John Gary Williams – self titled (Stax/Concord Music Group)

Truly a lost gem of classic soul – as relevant today as ever before

Few people heard this fantastic album from former Mad Lads’ vocalist John Gary Williams when it was recorded 44 years ago. Full of lush strings, slow-jam grooves, and psychedelic guitar flourishes, this criminally-ignored LP is elevated even more by Williams’ soaring vocals. It’s a great record, from start to finish, and it should’ve been a hit.

As with most of the output released on Stax Records in the mid-1970’s, it suffered from poor distribution and neglect at the hands of CBS, who made a deal and then quickly lost interest in the legendary Memphis label – essentially marooning great albums like this to the warehouse, and preventing them from getting into key markets like Detroit and Chicago. Now, four decades later, John Gary Williams is finally getting its due as part of Stax Records’ 60th anniversary celebration, a joint venture between Concord Music and Rhino Records.

The LP opens with “I See Hope,” featuring a tension in the horns and strings that are in contrast to the optimism in the lyrics. One of five songs co-written by Williams, it features the great lines “y’know light is just seconds away from darkness / and a headache is just an aspirin away from cure.”

Next comes the gorgeous ballad, “I’m So Glad Fools Can Fall in Love,” which recalls the Mad Lads’ hit “Don’t Have to Shop Around,” while “Loving You (It Ain’t Easy)” is pure Philly Soul in the same vein as the Stylistics’ best work.

Williams’ augments the originals by pulling from some interesting sources. He takes the early Four Tops’ nugget, “Ask the Lonely,” and slows it way down, turning it into a pleading masterpiece. Then, he improves on a recent Spinners’ single, “How Can I Let You Get Away,” first by slowing the tempo to a seductive crawl, then by adding a spoken intro, and then finally by Williams’ giving a better vocal than the original (which is certainly no easy task). The sappy Bobby Goldsboro number “Honey” might seem like an odd choice, yet in Williams’ hands, he strips the song of its schmaltz and all that’s left is sincerity.

Of course, the album’s most powerful track is saved for last: “The Whole Damn World is Going Crazy” might sound like a real downer. But, here’s Williams’ genius at work. He takes a page from Marvin Gaye, wrapping these lyrics of despair around sweet strings and harmonies, just as Gaye did on his equally-socially aware “What’s Going On.” It’s a tremendous single., but one only wonders if AM radio was ready to hear the word “damn” in a hit song. It’s also somewhat sad to realize that these lyrics are more relevant today than ever before. It should’ve been the cornerstone of one of the finest soul albums of the mid-Seventies. Instead, it sat in the vaults in obscurity.

The vinyl edition features a reproduction of the original front cover containing a great photo of Williams wearing a purple suit and bow tie (yeah baby!), and back cover, featuring the original sleeve notes by John B. Smith (certainly a product of the times). The inner sleeve features a brand-new essay penned by historian John Hubbell, giving more background into Williams’ life before and after the release of this album. The vinyl itself was cut at the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis and sounds great in analog form.

At just over 31 minutes, the album leaves you wanting more. Yet, the songs are so good that there’s no problem hearing them again. It is no exaggeration to call this a soul masterpiece, finally given its due. –Tony Peters