NEW YORK, NY – “Great music lives a long life and great dancing music lives even longer”, Carol Williams, the legendary singer and songwriter, said to me during a recent interview. Williams, whose music soared to the top of the charts during the 1970’s disco era that she helped pioneer, could have, I thought, been talking about her own songs to prove that statement. But she made it very clear to me that she wasn’t.
“The great disco groups including ABBA, The Bee Gees, Cool and the Gang and the equally great solo disco artists such as Donna Summer [who died in 2012], Grace Jones and Gloria Gaynor were the true stars of the disco era”, stated Williams. “Today, go to clubs, go to weddings, go to any special celebration, and you will still hear their music playing and see people of all ages and all backgrounds getting off their seats and dancing to it. Compared to these musical artists, my contributions to disco music are minor.”
While the artists she had just mentioned deserved her accolades, Williams was not giving herself the credit she deserved, for Williams’ contributions to the world of disco music was anything but “minor”.
Those contributions began in the mid- 1970’s, a time when many disco artists including a few of those noted above were still struggling to have their records played on mainstream radio shows and sold in record stores. Williams helped change that, beginning with her iconic 1976 recording, “More”. Widely regarded as one of the great disco classics, the song, which within months after its release soared to the top ten on several major record charts, was credited by some in the industry with precipitating the commercial success that many other artists of that then nascent genre were soon to achieve.
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Still, as she had minutes before, Williams remained unable to give herself the credit that, I believe, she truly deserved.
“While I am very proud of my first hit song, I never credited it with having any historical significance in the great success of disco music”, stated Williams. “Anyway, even as ‘More’ was rising in the charts [in 1976], I was thinking of the future and planning to compose and sing new tunes for the public to enjoy.”
Williams did just that. Shortly later, encouraged by the success of “More”, Williams began work on her first album, “Lectric Lady”. Released in 1977, the album featured “Come Back”, which became a staple on music radio shows, and “Love is You”, which became a dance favorite for disco goers throughout the globe.
The following two years were to bring Williams even greater success. In 1978, in a duet with the star singer/producer Tony Valor, she recorded the song, “Love Has Come My Way”, which became an almost overnight commercial hit. And in 1979, she recorded her second album, “Reflections of Carol Williams”. The album introduced what was to become two of the most famous tunes in the history of disco music, “Tell the World” and “Dance the Night Away”.
Placing her modesty aside for a moment, Williams described the impact those two songs had on the world of disco. “Even many critics of disco had kind words to say about ‘Dance the Night Away’ and ‘Tell the World’ and acknowledged that it helped further develop disco’s acceptance as a mainstream musical art form”, she stated.
Those two great hits also further skyrocketed Williams’ career. Elevated from star to superstar, Williams took her show on the road, performing to adoring international audiences in major disco clubs from Paris, France, to Manila in the Philippines to Montreal, Canada, and performed to equally devoted fans in disco clubs back home in America, from New York City to Los Angeles, often playing on the same stage with mega stars, including Thelma Houston, the Village People and James Brown.
Williams, within the same time frame, captured the attention of several major network television producers, who soon put her on the air as the main act on a number of prime- time music shows. Reflecting on those years Williams, an African American woman who was born to middle class parents in Montclair, New Jersey some fifty plus years ago, stated,
“It was a fabulous experience for someone like myself from a working- class family background to be treated as a star and to be put in a position to work alongside some of the greatest vocalists, song writers and musicians in the world.”
Williams career continued to soar in the 1980’s, even as the popularity of disco music was beginning to fade. Finding new stardom with R&B music, she continued to remain on the top of the charts with such timeless hits as “Can’t Get Away from Your Love” (1982), “You’ve Reached the Bottom of the Line” (1983), “What’s the Deal” (1987) and “Queen of Hearts” (1989).
Explaining how she was able to so seamlessly redirect her music from disco to R&B, Williams stated, “It was not difficult for me to adjust, because both styles have common musical roots, going back to the black performers of the 1940’s. The only thing I had to remind myself as I changed directions was that disco was created to get people ready to dance, and R&B was created to get people ready to fall in love.”
Williams has continued through her music to get people “ready to dance” and “ready to fall in love”. Over the past three decades following the heydays of the 70’s and 80’s, she has regularly performed disco flashback shows with her 10- piece band. Her name and music still known nationally and internationally, Williams has played to packed audiences in concert halls throughout America, Western Europe and Japan.
An indefatigable Williams told me that she finds performing throughout the world to be exhilarating, rather than tiring.
“Constantly flying from country to country and from city to city never tires me out”, she stated. “Instead as I travel from one show to another, and as I watch my fans dancing and singing along with me to my music, I feel a tremendous sense of elation, pride and joy.”
When not performing on the road Williams spends up to ten hours a day in her Queens, NY recording studio, composing new tunes, which she told me, combine disco, R&B, hip hop, rock and jazz. One of those songs, “It’s Gonna Be Different”, which three years ago, she co-wrote, co-produced and co-sang with her musician son De-Verne Williams Jr. (she has another son, not in the entertainment field, a young granddaughter and is the widow of famed Wilson Pickett’s music director and trumpet player, De Verne Williams Sr., who died in 1988) became a big hit in England, reaching the top five on the country’s major record charts.
Williams said that working on that song with her son, who is the lead performer of the Deverne & the Vintagesoul one of the top 40 show bands in the world, was a great experience.
“Writing together and singing together with my mega talented son on a song that turned out to be such a success was, for me as a mother and an entertainer, a dream come true”, stated Williams.
For Williams though, the near future seems to be as important as the recent past. Serving as one of the directors of Legends of Vinyl, a non-profit organization which provides various forms of assistance to former DJ’s of the disco era, Williams is helping put the final touches on a special awards ceremony honoring these unsung music industry heroes, which will be held on September 17th at the Amadeus Night Club in her Queens hometown.
Describing the event Williams stated, “It was created to honor and award the DJ’s who in the 1970’s played our records, which were then, as all records at the time, on vinyl discs… These DJ’s frequently had to fight with their more traditionalist station managers to have disco music played on the air. So it could be said that without their courageous advocacy, disco music would never been accepted by a wide audience.”
And on September 28th, less than two weeks later, Williams plans to demonstrate that her music will always appeal to a “wide audience”. That night she and De Verne will be performing together at a disco/R&B revival show which will be held at the outdoor St. Genaro Feast Festival in the Hampton Bays. Williams promised that she and her son will be singing her 1970’s and 1980’s hits along with “It’s Gonna Be Different” and other recent tunes they wrote individually or together.
“I will make just one prediction”, stated Williams. “Everyone there will be dancing to the music.”
You can bet they will.