In an oh-so-appropriate send-off to their departed bandleader Albany’s Ambassador of the Blues, Ernie Williams – who passed away in March – the Ernie Williams Band concluded Friday night’s tribute/benefit concert, “Ernie Williams Remembered: A Night of Music and Memories,” at Brown’s Revolution Hall in Troy, with the soul-soaked blues ballad, “So Long.”
(left) The Last Conspirators, (right) Charlie Smith (photo by Stanley Johnson)
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Stanley Johnson and Gene Sennes
“I have actually been invited,” I thought to myself, echoing the astonishment of Nick Carraway when he arrives at Gatsby’s West Egg mansion party in Fitzgerald’s novel. My magnanimous friend, Alison, had given me an advance ticket to the J.B. Scott’s Reunion Party. Pulling into the already crowded parking lot shortly after 7pm, I couldn’t help but realize that I would be likely one of the few revelers too young to have ever attended a show at the legendary venue that had closed 30 years ago, having drawn everybody from Count Basie and John Lee Hooker to the Cramps and Iggy Pop.
I had missed the Penny Knight Band, and the Last Conspirators were already playing full throttle as I entered the ballroom of Michael’s Banquet House, where a large crowd of people danced like it was 1979. The late Joe Strummer would have been proud; I imagined the punk rock warlord raising a Guinness to the band as they tore into originals like “Who Wants a Revolution Anyway” and “History,” the latter beginning with Tim Livingston’s declaration of “Drink to all our futures! Long live J.B. Scott’s!” and then closing out with his microphone stand getting bent in half.
Over the course of the past month or so, the Nippertown music scene has been beset by the untimely deaths of quite a number of important players. Some worked in the spotlight; others made their indelible marks behind the scenes. None was more beloved than Albany’s own Ambassador of the Blues, Ernie Williams, who passed away on Wednesday, March 21 at the age of 87.
In tribute to the late Ernie Williams, who passed away last week, WAMC-FM will air a special broadcast of “Live at The Linda” in honor of the beloved blues musician who earned the well-deserved honorary title of Albany’s Ambassador of the Blues.
“You goin’ with us again?,” asked B.B. King. Ernie Williams looked the King of the Blues straight in the eye. “I want to, but I don’t know. I have some work to do right here (in New York’s Capital Region) that I signed contracts with, and I can’t.”
Ernie and B.B. are the same age. Their stories have many parallels. Both were sharecroppers, grandsons of slaves. Both began playing guitar at a young age and were so drawn to music that they made their first guitars out of available materials. Both played first for all black audiences. But both had hearts so full of love and life that they not only overcame prejudice, but their every deed became an example for us all.
“At first I did (hate white people),” Ernie told me in 1999, “but you live to let things pass you by. You let it slide off your shoulder… You have to look at things and let it go and let it slide off your back. Otherwise, you’re dead. You can’t do this in this country. Thank the Lord you get health and strength. You have to smile and everything ’cause you grow up doing this, and you just can’t hate ’cause hate is a disease. It’s terrible. It will destroy you.”
There were two significant differences between B.B. and Ernie. While King travelled the world, Ernie never strayed far from home. And while B.B. now sits in a chair through his shows, Ernie never stopped boogying, never gave less than 110 percent.
I got out of my car in the parking lot of the TC Club on Swan Street in the Arbor Hill section of Albany in 1991. A man came up to me and said, “Are you Mark?” And I said, “You must be Ernie.” We shook hands and went inside, and I played guitar with him for the first time in the Ernie Williams Blues Band. It was a six-piece band, and I was filling in without rehearsal. I watched his hands to get the keys of the tunes. We played from 10pm til 4am. At the end of the night when he was paying me my $50, he asked if I would play with him regular.
The last time I played with Ernie was his 87th birthday show at The Linda. There was nothing about him that would suggest that he was turning 87. He came bounding onto the stage and gave that audience everything he had, just like he did every time he performed. From my vantage point I got to see row after row of adoring faces staring up at him. He emitted this great joy that had the whole crowd dancing and grinning from ear to ear.
I’ve had the privilege to play with Ernie for the last 17 years and performed all over with a lot of excellent musicians. I am grateful for the friends I made. But mostly I am glad that I got to know Ernie Williams. And even though I only played with the band sporadically over the last couple years, when I did, Ernie would always greet me with his giant hand shake saying, “I really missed you, kid.”
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