The name Joe Williams is practically synonymous with the blues. Since his early days with Count Basie's band, Williams has frequently been cited as one of the great blues singers in the history of that idiom.
Yet he almost seems to resent that title these days. '' 'Blues singer' just means 'colored,' that's all,'' he told me recently. ''Some writers still refer to Ella Fitzgerald as a blues singer, or Sarah Vaughan as a blues singer. It just means you're black, honey, that's all.''
Williams presents a different picture on stage than off (he's at Marty's here through May 29). When he sings, he's the epitome of the relaxed professional, gliding effortlessly through his set of blues, ballads, and standards, chatting easily with the audience. After his years with Basie and 45 years altogether in the business, he pulls off numbers like Basie's ''Roll 'em Pete,'' Ellington's ''I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues,'' and the standards ''There'll Never Be Another You'' and ''It Had to Be You'' with a toss-away ease and a charm that kept many people smiling through the entire set.
During his six-year stint with Basie, which started in 1954, he recorded the hits that established him as the master of blues: ''Every Day I Have the Blues, '' ''All Right, Okay, You Win,'' and ''Smack Dab in the Middle.'' These years also saw him climb to the top of the jazz polls in the blues category. Although he is still thought of primarily as a blues singer, Williams claims:
''I do it all.''
And there is much truth in this claim. In his set at Marty's he sang not only the aforementioned standards, but delved into some more contemporary material as well. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that the blues are still Williams's forte.
Williams is backed by a splendid trio, led by pianist Norman Simmons, probably one the the finest accompanists around today. Simmons has played for many top singers, including Carmen McRae, Anita O'Day, and Al Hibbler. In addition, he's an excellent jazz pianist in his own right, and worthy of a lot more recognition than he's gotten so far.
But Williams doesn't confine himself to working with trios. He still performs with the Basie band several times a year, and works with a quintet when he's in the Chicago area. What is Williams's advice to young singers?
''The doing is the important thing--do it, do it, do it, do it! Don't fool around--do it!''
That's just what Williams does--and will probably continue to do for some time.