The Charioteers, The Quartet, and Billy Williams©2001JCMarion


Wilberforce College is a historically Black university located in central Ohio. It was here at about 1930 when a singing quartet originally known as The Harmony Four was first formed by Howard Daniel a professor of music at the university. This group began with traditional gospel music but eventually became The Charioteers. The growing fame of the quartet led to a two year spot on Cincinnati radio station WLW. The group featured the tenor lead singing of Billy Williams with other members Ira Williams, Eddie Jackson, and pianist-arranger Jimmy Sherman. They soon made the jump to network radio with Bing Crosby and others. Bit parts in movies followed, as did records-first with Decca and Vocalion, and finally a long term deal with Columbia Records (on both the parent label and its affiliate Okeh). By the early and mid 1940s they specialized in pop and jazz standards with tenor lead by Billy and smooth harmonies by the rest of the group. Some of the outstanding recordings from this period were : "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams" (Okeh #6292), "Cowboy Serenade" (Okeh #6310), "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" (Okeh #6509), and "Don't Forget Tonight Tomorrow" with Frank Sinatra (Columbia #36854) a top ten seller in 1945.


In 1947 they had their own top ten seller in everybody's big song of the year with "Open The Door Richard" (Col. #37240) and followed that with their cover of Perry Como's number one hit "Chi-Baba Chi-Baba" (Col.#37384). In 1948 They released a cover of a Buddy Greco hit "Looka There Ain't She Pretty" (Col. #38065) and they had a big seller backing up another pop music idol, this time Buddy Clark on "Now Is The Hour" (Col. #38115) which made it to the number six slot on the best sellers list. One final chart hit for The Charioteers came in 1949 and interestingly enough, the version of the song "A Kiss And A Rose" (Col. # 38438) came between the original by The Inkspots and the well known Jubilee side by The Orioles. By late 1949 after close to two decades as the front man for the group Billy Williams decided to call it quits with The Charioteers and form a new vocal quartet and give himself more of a say in matters musical and financial. The Charioteers lost their leader and also the long association with Columbia and were seldom heard from again.


The new foursome was the self named Billy Williams Quartet and with Billy were Eugene Dixon, Claude Riddick, and John Bell. They landed a guest spot on the television weekly called "The Admiral Saturday Night Revue" for the NBC television network. In May of 1950 MGM Records signs the group to its label and soon has appearances at New York's Roxy Theater and Blue Angel nightclub and they land a spot on the Henry Morgan radio show. In September the quartet is signed on as a regular feature of a revamped Saturday Night Revue show called "Your Show Of Shows" to star Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca for NBC. They become one of the first Black performers to have a regular spot on a network variety show, and used a memorable opening with a dramatic lineup by the group as they led into their songs. Their television exposure helps the group as they spend the summer of 1951 doing an extended and well received stay in Los Angeles at the Tiffany Club. The quartet also has their first charted record during the summer with "Shanghai" on MGM #10998 that is a top twenty seller. As they begin their second year on the NBC tv show, their cover of the Four Aces "Sin" (MGM #11066) hits the pop charts.


In early 1952 the group ends their connection with MGM Records and moves over to Mercury. In the fall of the year Mercury #70012 is released. It does not make the pop charts but it is an influential record especially on the East coast. "Mad About 'Cha" is a hypnotic churning uptempo rocker that becomes almost manic in its climax, and the flip "I Don't Know Why" contains lovely harmonies quite reminiscent of Billy's days with The Charioteers. As they continue their TV run during 1953 for NBC, The Billy Williams Quartet makes the pop charts briefly with "Pour Me A Glass Of Teardrops" on Mercury #70094. In person appearances at theaters and nightclubs continue for the group for much of the year. In June 1954 the group changes labels again, as they leave Mercury and sign on with Decca's subsidiary label Coral. The television run ends as "Your Show Of Shows" calls it quits after five years as a staple of Saturday night entertainment. The rock 'n roll age is almost upon America and the quartet recognizes this fact with a summer cover of The Chords "Sh-Boom" on Coral #61212. Surprisingly it makes the top twenty best sellers list in August. In October the group goes to the R & B well with "The Honeydripper" on Coral #61264. The flip side is "Love Me", but nothing much happens with the record. In February of 1955 The Billy Williams Quartet is involved in one of the most original and historic relics of the first golden age of rock 'n roll. The quartet does two covers for Coral Records (on #61363) - The Mellows "Smoke From Your Cigarette" and Buddy and Claudia's "I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya". Now "Smoke" is just a straight forward version of the ballad by the group, but the raucous flip side of the hard edged rocker is complete with a full intro by Alan Freed, shouted comments during the blasting sax solo by Al Sears and charging guitar by Mickey Baker (to say nothing of the thumping tempo by Panama Francis) , clanging cowbell, etc.-in other words all the audio features of the original Moondog persona. It is two and a half minutes of a rock rarity in sound, and that the Billy Williams Quartet is the featured act is amazing.


A few more unsuccessful covers for Coral followed and by 1957 the quartet was no more. Billy hung on trying to make it as a solo performer without much luck until the summer of 1957. That's when Billy unearthed a tune written in 1936 called "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter", gave it a pop flavored delivery spiced with a few Timmie Rogers derived "oh yeahs", and lo and behold, a pop smash was hatched. It was incomprehensible, but there it was-a number three nationally, and close to five months on the pop charts. Coral #61830 was huge, and it was at the right time for Billy to make history (and the answer to an all time trivia question) when he became the very first guest on the national telecast of American Bandstand. Summing up his life at that point, to Dick Clark's question of what was keeping him busy Williams answered slyly "oh yeah !" And so Billy Williams had done that very special characteristic of entertainers-the re-invention of oneself. He followed up his huge and unexpected success with similar attempts - the old Hal Kemp-Skinnay Ennis tune "Got A date With An Angel" (Coral #61886) and the Vincent Lopez theme "Nola" on Coral #62069. Both charted briefly, and once again Billy Williams was adrift in the world of pop music. He kept at it even though such releases as "Good Night Irene" (#62101) and "Begin The Beguine" (# 62230) went nowhere. A duet with budding songstress Barbara McNair (#62131) also disappeared. And soon so did Billy Williams who became a fifties memory throughout the sixties.
This man whose vocal talents were featured for three decades unfortunately came to an inglorious end. In October of 1972 he passed away. He was living in a donated room in the basement of a church in Chicago, and city authorities could not find anyone to claim the body or to provide for a decent burial. He deserved better, but unfortunately his is not an isolated story (see the story of Dee Clark for example). But luckily for us, we have the music. From the soaring tenor singing of The Charioteers, to the dramatic vocals of the Billy Williams Quartet, to the playful oldies of his solo days, Billy Williams was a true American original. Remember his music, and most of all, remember him.

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