Williams, J. Mayo

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J. Mayo Williams

Producer, music executive, professional football player

According to musical historian Eileen Southern, J. Mayo Williams was the most important black record executive of the 1920s and 1930s. The listener who surveys the music Williams recorded will not find it hard to see how Southern reached that conclusion. Williams brought the hardcore blueswoman Gertrude "Ma" Rainey to record buyers, making her a national star. When other executives were focusing on female classic blues singers, Williams recorded the male blues and boogie musicians whose styles propelled the musical genre forward. He discovered Louis Jordan, recorded early versions of the rock and roll standards "Stagger Lee," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Deeo-Dee," and "Milk Cow Blues," and in the midst of these activities found time to become one of the first African Americans to play in the National Football League.

Jay Mayo Williams, who rarely used his first name or initial, was born on July 25, 1894, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. After his father, Daniel Williams, was killed in a railway station shooting, his mother, Millie, moved the family to Monmouth, Illinois, where she had married her husband in 1885. Mayo Williams grew up in Monmouth and excelled as a high school athlete, winning a state championship in the 50-yard dash and taking second place in the 100-yard dash in 1912. He was part of the Monmouth High Maroons football squad that made it to the Illinois state championship in 1910.

Earned Phi Beta Kappa Key

In 1916, on the recommendation of an alumnus, Williams was admitted to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He continued to perform well on the football field, playing throughout his college years and making the New York Times All-America third team in 1920. He was also a New England track champion at the 40-yard distance. Williams's college career was interrupted in 1918 by a stint in the U.S. Army, where he served as a private. An outstanding scholar and athlete, he graduated from Brown in 1921 with a major in philosophy and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society.

Williams contemplated a banking career, but soon decided to try out for the new National Football League (NFL, which briefly used the names of American Professional Football Association or American Professional Football League after it was formed in 1920). He was a member of the Hammond (Indiana) Pros squad from 1921-1926, also playing one game each for the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, the Dayton Triangles, and the Cleveland Bulldogs. He was one of just three black players in the NFL at the beginning of his football career.

Football took up only a few months of the year, and while living with his mother in Chicago, he looked around for other opportunities that were open to African Americans. The freshly minted Brown philosophy graduate transported bootleg alcohol for a time, and then began writing a sports column for an African-American newspaper called The Whip. The paper's editor, who had been Williams's fraternity brother at Brown, also worked as a distributor for the Black Swan record label. Williams helped him out for a short time, and although he knew nothing about the record business and his musical knowledge was limited to the blues music his mother liked, he decided to apply for a job with the Paramount label, headquartered in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Crowds of children who had never seen a black person before dogged him from the railroad station to the label's office, which was headquartered in the Wisconsin Chair Company's building.

Got Musical Advice from Secretary

Williams then talked his way into the post of manager of the Chicago Music Company, Paramount's publishing arm. The company paid him poorly and steadfastly refused to give him raises or promotions. But the situation was ideal from a musical point of view: Williams rented space at 36th and State Streets on Chicago's South Side, close to the city's vibrant black entertainment district, and his secretary, Althea Dickerson, gave him tips about up-and-coming blues acts. He had a good deal of autonomy from Paramount's white top executives, and from their point of view (although not that of the performers he signed) he did well: he ac- quired the copyrights for much of the music he recorded simply by paying the singer a token sum (often between five and twenty dollars) and making it clear that the performer's Paramount recording session depended on his or her going along with the deal.

Williams proved to have a good ear for material (even though the downhome blues artists he recorded were sometimes put off by his middle class ways), and with the black record market growing rapidly in the 1920s he consistently scored hits with the female blues singers who flourished in black vaudeville halls. His prize discovery at Paramount was "Ma" Rainey, who had come north after a career with Southern traveling tent shows. Williams produced her classic "See See Rider" in 1924, which featured the young New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who had just arrived in Chicago. The song became a blues standard. He also recorded the banjoist-vocalist Papa Charlie Jackson as well as blueswoman Ida Cox, and a variety of other material including comedy routines and sermons. He also produced the first recordings of the great Southern country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Edged out of his position by one of Paramount's white salesmen, who had been lucky enough to actually discover Jefferson, Williams started his own label in 1927. It was officially called the Chicago Record Company, but on the label he used the name Black Patti, after the black opera singer M. Sissieretta Jones (known as the Black Patti). Black Patti 78 rpm releases in the blues, jazz, and gospel genres never sold in large numbers, but are now among the most prized items in the record collecting field. None is rarer than the Down Home Boys' "Original Stack 'o Lee Blues," later widely recorded as "Stagger Lee."

Produced "It's Tight Like That"

Black Patti failed, but Williams was soon lured to the Vocalion label (at the time an imprint of the Brunswick Company) by executive Jack Kapp, head of Vocalion's "race" or black-oriented series. Williams returned to what he had been doing at Paramount: scouting out new acts and producing their recording sessions. He still possessed a keen ear for hits, now possibly an even better one. He produced one of the biggest blues records of the era, a novelty double-entendre song called "It's Tight Like That" by the duo of Georgia Tom and Tampa Red. "Georgia Tom" Dorsey later achieved fame as the gospel hymn composer Thomas A. Dorsey. Williams was also credited as co-composer of another blues standard, "Corrine, Corrina." He certainly did no more than adapt it from traditional sources, but he produced two early recordings of the song by Frankie Jaxon.

Record sales plunged during the Great Depression, and from 1931-1933 Williams returned to football as head coach at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta. He returned to music in 1934 when the British label Decca launched its American subsidiary and put Jack Kapp in charge. Kapp called Williams to New York to start up Decca's race music series, and Williams stepped into the studio with boogie piano acts like Peetie Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim. He scored a hit with bluesman Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues," later covered by Elvis Presley. In the mid-1930s, Williams responded to the growing big-band style by forming a group of studio musicians he called the Harlem Hamfats—a band with a harder-edged, more guitar-oriented sound than the sweet swing bands of Duke Ellington and other bandleaders.

Among the musicians influenced by the Harlem Hamfats sound was the young singer and bandleader Louis Jordan, whom Williams recorded in 1938 and 1939. Those recordings, including "Keep a-Knockin'," "Doug the Jitterbug," and "At the Swing Cats' Ball," were not really swing, but had a heavily rhythmic sound that became known as jump blues and pointed the way directly toward rock and roll. "If Jordan's sound contained the rock and roll gene," observed historians David Jasen and Gene Jones in their book Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, "its DNA came from Mayo Williams' Harlem Hamfats."

For the Record …

Born on July 25, 1894, in Pine Bluff, AR; died on January 2, 1980, in Chicago, IL. Education: Brown University, degree in philosophy, Phi Beta Kappa, 1921.

Played for Hammond (IN) Pros, National Football League, 1921-26; Paramount Records, Chicago, manager and producer, 1923-27; founded Black Patti label, 1927; Vocalion Records, producer and artists-and-repertoire executive, 1927-31; Morehouse College, head football coach, 1931-34; Decca Records, New York, producer and artists-and-repertoire executive, 1934-46; founded Ebony label.

The new blues styles that began to arise in the South and West during and after World War II finally diminished Williams's influence, although he had one last flash of brilliance when he recorded the young guitarist Muddy Waters for his Ebony label in the late 1940s. He started several small labels after the war, eventually selling off rights to some of his copyrights and returning to Chicago. Williams established a South Side office for Ebony and continued to work there almost until the end of his life. He died on January 2, 1980. A general underestimation of his influence on the blues tradition has resulted from his own refusal to assert his own importance in interviews he gave late in life. According to Jasen and Jones, he did, however, tell one interviewer, "I've been better than 50 percent honest, which in this business is pretty good."



Jasen, David A., and Gene Jones, Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, Schirmer, 1998.

Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood, 1982.


"J. Mayo Williams," Find a Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=23223758 (March 3, 2008).

"J. Mayo Williams," Profile from the Ivy League's Black History, http://ivy50.com/blackHistory/story.aspx?sid=12/26/2006 (March 3, 2008).

—James M. Manheim

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