Today, December 12, is the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth. It’s hard to miss, my social media is overrun with #FrankSinatra posts, and there have been innumerable TV specials commemorating the special day, not limited to the #Sinatra100 Special which included Trisha Yearwood and Nick Jonas belting out the American Songbook. Even I participated in a salute to Sinatra at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank NJ last week, where a cast of singers, including Deana Martain and Joe Piscopo, gathered to pay homage to the legendary singer.
And I’m on board with all of that. I love Sinatra at the Sands, I love Sinatra and Jobim, I love his hits on Capitol Records. If my iPod is on shuffle, you’re going to hear some Sinatra. I like Sinatra. Period.
But, nonetheless, a few things stick in my craw. Last week, while we were performing at The Count Basie Theater, I kept thinking: Here we are, celebrating Frank Sinatra, featuring dozens of singers who claim him as a hero, an inspiration, even a deity. He is the pride of New Jersey. And yet… We are in the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank New Jersey, Count Basie’s hometown, and where is the concert featuring dozens of pianists who claim Basie as their hero, their inspiration? Why does New Jersey not jump up and down to claim him as a favorite son? Half of the songs performed on the Sinatra tribute concert were from recordings where Sinatra performed with Count Basie, but yet Basie’s music nor his band were never mentioned. Why celebrate one and not the other? Surely New Jersey, and America too, has enough love to share with both?
And then today, December 12, Frank Sinatra’s birthday. The centennial birthday, nonetheless. It’s a big deal. I understand that we, as a people, as a culture, want to celebrate this man and his music. But, you know who else was born on this day in 1918? Joe Williams. And what I don’t understand, is why we as a people, as a culture, don’t want to celebrate HIS music, too. I have not seen a single social media post about him today, much less a tribute concert honoring his legacy.
Joe Williams was one of the greatest singers to ever walk this earth. He had a beautiful voice, and if you ever heard him in person, you know it was even more beautiful than on recordings. He swung, HARD. He made you feel tremendously, wonderfully good, every single time he opened his mouth.
I was fortunate enough to see Joe Williams a few times when I was a little girl before he passed in 1999. The first time was at the Ravinia Jazz Festival in Chicago. I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I was SUCH a fan; I knew every word to his “Live at Birdland” recording. Our family friend, Clark Terry, introduced us backstage, but it wasn’t until my family and I ran into him in the hotel elevator that I had to truly interact with him. My parents began telling Joe what a fan I was, how I knew his recordings, and how I wanted to be a singer. I was petrified. We stepped off the elevator, and my mother said, “Champian, sing for him!” I couldn’t move at all, much less sing, so I remained silent. Joe bent down on one knee so he was eye level with me (he was a very tall man), and I’ll never forget his face and his eyes so close to mine, just looking at me and waiting. I couldn’t do anything. He must have thought we were all crazy! Finally he stood back up and said goodnight to us, and I remained, frozen to that spot in the hallway, unable to move. When I saw him enter his hotel room and close the door I burst into tears. Embarrassed and ashamed, I was inconsolable.
Later that year, I saw Joe again. This time we were on the Jazz Cruise (again with Clark Terry) and I was determined to make a better impression. He remembered me and was very friendly towards me, even though I’m sure he remembered that bizarre interaction in Chicago. On the very last evening, he sat in with DIVA and sang “Alright, Okay, You Win”, and he asked me to join him on stage. Finally over my fear, I was able to get up sing with him. That duet was one of the most fun moments of my life.
So, you see, Joe Williams means a great deal to me. And though I love Frank Sinatra as much as the next red-blooded girl, Joe Williams will always have my heart.
Amidst all the celebrating of Frank Sinatra today, let’s take a moment to honor this man and his music too! Happy Birthday Joe Williams!