CLARENCE WILLIAMS (1889 - 1965)
Williams was born in Plaquemine Delta, Louisiana, in 1898, but his family moved to New Orleans in 1906. He ran away from
home in 1910 to join a minstrel show, eventually returning to New Orleans and concentrating on piano studies. Although he
took a few formal lessons, much of his tutelage came by listening to pianists like “Jelly Roll” Morton and Tony
Jackson in the Storyville District. During this period he met Spencer Williams, with whom he would co-write his first big
hits. He worked a variety of non-music jobs in the District, eventually being hired to run one of Storyville’s famous
spots, Pete Lala’s Cafe, where a young lad named Louis Armstrong was playing his first important job. He continued to
work music jobs and in 1914 met violinist/bandleader Armand Piron with whom he formed the first African-American music
publishing firm in New Orleans the following year. Clarence lived in a highly-charged musical neighborhood in which resided
future jazz stars Joe “King” Oliver, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny and Baby Dodds. He moved to Chicago in
1919 to open a branch of his publishing firm, but two years later he moved the company to New York and bought out
Piron’s interest, renaming it the Clarence Williams Music Publishing Company.
Williams was a highly accomplished promoter, and although he had a reputation of putting his name on songs for which his
contribution was likely promotional, his firm published many successful songs by African-American composers. Williams was a
keen judge of talent, recording and promoting artists such as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and utilizing
the talents of James P. Johnson, King Oliver and Coleman Hawkins on recording sessions.
He was one of the first African-Americans to see the potential of radio, appearing regularly on New York’s WGBS.
Williams’ Blue Five recordings with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet from 1925 are jazz classics, and he was the
first to record the standard “I’ve Found a New Baby.”
In 1943 Williams sold a part interest in his publishing company to Decca Records for $50,000 and basically spent the rest
of his life running a second-hand shop. He died in 1965.
-- Sandra Burlingame
Courtesy of JazzStandards.com