Sometimes, an otherwise good album is released at just the wrong time, and as a result, the album fails to do as well commercially, as it should’ve done. This was the case with John Gary Williams self-titled debut album John Gary Williams. His album was released just as Stax was experiencing financial problems that would result in the label folding. Sadly, this meant that the two times the album was released, it never received the promotion or attention it deserved. The album was first released in 1974 on the main Stax label, but failed commercially. John’s album wasn’t the only album to suffer at this time. Shirley Brown’s album Woman To Woman suffered much the same fate. She’d just had a number one US R&B single, and Stax decided to release an album of the same name. However, when it was released, it wasn’t a huge success, stalling at number eleven in the US R&B Charts and number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 200. Part of the problem was the lack of marketing and promotion of the album. Unfortunately, the same problem affected John’s album. A year later, in 1975, John Gary Williams was rereleased, this time on the Truth label, a subsidiary of Stax that released gospel music. Essentially, it was the same album with the Stax logo on the album, and a Truth label on the album cover. Like the release on Stax, the album failed commercially. By this time, Stax’s financial problems were almost critical, and even managing to find the funds to release a new single on Truth to accompany the rerelease of the album was a struggle. Eventually, Come What May was released as a single, which John regarded as his best single on Stax. It was destined to go the way of the album, failing commercially. By the end of 1975, Stax was no more, and the once great label folded. That was the end of John’s solo career, and saw him returning to his old group The Mad Lads.

John had been a member of The Mad Lads since signing for Stax in 1964. He had formed the group, then know as The Emeralds in high school. Along with William Brown, Robert Phillips and Julius Green, the group specialised in singing harmonies, in the same vein as The Impressions. Their sound was somewhat at odds with the much more gritty sound that Stax specialised in. There was a huge change in the group’s circumstances, when in 1966, John was drafted. By the time he returned home, he too had changed, becoming radicalized whilst in Vietnam. He started to get involved with The Invaders, a group connected to The Black Panthers. At this time, The Mad Lads’ music was hitting its peak, the group releasing some of their best music. However, around 1972, the group split, because of friction within the group. John’s career was also changing, with him wanting to become a solo artist. 

Two years later, with the help of some of Stax’s musicians, including Michael Toles on guitar, Marvell Thomas on keyboards and Hot Buttered Soul on backing vocals, John’s solo album John Gary Williams was complete. Of the eight songs on the album, John wrote two and cowrote three others. He also produced five of the tracks and co-produced the other three with Willie Hall. So, with a cast of hugely talented musicians, John had produced his only solo album, which I’ll now tell you about.

John Gary Williams opens with I See Hope, a track with a lovely lush arrangement and a positive message. Swirling, sweeping strings accompany a funky rhythm section, The South Memphis Horns and chiming guitars which accompanies John’s tender vocal. Behind him, subtle, equally tender, backing vocals are provided by Hot Buttered Soul as the arrangement unfolds into a combination of sweeping, funk laden music, with Gary’s fragile voice sitting atop the arrangement. John and Carl Smith’s lyrics are a message of positivity and hope, about peace and equality. Together with John’s tender vocal and an arrangement that’s both lush and funky, it’s an irresistible and outstanding track. Hopefully, the rest of the album will be just as good.

There’s a change in tempo and style on I’m So Glad Fools Can Fall In Love. It’s a slow, tender ballad which John co-wrote with Lester Snell. This love song opens with John singing tight and gentle harmonies, which must take him back to his days with The Emeralds and Mad Lads. Behind him, the arrangement has an understated sound, which opens out to reveal piano, percussion, lush strings and a slow rhythm section. Guitars chime and shimmer, accompanying a harp while John’s vocal is slow and gentle, full of emotion and drama. He sings about being in love and how he came so close to loving the one he loves. Backing vocalists veer between a tender style to an emotive dramatic style. Add to that a thoughtful bass line that sits at the front of the arrangement, and it’s a hugely sad yet joyous track, one full of emotion and drama.

Honey is another of the slower tracks on the album, and is the first cover version, written by Bobby Russell and originally recorded by Bobby Goldsboro. John transforms Goldsboro’s saccharine pop hit, turning it into a quite beautiful slow, sad song, drenched in emotion and drama. The arrangement opens with chiming guitars reverberating before strings sweep in, accompanied by the rhythm section, piano and percussion. Against this slow and understated backdrop, John gives a heartfelt delivery of the lyrics. Throughout the arrangement there’s plenty of space within the music which suits John’s vocal and the sadness in the lyrics about a girlfriend who died suddenly. The longer the arrangement progresses, the better it gets, with a harp, piano and the lushest of sweeping strings helping to create the perfect backdrop for John’s tender and thoughtful vocal. By the end of the track, John has transformed the track, turning it into a quite beautiful saccharine free song.

The final track on side one of the original album was Loving You It (Ain’t Easy) sees the tempo increase slightly, on a track John wrote himself. It’s a song about the difficulties of being in a relationship and the betrayal that sometimes happens. When the track opens, there’s a dramatic and lush sound present, when the rhythm section combine with braying horns, before strings sweep in. Later, a piano, guitars and harp enter, accompanying John’s emotional, slightly sad vocal. He’s sad because his girlfriend is cheating on him, but still loves her. Guitars chime and shimmer, soaring, as they add a touch of drama, while lush strings add a sense of sadness, their sound matching the tenderness and fragility of John’s vocal. Overall, it’s another beautiful track, thanks to an arrangement that combines sadness, emotion and drama. Add to that John’s emotive, disconsolate vocal, and it’s a winning combination, resulting in one of the albums best tracks.

Side two of the album opens with Ask the Lonely, the second of the cover versions on the album. The song is written by William Stevenson and Ivy Joe Hunter and features another atmospheric vocal from John and slow, lush arrangement. Chiming, shimmering guitars and fluglehorn combine with percussion and rhythm section before John’s slow, emotive, voice briefly soars. After that, he give a heart breaking delivery of the lyrics about loneliness and broken relationships. Above the arrangement, floats a fluglehorn and flute, which together with shimmering guitars and slow drums create an arrangement drenched in emotion and sadness. This is the perfect backdrop for John’s deeply moving vocal, which is one of his best vocals on the album. Not only that, but it’s one of the most moving tracks on the album.

The third and final cover version of the album was Yvette Davis’ track How Could I Let You Get Away. It opens with grand, slow strings that swirl combining with the rhythm section, keyboards and guitars. They accompany John’s half-spoken introduction which gives way to the vocal proper after a dramatic flourish of drums. After that, John’s almost sweet, slow vocal is full of regret, having let the one he loved slip through his fingers. Later, his voice grows in strength, the pain and loss apparent, as his voice soars, sadness and regret never far away.Matching the regret and sadness in his voice is the arrangement. It’s slow and full of lush, sweeping strings, rasping horns and dramatic rhythm section. This combines beautifully with John’s vocal, resulting in a hugely emotive track, drenched in sadness and regret at the love he lost.

Open Your Heart (and Let Love Come In) opens with a slow and full arrangement, which sees slow, sweeping strings, piano, rhythm section and guitars combining with subtle woodwind before John’s vocal enters. His voice soars high, full of emotion, while backing vocalists accompany him, on this love song. Here the lyrics are quite beautiful, John wanting to fall in love with a woman, and help her to forget the pain and hurt of her past. Behind him, the arrangement is complex, with layer upon layer of sounds revealing themselves. Like other tracks, lush sweeping strings play an important part in “setting the scene,” while subtle horns, the rhythm section, piano, harp and chiming guitars fill out the sound. They create an arrangement that’s slow, laden in emotion and ultimately, designed to tug at your heartstrings. When you add John’s gentle, tender vocal to this, it’s a stunning combination, and a gorgeous song about love.

John Gary Williams closes with The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy. Whether the lyrics were influenced by John’s experiences in Vietnam, is open to speculation. Certainly, the world he returned to, was very different, and this continued to be the case into the mid seventies, with the faux peace and love of the sixties long gone. When the track opens, the tempo is quicker, the rhythm section and swirling strings accompanying John’s vocal. They’re joined by rasping horns, guitars and backing vocalists as the track progresses. Meanwhile, John’s voice is tender, but full of disbelief at the things he’s witnessing. Neglect, cruelty, violence and hate are just some of the things that’s lead John to this conclusion. Although it’s a quite different track, because of the tempo and subject matter, it features a good vocal from John and a stirring, sweeping arrangement. They combine to create a song with a social conscious that seems a fitting way to end the album.

Before I bought this album, my only exposure to John Gary Williams’ music was through his work with The Mad Lads and hearing three of his singles on The Complete Stax Volt Soul Singles 1972-1975 box set. When I heard these songs, I realized that John was a hugely talented artists although I wasn’t sure of his cover of My Sweet Lord, a track I’m far from a fan of. I much preferred the other two tracks Come What May and The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy. Then last year, I noticed that BGP had rereleased John’s only solo album. This I knew was a must have, and from the first time I heard it, I was smitten. It’s one of these albums where one great track follows another. There aren’t any bad tracks on the album, just winners and no filler. Since then, it’s been an album I’ve played many times, each time, loving the album even more. To me, it’s one of these hidden gems of an album that you sometimes discover. Previously, many albums have been described as “lost albums” and “previously unreleased,” and often, there’s a very good reason for this, they aren’t very good. This is far from the case here. It’s an excellent album, full of some lush arrangements and tender, emotive vocals. If you’ve never heard the album, it’s one that’s well worth buying, and will quickly, become one of your favorites. That was the case when I bought this album, a hidden gem by John Gary Williams, singer, songwriter and producer. Standout Tracks: I’m So Glad Fools Can Fall In Love, Loving You It (Ain’t Easy), Ask the Lonely and Open Your Heart (and Let Love Come In).


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