Video of Ernie Williams’ 87th birthday party at The Linda, 2/4/12
Albany’s Ambassador of the Blues, the seemingly ageless Ernie Williams passed away today (Wednesday, March 21) after suffering a massive heart attack in his Cohoes home. He died at Albany Medical Center. He was 87 years old.
The master bluesman – who mixed plenty of gospel in with his brand of the blues – fittingly played his last gig in a church on Sunday (March 18), the Northville Methodist Church.
Williams seemed to approach each gig with the same enthusiasm, whether he was standing on the spotlight at the Palace Theatre opening a sold-out concert for B.B. King or playing late into the night at some dark, dingy neighborhood bar. He did more than his fair share of touring throughout the years, playing everywhere from the House of Blues in Boston to Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.
He began playing guitar at the age of 13, when he was living in a shack on a Virginia tobacco plantation. After a stint in NYC, he headed to Albany in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until the ’90s that Williams finally began to receive the attention and respect that his musical talents deserved.
He always surrounded himself with excellent musicians. Guitarist Mark Emanatian (currently of Folding Sky) led the earliest incarnation of Ernie Williams & the Wildcats, the band that put Williams in the spotlight on the Nippertown music scene.
The final Ernie Williams Band line-up was somewhat flexible but usually featured such A-list players as musical director-saxman Charlie Vatalaro, longtime Williams drummer Rocky Petrocelli, Woodstock guitarslinger David Malachowski and keyboardist Mike Kelley (also of Blotto and Circle of Willis).
Ernie and the band were also slated to be joined by veteran guitarist and longtime Williams bandmate Joe Mele for their featured performance at the J.B. Scott’s Reunion bash at Michael’s Banquet House in Latham on Saturday, May 5.
Williams was a tireless performer, and every year when his annual birthday bash would roll around, he would laugh off any thoughts of retirement, simply saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
Williams’ annual birthday bashes were always an early-February musical highlight on the Nippertown music scene, and over the past decade or so he spread the wealth around, hosting his birthday shows at Northern Lights in Clifton Park, the Palace Theatre in Albany, Chaucer’s in Clifton Park, Revolution Hall in Troy, The Egg in Albany, and in recent years, The Linda in Albany, where the celebration was in high gear just last month.
Indeed, it seemed as though Ernie Williams would always be around, pumping out his beloved blues, smiling and declaring, “Yes, yes, yes…”
But now Ernie Williams is gone. And the Albany music scene (and the world) is a sadder place today.
*UPDATE (7pm, 3/23/12): Visitation hours will be held on Sunday (March 25) from 3-7pm, at the Light of World Christian Church, 28 Sparrowbush Road, Latham. All other services will be private at the convenience of the family. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Good Ground Family Church Youth Center in Cohoes in memory of Ernie would be appreciated.
David Malachowski Remembers Ernie Williams
Mike Kelley Remembers Ernie Williams
Flashback Foto: The Ernie Williams Band @ Joe Bruno Stadium, 8/23/11
Mark Emanatian Remembers Ernie Williams
Don Wilcock Remembers Ernie Williams