Don Wilcock Remembers Ernie Williams
By Don Wilcock
Yes, yes, yes…
“You goin’ with us again?,” asked B.B. King. Ernie Williams looked the King of the Blues straight in the eye. “I want to, but I don’t know. I have some work to do right here (in New York’s Capital Region) that I signed contracts with, and I can’t.”
Ernie and B.B. are the same age. Their stories have many parallels. Both were sharecroppers, grandsons of slaves. Both began playing guitar at a young age and were so drawn to music that they made their first guitars out of available materials. Both played first for all black audiences. But both had hearts so full of love and life that they not only overcame prejudice, but their every deed became an example for us all.
“At first I did (hate white people),” Ernie told me in 1999, “but you live to let things pass you by. You let it slide off your shoulder… You have to look at things and let it go and let it slide off your back. Otherwise, you’re dead. You can’t do this in this country. Thank the Lord you get health and strength. You have to smile and everything ’cause you grow up doing this, and you just can’t hate ’cause hate is a disease. It’s terrible. It will destroy you.”
There were two significant differences between B.B. and Ernie. While King travelled the world, Ernie never strayed far from home. And while B.B. now sits in a chair through his shows, Ernie never stopped boogying, never gave less than 110 percent.
I particularly remember a show in the summer of 2010. It was 95 degrees in the historic Buhrmaster Barn at the Pryne House on a Wednesday night. There was one small fan in the corner. Ernie was finishing up three sets of honking blues, including his own “Searching for Salvation” and classics that covered everything from Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” to Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working.” The standout number was Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” with Charlie Vatalaro throwing in some “Green Onions” on saxophone.
No quarter was given to the stifling heat and humidity. With the band and Ernie egging each other on, Ernie lifted his straw hat from his head, stretched out arms that seemed as long as his heart was large and pontificated: “Yes, yes, yes!” Then, he jumped down off the stage and boogied through the sparse, wilted crowd, raising them up off their chairs like a sprinkler in a watermelon patch. His arms and legs pumped to the music, his smile telegraphing the crowd, “I love you just as much as you love me.”
As founder and President of the now defunct Northeast Blues Society, I always saw Ernie as our compass. He was more than an archetype. He was the spirit, our inspiration “Searching for Salvation.” We did a Katrina benefit in 2005 at the Empire State Plaza with national blues acts Kenny Neal, Marva Wright, Mem Shannon and the Unknown Blues Band – great national acts all – but the draw was Ernie Williams.
The Unknown Blues Band and Kenny Neal donated their time. I put Kenny on first because he had a club date later that night at Warm Daddy’s in Pittsburgh, and my son Michael waited in the wings to whisk him from the stage to a waiting car for a break-neck drive to make the gig. Ernie headlined, and at the end of the night I sat backstage and personally counted out hundred dollar bills for Mem and Marva who had lost everything in the flood. Marva had been so overcome with emotion on stage that she couldn’t get through her set. Mem joked that the only reason he got out of New Orleans before the flood ravaged his home was because he didn’t know how to swim. It was Ernie who closed the show, and it was his draw that allowed us to help Mem and Marva.
Ernie’s late-in-life marriage to his Kit Kat Kathy was a storybook happy ending to an old romance that almost wasn’t to be. His presence in my memory – as in so many of yours, I’m sure – is nothing but goodness, often giddiness. I can still hear Ernie’s promo spot for my Backstage Pass and Roadhouse radio show with him giggling and telling the world what a wonderful family man I was. The Northeast Blues Society put his picture on our t-shirts with “Yes, yes, yes” emblazoned underneath. We wanted to send him to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge, but he wanted to leave that opportunity open to younger bands.
Ernie Williams had a great run. Guitarist Joe Mele calls him our Elvis. None of us will ever forget him, and our lives are richer for the memories he so tirelessly gave us.
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