Lew Williams Interview

Mike (RGR), highgeared@hotmail.com - Posted Wed, 3 Dec 2003
           For those who are already familiar with Lew Williams and his brand of "Cat Music" I won't put his whole history in this Article. To those of us who are not ... I hope the information and interview you read will make you a fan of the man and his music. If you want a thorough history of his music ... the liner notes in his Cd entitled "Lew Williams Cat Talk" has all the information about his music history and influences. Anyone that has not yet purchased his latest Bear Family Release ... cash in your coke bottles ... smash yer aluminum cans - or what ever it takes to scratch up a little money to buy it. With 29 songs that will give you the jitters and jumps this Cd will be a jewel in any collectors crown! It's loaded with Demos and out takes that no one else has heard! Lew Williams recorded with the Imperial Label from 1955-1956. That short stint of time produced 8 Recordings. Six of which have been released on various compilations and bootlegs since 1977. In the late 50's Lew also had a few recordings on Dot Records. Shortly after his Dot sessions Lew Williams quit singing, and got involved in the recording and booking of bands in the Dallas area. By 1963 Lew Williams left the music Business all together. And what happened to him after that was a musical mystery for the next few decades. Lew Williams all but disappeared to the music world. And no one knew any more about him until now! Until he caught wind of the Bear Family release "That'll Flat Git It! Vol 12" in 1998, Lew Williams knew nothing of the popularity of his Imperial recordings! Lew was unaware that his music was continually being played in Europe since 1977. Well now he knows! After 41 years he came out of obscurity and played for us at VLV 2000. Imagine that - 41 years since his last stage performance. But enough of me talking, lets hear what Lew has to say!

RGR: How did you come into listening to race music? Was it just kinda the rage of the time ... For most of the white kids to go listen to different black artists?
           Well I'm not really sure where it started. I had always from my early childhood ... I've heard Negro spirituals. That was just part of our culture. I don't know that there were that many black artists played on the radio back in those days. Now those days ... now that's going to be in the end of the thirties and the beginning of the Forties. But when I was in High School about my junior year, certainly my senior year, some of us (and I don't mean that this is across the board that everyone did this) but some of would go into down town Dallas. And there was a record shop that carried all of these race records. And man I thought those were great! I thought Gatemouth Brown was just about it, I thought this guy was fantastic. I enjoyed his stuff very much, and used to sing some of his stuff. I don't even remember now Mike, what they were. I remember I used to sing some of his things and that was back when I could barley strum a guitar. And Leadbelly (I don't know if you know who Leadbelly was) He was an old blues singer. And I was always fascinated by his music ... always. I really don't know where I first heard Negro gospel music, but it would be back in my earlier years. I don't know if it would be when I was a child, but I believe it was.
           RGR: Just walkin down the street you could hear it coming out of the churches.
           No, in our community the towns were separate, the black community would be in one area and the whites in another. It could very well be that some of the black families that worked in town ... I could have heard some of it from them. It's always been a part of me. Black gospel music, even today ... My wife and I sometimes will go to a black church.
           RGR: Yeah ... I lived in Arkansas and I went to several black churches. Some of the different Pentecostal churches. And they really get into their music, they dance have a great time and its really fun.
           I can remember one time when I was in Lubbock (I was president of an ad agency back then) and one of our clients manufactured collectable items dealing with the entertainment field. This specific company put out the Buddy Holly collectors plate. And I went to Lubbock and met with Buddys brother. Buddy's brother said that Buddy would often go sit under the windows of some of the black churches and listen to the music.
           RGR: Thats what I wanted to ask you. From what I've read, Elvis Presley used to go down to Beale Street and visit some of the black music establishments, or do what ever a white kid could do at that time to listen to the music. Did you ever do anything similar like that when you were in High School?
           No, I don't know that we did. There was a place in Dallas called the Harmony Lounge that was a little loose on checking your driver's license to see if you were of age. So we would often frequent that place if we could, and they had black entertainment. Very, very good black entertainment. It's just been part of me.
           RGR: That's great, now we gotta swing over to the other side - - the country side. I don't think you could have had rockabilly or Cat music if wasn't for the black and the country blending together. When did you actually start playing country music?
           I started playing the guitar when I was just about to start my senior year in High School. I grew up on Country music. The Grand ole Opry' for example would be standard every Saturday Night in our house. I grew up listening to Ernest Tubb and Jimmy Davis and so forth. Hank Thompson was my greatest influence of all. If anyone influenced me the most Hank Thompson did. I never met Hank Thompson, except on one occasion when I happened to be playing at the Big D Jamboree and he was the headliner. I met him that night that was the only time I ever met him.
           RGR: That must have been fun.
           It was. It certainly was. Stuart Hamblin was one I always liked. Floyd Tillmen I thought should have been the best country artist of all. His Military career I believe is what interrupted his music career. This guy, Floyd Tillman ... has really influenced a lot of us. And of course Hank Williams influenced everybody. When I was a real little kid, I used to go around the neighborhood singing You are my Sunshine from Jimmy Davis. And once when I was on the Saturday Night Shindig which was a live radio show here in Dallas. Jimmy Davis was the headliner. It was wonderful to talk to him -- I can imagine what must have come into his mind. I would say to him - "Gosh I was just a little kid when I was listening to your music". It must have made the guy think well what do think I am an old foggie. I'm out at Viva Las Vegas and numerous artists came up to me and said "Gosh when I started listening to your songs I was just a real little kid" So it all goes full circle.
           RGR:So what does it make you? an old foggie?!?! (lots of laughing now) Back when you were playing Cat Music, or what we call rockabilly, what were some of the more memorable shows that you had? Did you ever have any wild shows were things might have gotten out of control were you just had to much fun?
           No..I didn't have any of that as a rockabilly. I had a show one time when I was doing country music ... .you see I've never had race lines in my mind - and when I had my country band, I had a black artist that I took with me.
           RGR: He played in the band?
           No, he was a singer. He was stationed a shepherd AFB. Well I wasn't paying attention to what happened. But one night he danced with a white woman.
           RGR: Ohh ... that's bad.
           Boy the club owner came over and collared me and said You guys get your instruments and get outta here or somebody is gonna get killed". So we did. I didn't really understand at the time he was rushing us out of there exactly what had happened, but I found out later. And - it was really a taboo thing. I think back in 1953 I guess.
           RGR: I think the same thing happened to Allen Freed on one of his dance shows. There was a white girl who danced with a black man. That was just not right, even on the east coast - where they claim to be more liberal. Those were the times back then - and times have changed. But now back to Vegas. What did you think of the whole experience of playing in Vegas? According to what I've read you had only played one show prior to that, which was several weeks earlier.
           I had only played four times before I got to Vegas. Two rehearsals, one party and then one small show where Gene Summers and I helped raise some funds for a radio station here in Dallas. Las Vegas was an experience that - I can't even describe it. It was wonderful. If I were gonna sum up Vegas I guess it would be ... I just hope that the fans got half as much out of listening to me perform as I got out performing for them. It was a wonderful experience.
           RGR: In the e-mail that I wrote you, I told you that my buddy and I were walkin around. And we decided to go head up to the main ball room to see who was playing there. We walked in and I don't know how many songs you had started - at least two or three. It was between songs, and when you started playing - we just went ape monkey mad!!! When I heard these songs. I have the "Flat Git it" compilation that has the Imperial rockabilly music on there. And I could not believe it. Oh my gosh ... this is the guy! This is who Lew Williams is?!?! We started hopping around like Monkeys, we pushed our way up to the front and were having a great time just screaming and whooping it up.!!!
           The band that backed me up, those guys are just outstanding.
           RGR: Those guys are top Notch. Did you get a chance to hang out during the weekender and check out some of the other acts and see what was going on? Or were you there for a day and had to go take off.
           No we were there for quite some time. We got in Thursday afternoon, I wanted to hear Ray Condo. Ray and I made music history while we were there. That was the first time that an original artist, and artist that covered a song 40 years later have appeared on the same show together doing the same song. Ray did "Something I said" in his finale on Thursday night. I saw Ronnie Dawson. Those were the two main ones that I wanted to see.
           RGR: What do you think of what all the kids are playing today as far as rockabilly music goes. That's gotta be kind of Flattering I would think.
           Well I definitely think it is. You have so many off shoots of rockabilly. One Is called ... .Cycobilly or something. These are all terms I'm not even familiar with
           RGR: Yeah ... I guess they have tried to find a pigeon hole or category for each one. Its such a broad spectrum. If someone asks me what do you play? I play rockabilly. Some people will say what kind of rockabilly. As far as I know there is only one kind. Do you have any favorites out there.. As far as some of the newer artists?
           Well I don't know enough of them at this point. I want to know more of them. You got to understand now Mike ... you gotta get this perspective. 18 months ago I had no Idea that my songs had been continually played in Europe since 1977. But this has happened in just a matter of a year.
           RGR: What was that like to get a phone call one day from some company in Europe, telling you that you have been top shelf for the longest time, and that everyone loves you?
           Well, I wasn't interested in the beginning. I knew that the first realease in 1977 which was just called "Imperial Rockabillies" had been put out. And it had two of my songs on it. When I got out of the music business ... and I guess I've done this with everything in my life - when I was finished with something I was finished. After I quit singing for about three years I ran a recording studio and a booking agency. And we worked with a lot of bands, a tremendous number of bands. We booked Military Business and so forth. When I got out of the music business and into the publishing business I was pretty well "end of that". In about 1992 Phil York who used to be a partner of mine in a recording studio ... Knew that several artists from Dallas were going overseas. He contacted me and asked me if I would be interested, and I said I would not. And then the next year my son was at a party (my son is also a musician). There was an English disk Jockey there and I don't know how it came up - but my son mentioned that his dad used to sing rock and roll music. And the person asked what my name was. And he told them. And the person said my gosh I play his stuff all the time. She said my favorite is Cat Talk. Believe this or not my son called me and said "Dad what does Cat Talk sound like?" I said "son I have no idea what your talking about". He said "That song you did called Cat Talk". I said, "I don't recall ever having done a song called Cat Talk". "I think the person must have me confused with someone else". And probably six months later, I'm out cleaning some old files in the garage and I come across this sheet of Lyrics. And Low and behold there was one called Cat Talk.
           RGR: You'd forgotten about it?
           I had just forgotten about it. Then when Bear Family put out the "That will Flat Git it". At the very last of 98 in December, thats when my wife found out about the deal. One of our friends found it on the Internet and told her. She said, "Hey I'm gonna order this". And I said " I want you to leave that alone, that was then this is now." So being a wife that wanted to please her husband - she told me to stick it in my ear! And got on the internet, I think she got on the Viva Las Vegas site, and said my husband is Lew Williams - do you know his music? WOW, here came the e-mails!
           RGR: Do you have any plans in your spare time to continue doing shows? Or is this kinda a one shot deal? I'd like to do some more weekenders. I'm appearing at Rockabilly Rave, In England, in March of next year. But I don't have plans to do any tours. I imagine that's kind of rough on anybody. You've got your own publishing business to attend to, so it not like you have time to roam around the country.
           Frankly, I'm not sure what I perform on a long show. There's a Limited group of songs people would identify with me the ones that I did on Imperial. And the reissues didn't include all of them. The reissues included only six and there were actually eight Imperial sides. There was a bootleg of the other two, but nothing that was licensed.
           RGR: I was raised on what my mom and dad used to listen to. The oldies stations - and they certainly don't play any rockabilly on the oldies stations. So its kind of something I had to discover on my own - and am still discovering! And Lew Williams in Las Vegas happened to be one of the latest discoveries. I had heard your music before on the other CD, but the new CD that you have Cat Talk - that's yet another discovery. To me this is the most phenomenal thing about rockabilly, hillbilly, country, jazz, jump blues - any of the American music from the 30's to the early 60's. There's an abundance of it I think most Americans have turned their back on. I think sometimes it's a little bit of a disposable culture thing. And as a young 28-year-old kid, I'm fascinated with it. There's so much of it that's never been listened to.
           Oh that's true. That's a good term you used, disposable. It doesn't appear to be that way in Europe. But here in America, we seem to get tired of something and go into something else. In Europe they really cling to something they like.
           RGR: Here I think it's just change for the sake of change. Well, is there anything else that maybe you could tell anyone that would be reading this, something about Lew Williams?
           Yes, early Cat Music, because it was such a big thing to me. This was primarily in 1954, at least in that immediate era, or my association with it. When Cat Music was called "Cat Music". There was a recording studio in Dallas, Jim Beck's studio, where anything I refer to as Cat Music materialized. In my experience, that was where it happened. Jim Beck was the first person I ever heard use the term "Cat Music". I had never heard that term before. And when we started mixing the instruments from race bands and country bands you know, electric guitar, sax, drums, steel guitar, bass, rhythm guitar and piano it was all pretty radical. It had not been done much at that specific time. And it was very controversial. Record labels were not very interested in it then. The A&R guys who came to Beck's to record and listen to new artists were country A&R men. I wasn't the only artist, of course, doing early Cat Music. The common denominator was that we all came out of country music. To me, 1954 was the year of change. Everything that we call rockabilly it basically happened then. The sound was kind of established in ' 54. And it wasn't all the same. We didn't all have the same sound. But, in my opinion, anything different after '54, from the artists who followed that period, was an add-on.
           RGR: They used the same formula then.
           They could have used the same formula and they may have added to it, but anything they brought was an add-on to the basic formula. At that point, all of the people I knew who were playing Cat Music came out of country music. A short time later, new artists were coming on the scene. And the style they were singing was close to what we had previously performed as Cat Music. These new young artists didn't necessarily have a country background. But combined, there were hundreds of us. I can't tell you how many, but there were hundreds and hundreds of us.
           RGR: Doing Cat Music?
           Or doing something similar. Cat Music in my memory, and we all remember things differently and perhaps other parts of the country had different influences but to me, Cat Music was a transition period. Some writers have said that in Texas, early Rock & Roll was called Cat Music. That's not how I remember it. Other artists may remember it that way, but to me, when people called the music Rock & Roll in other places, we called it Rock & Roll here in Texas, too. Cat Music was just a distinct period of time. The instrumentation changed as we got more into what you and I today call rockabilly. Take my session that had "Cat Talk" and "Gone Ape Man" on it. By the time we got to that session in 1955, like some other artists, I had eliminated the sax and steel guitar from the instrumentation. And what we had left was basically the instrumentation we often have today in rockabilly.
           RGR: I had one more question to ask you. When you were in High School was Jive Talkin' or Teenage Cat Talkin' a common thing?
           I graduated high school in 1951, so it wasn't a big thing at that time. However, a few years later in 1954-55, when I was in college, you did hear it on campus. But nothing like you heard it in the high schools in those days.
           RGR: So it was more prevalent with the younger kids in high school. I guess when you go onto college you want to sound a little more studious so maybe you use bigger words and you drop the teenage stuff. (Lew starts chucklin at that statement.)
           Well, I'm not sure about that. I had such great times in college it was a really wonderful period of my life. All of my records except one were made when I was a college student.
           RGR: That must have eaten up a lot of your time going to college and trying to put out a music career. You must have really been a busy person back then.
           That's true, but I think a lot of people were. I wanted to make records and write songs. That was really what I wanted to do. Music was changing so quickly then, and there was a lot of competition. You have to realize that everyone and his brother had a record label. If a band wasn't on a label, the group would put out their own 45 locally. I was extremely fortunate to be with a large independent label, which had national distribution. Now that was back in the days of the Top 40 radio format, which made it very difficult to get your records played. There were a hundred new releases every week. The radio stations would play some of them occasionally, but they would only put a few on their regular play lists. Believe me, it was tough.
           RGR: Well I guess in that respect the music industry hasn't changed a bit then, except now they are playing more garbage.
           So many of the radio programs are syndicated now. We didn't have that in those days.
           RGR: That must have been nicer back then, it wasn't all corporate. It wasn't across the board where you would hear the same thing everywhere you went. That's true. You had a lot of regional influence. That's why you had some regional hits back then that you likely wouldn't have today. It's so fantastic to see all you young people still enjoying rockabilly particularly those of you who really enjoy the roots of it. How it all began and the type of music that was the whole core of rockabilly getting started.
           RGR: Well Lew I'm really glad I had the chance to speak to you. And I'm glad I accidentally discovered your web page that you had up.

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