was at an office on Leland Avenue and she did, up to that time till she recorded me, she did basically country and western things.
CS: Now this is a recording studio?
LW: Yeah, it was a—really a record distributor. She wasn’t a recording studio. ACA Recording Studio on Westheimer did most of those things for everybody in this area, and then distributors would have them pressed. So—and then when I left that label, I went to Specialty Recordings and that’s where I was on the same label with Percy Mayfield and Lloyd Price and Roy Milton, who was a real famous man, and Joe Liggins—people like that. So—and here is a—this particular picture was made—I was entertaining at Hotel Clovis in Clovis, New Mexico. And—of course—just from out—not too far from Clovis—is the University of Mexico at—in the eastern part of this, yeah. And a lot of students used to come in the club and watch me there. And so that’s where I—left there and went to Roswell, New Mexico and right out of Roswell is where they have the museum for Dr Robert Goddard—in Roswell. Yeah, and so we did a lot of things there in Roswell, New Mexico and Hobbs, New Mexico. And this is where I got a chance to visit all of these places of interest in the early rocketry days.
CS: 12:14.6 That helped fulfill the other parts of your life?
LW: Yeah. Right, right. And then I—what I said—I guess what would really make me an oddball—I really had an intense interest—I imagine you could discern from my conversation—I had an intense interest in learning about these things. And so this is why—I don’t know whether it’s pertinent to the conversation, but your interest and knowledge in these things other than music really interest me because hey, I know right off—you knew Robert Goddard, you knew Dr Von Braun. Hey, and you don’t—you don’t really expect to hear that from a musician. And I’m not an egotist, but I have a sensing interest in things like that. Matter of fact, when I went to Cremona—and I already had a previous knowledge about the Stradivarius violin, which is considered the greatest violin ever made—and meet the Stradivarius family—wow. And—of course—when I was in the conservatory in Boston, they had descendants on the faculty that were directly from the people in Europe. So this—I can then, I feel like, come in here and meet two fellows who has some roots in these places that I have such an infinity for—which that in itself has got to—your strength—to my belief that compatible vibrations gravitate to one another. When I say—you know—buona sera amico mio—good evening my friend, and—of course—he said, “Well, you say it better than I could say it.” But recently when I was in Amsterdam, Holland and I did this show—and, of course, they—I don’t know whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate, but they have a great respect for Afro-American music in Europe. And so—and I’m going to sing at a hall since I had—and when I—now, college days I would participate in opera, you see. And I’ve heard many opera singers. I can think of clearly my first opera—La Traviata. I saw it in Genoa, Italy and I’ve always loved it since. And so I go into a hall and check it out vocally. (sings) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,--la, la, la, la, la, la. And I was—then I started singing things.
14:54.9 I didn’t know any people of Italian vintage was in the hall, so I—(sings)—O Sole Mio—and the guys say, “Italiano, Italiano.” And I say, “No I’m Americano negre.” That’s—you know—black American. And they said, “Perche si parla cosi?”. And then I’d—why’d you speak like that? And I told them why—you know—at the time I was—but, anyway, I was interviewed and photographed—this was in ’86 in Amsterdam—Utrecht, which is outside Amsterdam – for about 2 hours because the guys found me interesting. So, beautiful. So these things go on. You want to ask something else?
LM: I’d like you to give us an overview of your musical career before you went to the service and then an overview of it after you came out of the service—in other words, its progression. How would you describe its progression before you went to the service?
LW: 16:10.5 Well, before I went to the service, my musical career would have been basically the church choir and the high school glee club. And—of course—during that time I also—I said earlier—I sang with the high school band—band and orchestra, as a matter of fact. Because in those days, as I said earlier, black musicians did most of the entertaining, so we—even when I was still a teenager, we played the military ball at Texas A&M University and we played in Durham, Texas. We played in Columbus and things like—so I had an experience as a vocalist—Columbus—places like that. And that was pre-time. Now, going into—and like I said earlier, the band leader at Phillis Wheatley and the orchestra leader—and we had a good 18-20 piece high school orchestra because he knew how to read charts and things like that, and that was a tremendous asset. We would play matinees for children. It would be—like—if you could come to matinees in the evening. They’d charge 15 or 20 cents. The place would be just packed like that. And—of course—in that time we learned to do all kinds of music, not just one kind of music, as I said earlier. And I had that going on. That would be even before I went into service. And so after I went into the service—of course—and I was a singer with a group called The Bouncing Buffaloes. And—of course—we entertained the troops in it, and doing our troop duty. And in the evenings, when they’d have refreshments or something like that, we would entertain in clubs. This place—basically Pientrasanta, which is a little bit below—kind of halfway up the boot. Let’s see—and we would play engagements for them, and things like that. When we’d have hostilities and things like that, one of the things that I like to bring in—when you’re well-prepared—I ended up being an interpreter since I had a good background in Latin—for a full colonel, which was like—this was like heaven because he couldn’t speak and I could speak and he had to go to different places—you know—to see what would be off limits for the soldiers, what would be all right for the soldiers. And—of course—I had an opportunity to—being that—to have a hot bath every day, which was—like—very rare for somebody in combat service. And the thing that I said was another blessing—I never shall forget. Wiring telephone was my expertise, and so one day this first sergeant came down and said, “We want to pick Les Williams to go to the front line.” We had to go to the front line, close observe it, and send back signals. And—of course—in those days they had Morse Code. And so another fellow who outranked my first sergeant said, “Well, you can’t take Williams.” He said, “Why can’t we take Williams?” He says, “The colonel at headquarters wants Williams.” And they told him why. So consequently, I didn’t have to go where I’d be subject to small arms fire. I’d been—you know—like artillery firing bombs and things like that. Matter of fact, many guys that I knew personally were wiped out. But then, there again, is preparation looking out for you. So then, during that time in the army when I entertained with this band that was headed—hey, we had some top guys—guys out of Andy Kirks’s band, Duke Ellington’s band, Noble Sissle’s band. The top bands at that time—Erskine Hawkin’s band. And you would have to almost be a senior citizen or a student of history to appreciate the—well, then that was good contact. So then when I came back here to Houston, I wasn’t exactly a novice. See what I mean? So when I got a chance to go out again, having—as I said earlier—having all this contact, well, it made it kind of—not necessarily easy, but it’s much easier for a guy who’s prepared.
LM: All right. Following your—let’s follow your progression after the war. You’re out of the service, where’d your career go? Which direction and how did it go?
LW: Well, I said earlier, I started singing with this band I.H. Smalley. And he was a very popular band at that time. And—of course—I was with him, like we said, from ’47 to ’49. At that time, I was also a student of music at TSU, and I was playing clarinet in the band and—of course—studying other instruments. We were studying to be band directors.
LM: How long were you there?
LW: I was at Texas Southern, I would say, ’48-’49. We had one permanent building, at that particular time. Dr Lanier was the president and later on Dr Nabrit, and a Dr Dorsey was over in the music department. But I found my group when I was starting my—so I started running out doing engagements. And that was at the El Dorado ballroom. So when I made my first recording, I was still walking to school because it didn’t have—it was one of the things to do—didn’t even have transportation. But in those days—in the earlier days—like I was saying earlier—in the smaller places, and even in Houston, it was practically safe to walk at night. You know—people could walk at night and they would speak to you, “Hey, how are you doing?” And so it’s amazing—you know—I—from small towns—I still haven’t gotten out of that. I speak to practically everybody I pass. So—and that happened. I started out playing these engagements after I made a recording and they started playing them all over. They had a guy named Vernon Chambers. He was a disc jockey. I had a radio broadcast—they had a place called the Lincoln Theater, and we used to do a show there—a talent show there. Some of the people who were on our talent show was—like—this little girl who sang so well—like Donna Washington. What was that girl’s name? Anyway, Big Momma Thornton used to be down there and Bobby Blue Bland—these guys would—might—they would come by and sing. Joe Tex—Joe “Tex” Arrington would come—Johnny “Guitar” Watson. And there’d be talent shows and things like that. I played for that. I’d come—we’d have ours on the road—Victoria, Corpus Christie, San Antonio, Columbus. I would come back in and play that talent show.
CS: These would be people who would be travelling through.
LW: No, they were local people trying to break into show business. See what I mean? And so—then we had that thing going on. So then when I—kind of—what happened—they had—and this has been very historical. My group—by the way—I’d like to mention this because when I left the Specialty Recording Company, I did a recording session for Peacock Recordings. That was Don Robey, and also I booked out of his office sometimes. And so they had a club here called The Peacock Club, and so I did some things there. One of the house bands was Dave Bartholomew. He was a personal friend of mine, and he was the musical director for Fats Domino. Matter of fact, when I would go to New Orleans, I would spend time at his house and he’d come in here and spend time at mine. Well, therein networking with guys you known earlier, you see. So, anyway, I was singing at a little club right across the street from the Rice Hotel the night that John Kennedy came in here. So I’m in the parade and everything like that. And—of course—that next day in Dallas, he spent his last night at the Rice Hotel right in Houston, Texas. And—of course—I figured it like, “Ooh, seeing the President of the United States.” Because even—I had seen him also at Rice Stadium when I was working down at NASA. You know—he came in here to do something for NASA. By then I figured—you know—great to see the President of the United States. But that next day—or course—he was done in. Well, I—show you what a small world it is—a personal friend of mine—a boy that I was in the college glee club in in Florida back in the early ‘40s—his mother was the Kennedy family’s personal cook. She served—there you go again. See, and I met him—I was with him in school in Florida, because during the—when the family moved down to Florida—you know—personally—and then later on, he and I, we were in the conservatory music in Boston together. So these things are—you know—in my mind. And so I might leave out some bits of things. But as I said earlier, when I was—went up to New York to sing at Carnegie Hall—and I showed him earlier, I didn’t show you, but I—they had a place called Hotel Theresa. And right on my book—a concert at midnight at Carnegie Hall, what I did there—Sugar Ray Robinson. You’ve heard of him?
LM: 26:31.6 Oh yeah.
LW: Sugar Ray Robinson—there’s his autograph. Nat King Cole—his autograph. Billy Eckstine, Lionel Hampton, all these guys. Matter of fact, Lionel Hampton’s band played behind me there. On this photograph here we have Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson—he’s passed on—myself, Milton Larkin—he’s a very famous band. And many of these guys that you mentioned that were great—later on they came through the Milton Larkin band right here in Houston. And this is I.H. Smalley. This picture was taken in Los Angeles, California during a Houstonians picnic in 1975. See? Now, most of these pictures that I show you, they have been—they were run in a magazine. Lizette said she would bring it back. I let her have it. But they did a special on me in this block that comes out of—in Holland. Have you had access to that?
LM: 27:36.7 No, no.
LW: No. Well, you’ll get a chance to see it, but I’ve got about five pictures. Here’s a picture of me with Bill Eckstine. You remember the singer Billy Eckstine?
LM: Sure do.
LW: Now, he was singing downtown—by the way—when I was in New York, I saw Singin’ in the Rain. This great singer that came in behind—the dancer I mean. What’s his name?
CS: Gene Kelley.
LW: Gene Kelley. When Singin’ in the Rain was brand new, I saw it at the Music Hall Theater in Rockefeller Center way back then. It was fantastic. And they had—of course—you’ve probably heard—they had the greatest organs going there—you know. But see, in Italy when you hear these fine pipe organs—by the way, my son is an organist and he plays a 75-year-old pipe organ for a Christian Science church in Los Angeles, California.
CS: 28:35.4 We’ll have them track our action.
LW: (laughs) And so when I hear things like this that—that’s why I tell all those people, me being an oddball—I just admire things like this. The sound that they had, and things like that, they’re just fantastic. And if—I miss anything?
CS: Well, you were on your way west. You were talking about going into New Mexico. Did you go on to the West Coast?
LW: Oh, mentioning that, I can give—and I hope it’s all right—I cannot give too much credit to having worked for—like I said—the elite corporate heads because that—they are responsible for the contact that I could make in these different places that I ended up going—New Mexico and Florida. But this—right now it won’t pop into my mind—but this—Geronimo. I entertained on Santa Rosa Island, which is right off of Pensacola, Florida—on a little island. And on the tip of that island at one time, Geronimo was incarcerated. As I said earlier, this has always been my interest—historical data. As a matter of fact, I’m a member of the Historical Society of Florida because I own all these old schooners and things like that. And that makes me, again, an oddball. But then I left—I’m entertaining in this little club in Pensacola, Florida, and some people came in there on their way to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
(End of tape 30:18.9)
(Beginning of tape OH467_03)
LM: Continuing the interview, side 3.
LW: Well, you’re—
LM: You were in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras.
LW: Yeah, and I was in Florida playing at this little club called The Round Down. And Pensacola—off the coast of Pensacola, Florida—and some people came in the club and they were just enthralled with what I was doing—what Lester Williams was doing—the type of entertainment that he was doing there—by himself. You see—I played—in my act I played drums and I played piano. I played guitar and then I’d do some things a cappella. I’d pitch it and just walk away from the piano and do an aria or something like that. And the people say, “Say, you should be in Minnesota.” And I said, “Oh—” it was Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a matter of fact. And so I said, “Well, look,” I said, “I think it’s too cold up there.” And I said, “I’ve never been up there. People don’t know anything about me.” They said, “Well, we know a man who has a club, and on our recommendation he will hire you just like that.” “Okay,” I said, “Well, fine.” So, anyway, I said—well, I already had had a nibble. In fact, my agent had talked to a club in Knoxville, Tennessee about me, and so they sent me a contract, but I had not sent the contract back. And so the fellow called me when these people got back from Minneapolis, Minnesota and he says, “Hey, how about coming up to Minneapolis, Minnesota and working for me?” And I said, “Well, I only have 6 weeks open between closing here and opening in Knoxville, Tennessee.” And I said—that 6 weeks—my family—my kids and grandkids—my kids, at that particular time, they were in Los Angeles. I think that I mentioned earlier that I maintained a residence in Los Angeles and also one here. And so I said, “I plan to visit my family in Los Angeles.” He said, “Oh, Williams, give me four of those weeks.” And I gave this guy in Minneapolis, Minnesota four of those weeks. Now, I didn’t know it, but at that time I was the first brother—so to speak—you understand what I mean by “brother”—to play this club. And those people went hog wild about me. Now, what happened, the intellectual level of the people in Minnesota is way up. You can find high school kids that can do Broadway-type shows par excellence—see—and they know that. And by me having this affinity for show tunes and things like that—I went into that club and I did such a tremendous business for that man. This is what he promised me—he must have really wanted me. This is why I said recommendation from the right people is tantamount to being hired. He said, “How much will they be paying you in Knoxville, Tennessee?” So I told him and—of course—he realized that the agent’s fee for that would come out of that. He said, “I’ll match that and you don’t have to pay no fee out of it. It will be all your money.” And so I had not sent the man his contract back, so I went on and took that. And out of a full week’s engagement, I did so much business for the man, I did—he kept running on—he told me he said, “Williams, if you stay with me, after a certain gross I’ll give you ten percent of the action.” Now, he just volunteered that, so I must have been doing tremendous—but the gratuities were so nice, I hardly needed to use my base pay. And so, anyway, I stayed in his club 15 months. And I stayed in the town 10 years and only worked 5 clubs. But then, I’m entertaining the executives from Honeywell, the mayor, the councilmen—you know—people like that – Jim Mills, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, executives like that. As a matter of fact, my IRA plan is with the banks in Minnesota. Right now you can go there—whole thing’s in there—and Los Angeles, and things like that. I say this—and I don’t want to be monotonous about it, but in working for the type people I worked for, if they like you they’d teach you about investments. And I hope I can mention that with impunity, but that makes a difference because so many entertainers don’t have any fiscal management at all. I know personally people who are world famous that had to be buried as paupers. They have no kind of legacy—financial legacy to leave. And that’s pathetic. Because they signed what is known as Power of Attorney over to some unscrupulous agent because they don’t have any knowledge of it and any knowledge of law. And so—but my friends said, “Lester, don’t sign any contracts until you read it, and if you don’t understand it, let some friend of yours who’s an attorney look at it.” And that is a tremendous asset for the people that you are entertaining. See, and then this is one of the things—one of the messages that I would like to get transmitted to all entertainers, not just entertainers from my side of the track, because I know many entertainers that be on both—you know—it doesn’t matter—white or black—that are paupers. World famous, but couldn’t sign a solvent check without somebody’s okay—for as little as a hundred dollars. And this is—I’m telling you—I’m not telling you what I think. I’m telling you what I know. And it shouldn’t be that way.
LM: Yeah. Well, that kind of information is—has been substantiated by other interviews that we’ve had.
LM: People have said the same thing.
LW: Yeah, but then—you know—they had an old record then, I Don’t Want It All, I Just Want Some. (laughs)
LM: Where have you been with your career—say in the last five years?
LW: 06:18.0 Well, the last five years—basically this is what I’ve been doing—like—parties and clubs. Now, since my wife had her stroke, I have not done that much. Like I said, in ’86 when I—as soon as I got back from Holland—when I—I was getting ready to motor to Los Angeles because that’s where my kids and grandkids are. And my son called me and told me that his mom was down, and so then I went on out there to check on her. And then, I was with her out there. And then, I’ve had a few problems myself for—I have what they call—I have what they call CHF—chronic heart failure. It’s a congestive situation. If too much fluid buildup in my system, but I guess one of the reasons for that would be that certain people in the family prepared my meals using too much sodium. And then eating up and down the road—the way I got around that so long is that—I’m a vegetarian, by the way—I only eat chicken and fish. And I always considered myself such a health nut I was immune, but then it happened to me. I had an attack here, then I’ve been in the hospital in Los Angeles, then I—here recently—I’ve been in the hospital 2 or 3 times. See, but I have learned to live with it, so when you see me, if I control my fluid level, then you hardly think there was anything wrong with me. But you noticed that—see, I pulled these stairs coming up here, and that’s why I asked for an aspirin. I forgot to take one just as I left home. And I want to thank you. (laughs)
LM: My pleasure. I’m glad I had one on hand.
LM: How many children do you have?
LW: I have two children and two grandchildren.
LM: Are they in music, any of them?
LW: Both my kids were music majors. And then one time, my daughter had her own studio in Los Angeles. However, now, she’s a computer operator for American Airlines in Century City. That’s where her office is. She doesn’t work at the airport now she’s—you know—and then—in sales and ticket sales. And my son, he’s the organist for a Christian Science church right on the campus almost of USC. And he’s also a car salesman. He lives in Pasadena, California, not too far from the Rose Bowl. My son did his—he was a—he is a great pianist and clarinetist, and he’s entertained—before he got out of the nightclub business—in Alaska, Anchorage, Juneau, Vegas—all places like that—Seattle. But then he’s into car sales now. He’s—this Acura—he’s a salesman for Acura. And he also plays. And then my granddaughter—both my daughter—my daughter went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and later on my granddaughter went there, and so she’s with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and she’s studying to be a psychiatrist. This is my granddaughter. And my grandson—my granddaughter’s 22, by the way—and then my grandson hopefully will finish his studying to get his MBA, which is—and that way—I told him—I said, “I hope you finish because—you see—I don’t care what you fall into, if you don’t have fiscal management, nothing happens. It’s wasted.” Oh, encumber yourself in debt—blah, blah, blah. So that is the level of it on my children.
CS: 09:56.4 Where is he going to school? Where?
LW: My grandson?
LW: He’s with the Los Angeles City College group. Yeah, and that—
LM: Well, we’ve come full circle here. There’s just one area I wanted to explore with you.
LM: I noticed you brought with you photographs and programs and I’m hoping that those are to be put in your collection here.
LW: Yes, but what happens—Lizette was telling me that you have a way of photographing these things and then I can get them back. That’s the way I did when they did at Holland—they got me in 5 or 6 pages. I didn’t mention this fellow, but I’d like to. He’s a—this is like one of my kids. He went to kindergarten with my son. That’s Don Mitchell. He was in the fellow that had the series—in the wheelchair in television. And so he and I were appearing in a show in Los Angeles together.
LM: Well, can we have them for about a week?
LW: Oh, yeah. I’ll leave these pictures here, and I think I’ve got on the back of most of them the names of the people there.
LW: 11:07.7 Yeah, because see I’ve—
LM: I’m going to arrange with my technician to have them shot while I’m—I’m going to be out of town 2 days, but I’ll have these shot when I’m gone. Okay?
LW: And you’ll take my telephone number and my address and all that?
LM: Yes, I’m going to get all that. Let me just finish up the tape and say, I appreciate very much your generous time that you’ve given us and we both have found this to be probably one of the most rigorous and full interviews we’ve had in some time. And I really appreciate it. You’ve lived—you have an interesting life, and it’s going to make a nice addition—a very fine addition to our jazz archive component.
LW: Oh, well, thank you, and if I may, I’d like to say that it’s been one of the most delightful interviews—really—that I’ve ever taken part in because both of you fellows seem like, so compatible. And I told him earlier—you was out of the room—but I don’t give unqualified compliments. I’m very scrutinous about that and I learned that a long time in psychology. Always give a legitimate compliment, so if you did something in that respect, okay. But now if you didn’t, “Oh, what a beautiful tie.” See, I’m still complimenting something, but I’m not complimenting—(laughs)
LM: You’re still complimenting, but it ain’t me. You got my tie here. Well, I picked out the tie so you are complimenting me.
LW: (laughs) But really, it’s been a delightful experience.
LM: Thank you.
LW: And I really enjoyed it.
LM: Thank you very much.
CS: I really appreciate it. I thoroughly have enjoyed it.
(End of dictation 12:43.5)