Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra, but Let’s Not Forget Joe Williams!!!

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.

joe williams

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!

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17 Responses to Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra, but Let’s Not Forget Joe Williams!!!

  1. Scott says:

    I admit I’m still coming up to speed on JW stuff, but here’s a personal favorite and current project — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgtMwgoraRg

    (Hi, C. This is Scott, I do the arranging in Peter’s band.)


  2. Syd Smart says:

    My mother was a record collector. She loved Joe Williams. One day when I was about 12 years old, my mom told me that she was going to divorce my father and marry Joe Williams (she had been drinking). She really scared me and for the next 3 years, I feared my parents were going to split up. I have to admit, that brother could sing with feeling.


  3. John says:


    Great article on 2 of the great singers. If someone needs another recommendation, here is one of Joe’s great albums.



  4. Gary G says:

    I had honor to see Joe Williams sing several years at the Denver Fairmont Jazz Festival organized by former trumpet player Dick Gibson. He was always fabulous and would sit in audience and listen to other performers. Great memories.


    • Hi Gary! I’ve heard about those Gibson Jazz Parties! Must have been great to have been there.


      • Gary says:

        You would have been very much appreciated as an artist and performer and you would have adored the experience as a participant. No one played with their own band. You learned each day who you would perform with, and 30 min before would meet and decide playlist. Everyone got multiple sets each of 3 days. Very creative groupings. I remember Monty Alexander playing with 3 other pianos on stage and no other instruments.


  5. John Calia says:

    The answer to your question is twofold. The first is simple. Our culture doesn’t celebrate the 97th birthday. The second is more complex. Sinatra has been a cultural icon for 7 decades. Williams has not, despite his great portfolio. You can debate the reasons why not. But whatever the reasons, he never achieved the iconic status of Sinatra.


    • Well, I think you’ve missed the point. 1) Our culture celebrates every birthday, not just the centennial. And 2) My question is, WHY isn’t Joe a “cultural icon”?


      • John Calia says:

        Because he hasn’t sold 150 million records.


      • You’re still really missing the point but thanks for reading John.


      • John Calia says:

        I think I do get the point. I’m just not expressing myself very well. Sinatra was a pop singer. Williams was a jazz singer. Other black performers of his era — Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole — crossed over to become pop singers and became more well known. Williams remained a purist and appeals to a narrower audience: Jazz fans like you, me and others who read your blog.


  6. sfawcett says:

    That’s a great story you tell about Joe Williams, Champian! I think I’ll listen to some of his music right now! Thanks for that.


  7. John phillips says:

    I have nearly everyone of Joe Williams recordings, you were so fortunate to meet him. I love your music as well. Please keep up the live shows, i hope to see you in concert some day.


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