Willie Willis Interview
by Don O.
Willie at the Bass Club, Dallas #1
Willie at the Bass Club, Dallas #2
Willie at The Cavern, Dallas #3
Willie at The Cavern, Dallas #4
Willie at The Cavern, Dallas #5
Willie Willis is one of those undiscovered Dallas blues treasures who, someday, is going to bust out of those tiny bars and move onto the festival circuit. Another overnight success, with 50 years of experience, just waiting for the right break. Just recently, I caught Willie and his band, The Wildcatters, in a tiny little joint on Greenville Avenue called The Cavern. The posted fire code is only 49, but there were almost twice that many people crammed into the place to enjoy his music. The bandstand is so tiny, Willie couldn't fit with the rest of the band. He was sitting in a chair out on the dance floor, playing and singing the blues. At one point a drunken young lady fell right into his lap, miraculously not spilling her drink on his dapper grey suit. "Stuff like that happens to me all the time" said Willie. "I just take it in stride and go ahead on. I know they don't intend to do stuff like that, so why make something out of it? They're dancing and some of 'em just get tilted. I've been young. I now what it's all about. Let 'em have a good time." Now that's the attitude of a bluesman who has been around.
Despite his long career, Willie has only a handful of recordings in his own name. He has a distinctive original style, both on guitar and vocals, that is immediately recognizable. A recent article in The Dallas Morning News gave Willie a rare spotlight in a community that routinely ignores the entire blues genre. It's way past time for Willie to step up and tell his own story in his own words. So here it is.
I'm from Fairfield, Texas, born December 12, 1932. We had a big family of 11. It was only myself and my older sister that took up music and she played for church all the time. My sister and my mom both wanted me to play with my sister in church. I came out wanting to play blues. I took the other side of it, so that was that.
I grew up listening to WSM in Nashville and John R's show in WLAC in Nashville. I was torn between two types of music at that time, hillbilly music and blues. Hank Williams Sr. was one guy then in the country field that I really loved. The man was just incredible. Not only was he a good song writer and singer, he had one of the best country bands that has ever been. He had some great musicians. Louis Jordan was tops in the black music field back then.
The first blues song I learned how to play was an old John Lee Hooker song, came out in 47, "Boogie Chillun". I started to carry my old guitar to school, sit out there at break time, and I'd have all the little girls gathered around me. I had all the peanut butter sandwiches I wanted to eat, if I trusted them! Anything I wanted, long as I played that one song. I was attracting so much attention out there my school teacher wrote a note to my mom. Not only did I get my behind tore up, I had to stop carrying my guitar. I was grounded, man! I missed all those peanut butter sandwiches! Those little girls just pulled up stakes and went on about their business.
Shortly after getting out of high school, me and another guy teamed up and were playing at a grocery store. We weren't playing nothing right. We were just hitting' a lick here and a lick there. It was a lot of fun.
Shortly after that I went in the service and went over to Korea. I met a guy in the service named Grady Young. He was an incredible singer. Singing country music! He already played guitar. When I was in Seoul I bought a cheap guitar, something I wouldn't have to worry about when would rotate back home. Grady was good on singing and covering himself while he sang, but he had no lead experience whatsoever. So that was my part. I wasn't much of a chord guy back then, but for notes I ran the guy crazy. Just about anything I heard I could play. He used me for the lead. We teamed up with some other guys; drums, piano, mandolin, bass, and played maybe 4 or 5 shows at the service club tent. They called us the Third Division Players. We were in the same division as Audie Murphy. Right up the road they had American Forces Radio. They heard us playing out there one day. The Captain started letting us have a 15 minute show on Friday. We got so good they gave us 30 minutes. Then we went to playing for the ICOR women, the officer's club, and just stayed busy. We busted up when our hitch was over and I came back to Dallas and Fairfield.
I kind of layed low for awhile. I went around and to hear other players back here but I was scared to get up there with most of them. They were bad back then. West Dallas and Central tracks were terrible places. I got to meet guys like Little Son Jackson. I had the utmost admiration for him. I didn't like the way he played guitar, though. A lot of players used those clamps back then. I sure liked all his records, though.
I had about 3 things on my mind that I was going to try to do. Follow up with the guitar, or I had cousins with funeral homes and they wanted me to be a mortician, and I had my eye set on a barbers course. First, I finished the course at Fairfield Barber College. The year I got my license, 1955, I came to Dallas for good. There was so much red tape in being a barber, there wasn't very much demand, and so I gave up on that. I could not handle working in that funeral home. My nerves just weren't that good. So there was another job I blowed. I went down to the Adolphus Hotel and ended up working there for 19 years. I started as a dishwasher and ended up as the kitchen steward. Went from the bottom to the top. I was playing a little music on Sunday nights and sitting in with other bands. I teamed up with Frankie Lee Daniels. He had a daughter that played organ and he played guitar. He had a lady vocalist and a male singer.
I got to see and play a lot of music around this time. Frankie Lee Simms, Jimmy Wilson, Bo Thomas, Peppermint Harris. I did a million shows with Lowell Fulson. T-Bone Walker, Johnnie Taylor, Joe Simon, Mercy Baby, a few with Albert King, and a whole lot of shows with Freddie King. Mercy Baby was an incredible singer and one of the best drummers that has ever been. He was playing drums for me over on Second Avenue at the Famous Door just before his wife killed him.
Around this time I started working on my own vocals. It takes a lot of self confidence to convince yourself to sing. You have to satisfy yourself, first, then you can improve yourself from there. The more you sing, the better you can control your voice. It takes at least as much work to learn how to sing right as it does to learn how to play right. Stage fright takes some time to get used to. I'd get butterflies in a minute.
I made one single record on the Ride label in 1956, an answer off of the original black night, it's called "Good Black Night". I didn't get nothing out of it. I just wanted to get a record out there, that's all. Wrote that with Fats Washington.
My people were really flabbergasted that I really did learn how to play. I went and played at my old high school after I had my record out and everything changed around for me. Makes you feel good to go home and people have good things to say about ya. I carried my mom to the grocery one time, and to have her, when she used to whup my tail and make me put that guitar up, going around in the store, as she shopped, telling everyone in the store that I was her oldest son and a musician, that made me feel so good, that she finally had accepted it. She wanted me to go the other way, but I didn't.
I was playing down at the Prohibition Room way back before the West End boomed up down there. Before that I played at The Cave on Greenville and University, and St Christophers at Park Lane and Greenville. I was getting' 50-75 dollars a night and working 3 or 4 nights a week, while working at the hotel, too. I was doing' good. That was money back in them days.
In 1989 I cut an LP for Soul Staff Records called "Blues Food For the Soul". I wound up going overseas to Amsterdam, Holland off that LP. They were selling 45's over there for $5 and $6 a copy. They were getting' $25 and $30 for the LPs. I signed a whole lot of autographs over there. He was black marketing my music over there making all the money and I wasn't getting none! I got throwed to the dogs on that one!
I made my last CD for Trix, "Down Home In Dallas", in 1994. We did that over at Audio Dallas here in town. I just got through cutting a bunch of new songs for Fedora Records in April. I've been listening to that tape over and over and I think that's the best one I've done yet. We're also trying to work out a trip to Brazil right now.
Blues has taken hold fast. Faster than a lot of players realize. It's going to continue to get better. I tell you why. The people done got the feeling of it now and they like what they feel. They gonna promote it to the highest. Used to be, there was only one or two places that were buying blues overseas. Now, they are selling it anywhere. The more they hear it, the more they like, the more they buy. The coverage and promotion is catching up to rap and the other stuff out there. I feel real good about where the blues is right now. There's too many people wanting to know if I'm tied up with a label right now. I'm getting all kind of feedback. It sure feels good.
I done struggled to take everything they can dish out to me. The good Lord let me live through it, and here I am. I learned how to get along with people and I maintained that through the whole of my lifetime. When I first started playing I would get $4 a night. All the other guys would drink back then. I never drank. They would spend that money and all I had to pay for was some coffee or soda water. I just want everyone to know I am very grateful to the man up yonder for putting up with me this long. For Him letting something decent and nice come out of this long music thing I've been dealing' with.