Jody Williams on His Return
The Legendary Blues Guitarist Comes Back To The Stage
This is the first oral history in our “Pause” series, which features artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and athletes who took a significant break in their careers to do something else before returning to their artistic careers.
JODY WILLIAMS: Harmonica was my first instrument, not guitar. I was doing a talent show in Chicago, and Bo Diddley was on the show playing the guitar. I watched him, and that was the very first time I had ever paid any attention to the sound of the guitar. I liked it. So we did this show, and when we got backstage we played a little bit together. I asked him, “If I got my mother to get me a guitar, could you teach me a tune or two?” The next week I spied a guitar in the pawn shop, and my mother bought it for me. It was $32.50, an old Silvertone with a black pickup on it. So Bo taught me how to run a bass line behind him while he sang and played, and that’s how we got started.
But I wanted to learn something other than just what Bo Diddley was playing, so I went to two guitar teachers. I told them, “I want to learn how to play some music, right now.” But they wanted to waste your time and money teaching you to play only the scales. Neither one of them could teach me what I wanted to learn, so I just started going to the nightclubs, hanging around and learning from people like Muddy Waters. I was only seventeen years old when I left home, and I wasn’t supposed to be in the clubs until I was twenty-one. The police came in there and started looking around, and I definitely looked young, because they would come up and question me, “How old are you, boy?” I got my voice down as low as I could and said, “I’m twenty-one,” and I turned my guitar and kept playing. So I was twenty-one years old for four years.
Naturally, I learned more, did some traveling on the road. Little by little I started doing some recording behind people. I became a studio musician for Chess Records, and I participated in a lot of things on the Checker and Argo labels. I started playing with Howlin’ Wolf in 1954; we were introduced in the office of Leonard Chess.
In ’58, I went into the service. I spent a year and a half in Germany, stationed in Dachau. I even played music onboard the ship to entertain the troops on the North Atlantic. Before I left for the army, I had written one of the biggest hits in the country with the help of Bo Diddley, and it was stolen from me. You ever hear that song “Love Is Strange” that Mickey and Sylvia did? I wrote that. I remember playing “Love Is Strange” onstage one time, and seeing some movement behind the curtain. I look back there and I see Mickey Baker, stealing all he can get. Bo ended up letting Mickey and Sylvia have that song, and they gave him two thousand dollars. To this day, I haven’t seen a dime of that money.
Arc Music eventually filed a lawsuit against the firm who released that recording. When I finally testified, I think Sylvia was in the courtroom. There were music detectives in there with stereo equipment set up. They asked me some questions on the stand, and then I went back into a room behind the judge where I couldn’t hear anything. The case was left unsettled, and I ended up going back to Chicago. About a month later, I heard we had lost the case. I didn’t get anything, even though there’s a hell of a lot of money mixed up in that song.