Monday, March 20, 2017

The Sherman Williams Orchestra on Bullet 283 / 304

Skippy Brooks, vocalist/pianist with the Sherman Williams Orchestra, 1940s. 

The Sherman Williams Orchestra - (Red Head Blues) My Flamin' Gal - vocal by Skippy Brooks (Bullet 283) 

Ooh-Wee Baby Gee - vocal by Skippy Brooks (Bullet 304)

Time has not been kind to the memory of Sherman Williams. His records have been reissued -- there is even a Classics CD from 2003 of his complete "works" -- but Williams himself seems to have vanished into the ether. Vague, ghostly allusions to him playing in Nashville at a certain point, or marooned in Los Angeles, have presumably been inferred from the labels he recorded for that were based in those cities. No quotes from the man himself have ever surfaced, nor from anyone who personally knew or played with him. Or even remembered him.

I think we can put these rumors partially to rest. Sherman Williams, the alto saxophonist who recorded for Bullet, Gold Star, and other labels, was a Houstonian. He formed his band there in 1940. He is actually covered fairly extensively in the pages of the Houston Informer, that city's African-American weekly newspaper, throughout the 1940s  (a 1949 article identifies him as "a member of one of the oldest families in Houston").  His band, which featured the fine pianist-vocalist Skippy Brooks and female singer Iona Wade, were regulars at the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, El Dorado Ballroom, Whispering Pines, and other hotspots, including white ("ofay") ones like Club Raven and the Ringside. They did travel outside the city some, including a national tour with Johnny Moore's Three Blazes in 1947, and perhaps did record and play in Nashville, but Texas was their home. With such a track record and local presence, why they left no memories among their peers is a mystery. Heretofore, they have gone completely unnoticed in Texas music histories.

Williams made at least 11 singles, none exceptional, but several are fine enough. The two best, in my opinion, are heard here. The Bullet label session(s) dates from 1947 and may have been recorded in Nashville, but Jim Bulliet recorded his Leon Payne and Tommy Scott sides in Dallas, so it's just as likely that these are Texas recordings. (The Classics CD places them in Memphis.) Sherman gets in a solo on "Ooh-Wee Baby Gee," but it's pianist-vocalist Skippy Brooks who makes these songs shine. The rest of the orchestra includes: William Jones (tenor sax), Charles Gillum (trumpet), James Brown (bass), Alvin Woods (drums). Brooks later recorded for Peacock (with no credit to the Williams Orch.) and Excello. This same personnel is listed with the band in a 1949 article.

Houston Informer columnist John H. "Sid" Thompson followed the band closely and wrote about them often in his "Nite Lifer" column. "Sherman Williams and his band, long current at the Peacock, will leave there soon and go to Club Raven, ofay spot, for an indefinite stay," he wrote on February 8, 1947. "With him will go of course the lovely and sweet singer, Iona Wade, who has been the rage at the Peacock for over five months." The group spent early February backing Wynonie Harris at the Peacock. 

Houston Informer ad from February 15, 1947. Wynonie Harris is backed up by the Sherman Williams Orchestra at the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club. 

"I.H. Smalley and Sherman Williams are about the only bands who try to give the public what they like," Sid groussed on March 22, 1947. "Seemingly all other bands are going 'sweet' and it sure is losing a lot of bookings."

Sid noted around this time that Williams had recorded "Sherman's Boogie," but confusingly stated that it would be released on the Black & White label, rather than the label it did come out on, Bullet. 

When Louis Jordan had to cancel a Labor Day show at the Houston City Auditorium in 1947, promoter Don Robey hired the Williams Orchestra to play in his place, with a new up-and-comer named Gatemouth Brown as the opening act.

Houston Informer ad, August 30, 1947. 

Mentions of Williams start to become scarce in the Informer by the early 1950s. Perhaps he did move to Nashville, Los Angeles, or some other city at this time. Such an early "exit" from the scene could explain why so few of his contemporaries remembered him decades later.

Skippy Brooks did move to Nashville in the 1950s and played on some Excello sessions. He reportedly lived in the area until his death. 

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