Earl Williams is the greatest local bluesman and hairdresser you never heard of.
July 09, 2009
When Earl Williams is amused, his low-key laughter eerily resonates through the room; he sounds like a chuckling Lou Rawls. Williams, a local guitarist and owner/operator of Intensive Care Beauty Salon in Bessemer, laughs when he explains the shop's name. "I felt like a hair doctor. Everybody that was coming to me had problems. I think I started out that way; I was trying to save my own hair. So, if I could save myself, I could save others, too."
Thirty years ago, Williams moved to Dallas, Texas, to play guitar with renowned rhythm & blues singer Johnnie Taylor, known for hits such as "Who's Making Love? (To Your Old Lady)," "Cheaper to Keep Her," and "Disco Lady." By the mid-1980s, he was traveling with chitlin' circuit legend Latimore, a popular singer on "party blues and oldies" radio stations. He quit the road life to open Intensive Care salon 23 years ago, but he still joins Latimore on stage whenever the singer plays in the area.
Williams learned guitar as a nine-year-old while hanging out at Gip's Place, a Bessemer backyard juke joint that has been around since the 1950s (see "The Juke Joint," August 7, 2008, at http://tinyurl.com/gips1). "I had started picking around, going to different friends' houses who had a guitar," he recalls. "And I chased the guitar around. One friend of mine, he had a guitar and he sold it and I started hanging out with the guy he sold it to. I learned how to play it. None of them ever learned to play it, but I kept following them around. And I'd go to Banks Pawn Shop down there and I'd just pick it up, go down there every other day. Some of the bluegrass guys showed me how to make chords."
|Earl Williams (left) with Latimore. (click for larger version)|
"I got my first job playing with a band when I was 13 when I played a Johnnie Taylor song, 'I Got to Love Somebody's Baby.' So Johnnie Taylor's kind of been in my past all the way. . . . We were called The Corruptors. We were doing blues, a lot of Johnnie Taylor. We had a female vocalist; we did the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, a lot of Motown stuff," Williams says of his first band. "We played for all grown people. A bunch of old people who would be there, wouldn't be nobody our age or nothing. We couldn't go out and mingle, we always had to stay in the dressing room. It was kind of like in the Michael Jackson era when it was okay for kids to play."
Williams was a bit of a renegade. "I listened to Jimi Hendrix a whole lot. I would have parties and I'd be the only musician playing Jimi Hendrix," he remembers fondly. "Playing Hendrix, man, and drinking Boone's Farm wine. Had the nets hanging out of the ceiling. I even had the Confederate flag in there. One of my friends was like, 'Why you got that Confederate flag, man, what's wrong with you?'"
The guitarist eventually formed the Afro Blues Band, which became the group Kalu. The band's lead singer, Greg Miller (brother of former Birmingham City Councilor Bert Miller, according to Williams), left briefly to sing with Parliament. Soon Kalu saxophonist Lee Charles Mitchell moved to Texas to play with Johnnie Taylor, eventually inviting Williams to Dallas, where the guitarist joined Taylor's band, Justice of the Peace, in the late 1970s.
|"I found myself making more money fixing hair in the hotel than I was making playing my guitar . . . you could make $500 for a haircut."|
Earl Williams worked at U.S. Steel for nearly 20 years before the Latimore job came along. There, he was a guitarist in a company bluegrass band. "We played parties for the superintendent of our plant. And the superintendent heard I'd written a song about a reprimand from him called a '74.' I wrote a song called the '74 Blues.' He caught me sleeping I don't know how many times," Williams remembers, laughing. "So this time I was thinking I was getting fired. I had to go to his office to play it for him. I got all those guys playing that bluegrass, banjos, and fiddles and everything, and he liked it so much he started throwing parties [with the band as the entertainment]. He created that group and called it the Swinging Sinners. So we just played for him all the time."
After taking a leave of absence to go to Texas to play with Taylor, Williams was in for a shock. "Johnnie Taylor didn't do a lot of playing when I was with him. He kind of went into a little refuge period there where he'd drink pretty heavy. . . . He'd go and start drinking before he'd get to the show. And most of the time he'd come with his eyes all red—he'd be loaded. And sometimes he couldn't do more than two or three songs, too."
Williams returned to Birmingham and U.S. Steel to work several more years before being laid off. Two weeks after losing his job, Latimore called to offer work to Williams and his blues band. "We had to be one of the only groups carrying our own equipment. We had our own sound system, and that's part of why Latimore really wanted my band," he admits. "Latimore was really what you would call a chitlin'-type circuit player to survive. His pay was always at the bottom of the totem pole," the guitarist explains. "Latimore would lower his pay just to keep a job all the time. He always had a philosophy. He said, 'I'd rather lower my price and play five nights than to have a high price and don't play but one or two nights. I want to play, whether I'm getting the money or not. I gotta stay sharp.'"
Jheri Curl Days
Williams soon added band leader and management chores to his Latimore guitar duties. His biggest break, however, was when he began to style the singer's hair. "I was just kinda launching me a new career when they came out with this new hairstyle, the Jheri curl," recalls Williams. "Do you remember when whites were wearing their hair curly like—what's that guy . . . "Welcome Back, Kotter"—was wearing his hair? Well, that curl was discovered by Jheri Redding, who was a white guy. And the blacks caught on to it and started wearing their hair real curly. That brought a lot of money into the hair industry. That's when I joined up!"
Because the band stayed at the same hotels as other acts when appearing on big shows, B.B. King soon enlisted Williams' hair-styling talents. "When we'd be backstage, they'd see Latimore's hair and they'd say, 'Hey, you got you a built-in beautician, huh?' because I'd be following him around and be fixing on his hair. That's how it all got started and word just kinda got around, and then one told another about it. . . . I found myself making more money fixing hair in the hotel than I was making playing my guitar. They paid on a celebrity level. On a celebrity level, you could make $500 for a haircut."
"I was doing everybody's 'curl.' I did B.B. King's hair, I did Latimore's hair, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis. I give them their very first [Jheri curl], because nobody really knew about it like I did," says Williams. "See, they didn't know what type rolls to use. I used to hang around white [barber] shops a lot—kind of grew up in a white shop, too—because I used to be a shoeshine guy in a white shop. I'd sit there and watch and learn how to cut Caucasian hair. So I was always a barber, and cosmetology, I've had that since I was a little kid."
|Birmingham's Afro Blues Band in the 1970s. That's Williams on the front row at right. Greg Miller (brother of former Birmingham City Councilor Bert Miller) stands in the rear at center. (click for larger version)|
The Chitlin' Circuit
"It used to be that they were letting the blues die. And B.B. King went on national TV and said that they were letting the blues die, and he was wondering why we're not holding on to our heritage, why we don't value our heritage and why are we letting the history go to nothing," Williams recalls. "When he was interviewed about that, the whites embraced B.B. King, because at the time B.B. King was losing his slot as being the number one blues player. Z.Z. Hill was knocking him out of his number one spot. In '83 and '84, I used to do bookings, I used to put shows together myself. B.B. King was making $15,000 a night, and Z.Z. Hill was at $10,000."
When asked to elaborate about the "chitlin' circuit," Williams laughs. "Chitlins have always been described as the ultimate soul food. If you can get the pig or not, you'll take whatever you can get out there. You just kinda have to get out there and go for it. The thing is, you need a regular paycheck, 'cause if you don't get out there for the chitlins, you won't eat—'cause steak ain't gonna be available but every once in a while. So you got to pick the chitlins up until you can get to [the steak], and keep yourself in shape. 'Cause if you just sit down and get all out of shape, you can get forgotten about."
When pressed for anecdotes from his days with Latimore, Williams picks up his cell phone and makes a call. "Hey Lat! I'm doing this interview and this guy wants to hear some phenomenal stories about the chitlin' circuit," Williams says as the distinctly deep-timbered chuckle of Benny Latimore comes from the speakerphone. Latimore is in Mississippi prepping for a cross-country trek to California, happy to oblige a request from his occasional guitarist. The pair laugh about a bass player who could sleep and play at the same time, and the night they played a run-down army barracks in Greenville, Mississippi, where the wiring was so poor that the band had to stop after every three songs to let the electrical circuit "cool back down" before they could resume playing. They chuckle about another former band member who, during tours, would go into housing projects in search of weed. "That was part of his diet," adds Latimore over the phone, laughing while speculating that the musician was eating marijuana.
"Hey Lat, you gonna eat you some of that boudin while you down there in Louisiana? They make it out of cow blood, don't they, Lat?" Williams asks. Latimore responds: "Yeah, some of it has got blood in it. You know, cooked blood! [laughs] Some of them places we played in, they had all kinds of things. They had 'coon' sandwiches. I don't know if it was real raccoon or they just called it that or what. But I don't think I even wanted to deal with that at all." &