By Paul Freeman [Dec. 2011 Interview]

The East Bay’s Lenny William’s current CD is titled “Unfinished Business.” The vocalist is far from finished.

He could relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor, having racked up smashes like “So Very Hard To Go,” as Tower of Power’s lead singer, and solo hits, like “’Cause I love You.” But, at 66, Williams is busier than ever, operating his own record label and touring extensively.

Originally from Arkansas, Williams and his family moved to Oakland. He grew up on gospel and Sam Cooke. In elementary school, he played trumpet in elementary school, then landed singing gigs in his teens.

After attending Oakland’s Laney College, Williams signed with Fantasy Records. He didn’t break through, though one of his singles was penned by John Fogerty.

Later Williams saw Fantasy and Creedence enjoy massive success, as did many of his friends, including Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, Billy Preston, Larry Graham and Sly Stone.

While writing songs with Graham, he began utilizing the Tower of Power horns. Williams had known some of the band members, from when they were playing around Fremont. When Tower of Power was having trouble with lead singer Rick Stevens, they thought of Williams as a replacement. After false starts, he took the center stage mic in 1972. He left, after two years and three hit albums.

Following two unsuccessful solo albums, Williams signed with ABC Records in 1977 and hit with “Choosing You” and then a gold LP, “Spark of Love.” When ABC sold out to MCA, the soul artists found themselves adrift and hits stopped coming for Williams.

But Williams has found himself in demand again, as such contemporary stars as Kanye West, Scarface and Twista have sampled his songs.

Williams tours extensively, performing Tower of Power classics, some of his solo hits and old-school soul favorites

Your music really is timeless.

It really is, otherwise, I guess I’d be out there somewhere pushing a broom [Laughs] My parents educated me, so I guess I’d find something. But I love doing the music. And it baffles me sometimes, to think that this music that I did, 30, 35 years ago is still viable and people still want to get dressed up and come out and listen to it. I’m very humbled by that, because I do have a lot of friends of mine who were in that era, who are not working or are not working as much as I work.

Your musical roots were in gospel?

We listened to a lot of radio around our house, mostly gospel. My Dad was a real religious man, so he wasn’t really into secular music. When he’d get in the car,we’d watch and as soon as he turned that corner, we’d switch over to our favorite station and listen to that. And of course, we’d watch ‘Your Hit Parade’ on television and watch all the variety shows, Andy Williams and things like that.

And then Sam Cooke, I kind of attached myself to, when he was singing with The Soulsters and then he started doing secular music. I was hypnotized. He was like a magnet to me. I watched his career, all the things that he was doing. It was something I latched onto. I wanted to try to ride that star.

Were you also conscious of finding own distinctive style?

Well, I started playing trumpet in elementary school, so I learned how to read music and, basically, be a trumpet player until I got to junior high and then I had a teacher, who I couldn’t stand at that time, because I would come to class and he would say, ‘Okay, Williams, today you’re playing the trombone.’ And I would go, ‘’Number one, I don’t know how to play trombone. And number two, it’s on the bass clef. ‘Oh, you'll figure it out.’ Now I thank him for that. I was engaging myself with the music through the instrument and through playing in band and orchestra. And then I went to a church in Oakland, Star Bethel Baptist, and they had a big choir, directed by Herman Harper. And he would enter the choir in all these state competitions. And I was just one of these guys in the tenor section, just singing my part. But it was nice to be part of a choir winning all these competitions.

We’d sing negro spirituals. And we’d sing some of the popular gospel music of that day. During that time period, Aretha Franklin’s dad, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a very popular minister and he had records out. He would come to town and pack the Oakland auditorium. And she would sing. She was about 14, 15. And there was a lady, Little Sammie Bryant. I’m not sure if she was a little person or not. They’d comment on her stature. But she was one heck of a singer. So we would even go out on programs like that.

When I was like 15, I had a friend of mine who decided he wanted to become a minister. He would go around to some of the really small churches, because they would let him speak. So I started hanging out with him and then they would ask me to sing. And that’s when I first started doing lead singing and then realized that I was pretty good at it. It just kind of blossomed from there.

I went to Laney College in Oakland, which is famous for Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. I actually went to school with Huey there. And I needed a little extra money and my friend said, ‘Well, at this Showcase Nightclub, they have this talent competition every Thursday night. Why don’t you go down there and see if you can win the money. I went down there and and I won. I was in the competition maybe 15, 20 times and I kept winning. One night I was there and I met a guy named Ray Shanklin, who was the A&R man for Saul Zaentz. Saul Zaentz, had, at that time, a small record company, Fantasy Records, which was over on Treat Street in San Francisco.

So I met Saul Zaentz and Sol Weiss, the two of them, and John Fogerty. John at that time, was working in the stockroom. He was a very soulful kid. He had band called The Golliwogs. I would watch the way he would write songs. I said ‘I would like to write.’ And he showed me how. It just kind of started from there. Eventually, I was able to write a few songs that stuck around.

You actually recorded a Fogerty song while you were on Fantasy?

I recorded a song John Fogerty wrote called ‘Feelin’ Blue’ and I recorded a song that I wrote called ‘Lisa’s Gone.’ And I understand that the ‘Lisa’s Gone’ song, if you go to England, you could sell a copy of it for a couple hundred bucks. I’ve got about 10 of them. So if times get hard... [Laughs]

But it was a learning experience for me, to see Creedence just blow up. I remember seeing them walking or riding bicycles together, because they had only one car. And then, the next thing you know, they’re selling out the Oakland Coliseum and Wilbert Harrison opening up for them.

And then, Saul Zaentz, at that particular time was an accountant for Fantasy Records, just a little small place. And to see him go on to do ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ and things like that, just let me know that the American dream is achievable, or that dreams are achievable, whether you live in American or wherever. But particularly America. So that was a real inspiration for me. Saul Zaentz went from a tiny studio to building this magnificent studio over there in Berkeley and doing movies

Plus, at that time, I had started to go to church with the Hawkins singers, Walter, Ed and Tremaine. And Ed started doing the popular gospel music [Edwin Hawkins Singers - ‘Oh, Happy Day.’]

And then, the Stewart family was around. And they went to a church we fellowshipped with. We were all in the same organization. And that was Sly [and the Family Stone] and Freddie and Rose and Vaetta. Then Sly started doing his things.

Then Odia Coates, another young lady that I grew up with, sang ‘Having My Baby’ with Paul Anka.

And we would go to Los Angeles as kids, and we were in the same church organization with Andrae Crouch and Billy Preston and Sandra Crouch. Andrae was doing great things. Billy was on ‘Shindig.’ There was Brenda Jones, who had started writing for Motown.

So it was like, ‘Oh, it’s got to happen for me, sooner or later.’ I was seeing success all around me. Not only success, but I was also seeing heartbreak and failure. So I was keeping my eyes open. I was a late bloomer, so to speak. But I was watching all these people happen around me.

Then I met Larry Graham - we had grown up in the same city - but I met him and then him and I started writing together. And he said, ‘We need to put horns on some of the stuff we’re doing. So let’s get this horn band Tower of Power to come in.’

When they walked in the door, I remembered that I had met them when my first record came out on Fantasy. And they were a little band down in Fremont, California, called The Motown Blue-Eyed Soul Band. They were basically all in high school. We had rehearsed together, but never done anything. So we got reacquainted. And then I started writing for the band. I was writing with Mimi [Emilio Castillo] and Doctor [Kupka]. And then they had the problems with Rick Stevens. And so, there were a couple of false starts, where I was going to come in and be the singer. And finally, they said, ‘Okay, let’s make it happen.’ And then came the Tower of Power thing and that was a really, really big success and very exciting.

As soon as you joined Tower of Power, did you know this was going to be a very special experience?

Well, they were already a working band. They had put out ‘Still A Young Man’ and had the first albums. But they were primarily still a West Coast band. Outside this area, they were mainly known among musicians during that time period.

So we went in and they had their record finished. Rick’s voice was on ‘What Is Hip?’ and ‘So Very Hard To Go’ and ‘This Time It’s Real’ and everything. So they took his voice off. I didn’t want to listen to it, because I didn’t want to be influenced. I went into Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco and we recorded all those songs that are on that album. I think my first gig was in December of ‘72.

By January, it was time to turn the record in. And by February, March, ‘So Very Hard To Go’ was a number one record. It was unbelievable. It seemed like overnight success, which it really wasn’t, because I’d been trying to make it happen since I was 18, 19 and at that time, I was like 25 or 26. I’d been out there for quite a while, singing with several bands around the Bay Area, trying to make it. And then, bam, just like that, it was tremendous.

As soon as you heard it, did you realize that song was something special?

Well, I thought that was special. But I’ve thought a lot of them were special that just didn’t happen. [Laughs] And then there are some that you don’t necessarily know are special and they do happen. But I did have a feeling. I’ll put it that way. I had a feeling that I was onto something. I was definitely doing something that I wanted to do.

At that time, I was working at Ford Motor Company, which was a very good job - United Auto Workers, we had a great union, making good money. The average person would have just been elated to be working at a company like that and making that kind of money. But I would get up and drive from Oakland to Milpitas and just literally be in tears on some days. And my girlfriend at the time was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ I’m like, ‘Because I should be singing. I shouldn’t be on the assembly line, working for the Ford Motor Company.’

So even though I didn’t necessarily have a feeling that the song was going to be a hit, I did have an assurance, or a peace, that I was doing something that I wanted to do and even though I was making less money than I was making at Ford, I felt good about it.

Was there any difficulty in stepping in for Rick? Or was that comfortable from the beginning?

Well, there was a little difficulty, because Rick and I were friends. And I guess it’s common knowledge that Rick was a heroin addict. And then, the relationships between singers and bands are difficult. It’s almost like a husband-and-wife kind of thing. When they were having difficulties, Rick would always quit. ‘I’m quitting.’ And he would hold the band hostage. And at the last minute, somebody would acquiesce, generally the band, to the other one’s demands. But that’s when Emilio would always call me, ‘Lenny, Rick just quit and we need you to come in.’ And then I’d come and then, right before the gig, Rick would show back up and they’d kiss and make up. This happened a few times.

I had actually been on the road with Sly and The Family Stone, between Larry and Sly, I was getting taken care of. So we had a room and a ticket, ate, just traveling around with them for quite a while.

I came back and I’d been on leave from my job with the Ford Motor Company, so it was time to go back to work. I was like, ‘Oh, boy, Monday I have to go back to work.’ It was a daunting thought in my mind. Terrifying. So I thought, ‘I wonder how Tower of Power is doing?’ I wondered if they were having problems with Rick, because I hadn’t heard anything. So I called Emilio up and he was very gregarious, ‘Hey, man. We’re working on our album. It sounds great. Come over and hang out.’

So I go over to Wally Heider’s studio on a Saturday night and hang out until four or five in the morning. The record sounded great. I went home and said, ‘Well, I’m definitely going back to work on Monday.’ Sure enough, on Monday, Emilio called me and he’s like, ‘Rick quit again. You want the gig?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I want it. But this is my scenario. I have to go back to work. And I can’t take any more time off. So, if I’m going to take the gig, I’ve got to have the gig, if Rick shows up or whatever.’ And he was like, ‘No, man, I promise you.’

So I go to rehearsal and they’re rehearsing for a couple of weeks. And I still hadn’t memorized all the songs. We were going to play at Winterland with Curtis Mayfield as the headliner. And The Bar-Kays were opening. I was like, ‘God, The Bar-Kays were one of my favorite bands. I used to listen to them every day and now I’m headlining over The Bar-Kays!’

And then, sure enough, we were rehearsing. And we look back, and there’s Rick leaning, kind of checking it out. Like, ‘Yeah, it sounds okay, but you guys know what the real deal is.’ Mimi was like, ‘Hey man, no matter what, we’re going ahead.’ So we went ahead and did the show. So that was like the only real trauma in the transition. After we did the first gig, then we left the next week and went on tour. And by the time we came back, it was all good.

You were on tour with the Family Stone?

It wasn’t in any official capacity, like a singer or anything like that. Just Larry and I were hanging out, got to be good friends. They were getting ready to go on tour. And he bought me a ticket down to Beverly Hills. We were at Sly’s house. And I reacquainted myself with Sly. They headed out and somehow I got a ticket. I’m sure Larry bought me a ticket. And I had a place to sleep, curl up on the couch or whatever. I ate when they ate. There was always food at the venue. In those days, those guys weren’t eating a lot. But I grew up on potatoes and pot roast. I liked to eat three times a day.

I got caught up in the fever, what rock music and R&B music, what it can do for you, how it can change your life, riding in limousines, living in hotels and things like that. So I did that for quite a while.

That must have been a wild and crazy time for Sly.

Oh, yeah, it was very wild and crazy. He was missing gigs and coming to gigs late. There was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And so I was getting an education on what to do, what not to do. And so I avoided a lot of those mistakes... not all of them. [Chuckles]. I avoided the drugs. Thank God for that. But I did engage in a lot of other stuff, you know?

being on the periphery of that success, did that prepare you to deal with your success with Tower of Power?

Well, Tower of Power was a huge drug band also. I didn’t really realize that, going into the band. But once I got into the band, I realized it was a huge drug band. We’d be doing ‘What Is Hip?” and we’d get to the middle and it was a ballad. David Garibaldi’s trying to keep the tempo up and, if he didn’t, the song would literally turn into the invention of screw music, I guess you could say. [Laughs] Before screw music became popular with the rappers.

And so, we had, I think, maybe three or four guys mainlining heroin. A lot of guys mixing heroin and cocaine together, snorting. Drinking. You name it. There was a lot of it going on.

I never really talked about it. Up until maybe five years ago, I never talked about it. People said, ‘Why did you leave?’ I said, ‘Oh, it was time for me to do different kinds of music, different types of things.’ But they did the Tower of Power anthology album and they wanted to interview people extensively. When they called, I was hesitant. So they called Emilio and said, ‘Lenny is not really opening up.’ So Mimi called me and said, ‘Hey, man, that was a long time ago. Everybody’s clean and sober now. We want to be able to talk about it.‘ So I can say now that there was a lot of heavy drug use going on in the band. And it contributed to a lot of sadness. People got fired. Lost their jobs. They put the work into seeing the band happen, but they didn’t get a chance to reap the fruits of the labor. And sometimes the person who did the firing, namely Emilio, he would up banging heroin years later. So it was a crazy, crazy cycle.

When I was growing up, I was a scared kid. I would put my foot into the side of the pool, maybe go in at five-feet. Never venture into nine feet. And that was kind of the way I lived my life. So even with the drugs, it was like, ‘Okay, I might smoke a little weed. I’m not touching this, I’m not touching that. I’m not drinking. And when we played a casino, I’m not gambling.’ I was pretty much a safety-first type boxer. ‘I’m going to box, but I don’t want to get hit.’ So kind of a dull boxer, I guess [Laughs]. But I was very fortunate. I guess my spirituality, whatever I had left at that time, gave me a foundation and I managed to make it through without getting scarred up too bad.

So it was that whole drug atmosphere that prompted you to leave the band after two years?

Yeah, I think so. We went to Europe on the Warner Brothers tour, so they had Little Feat, The Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Sammy Hagar, Graham Central Station, a couple of other bands. We went all around. We were getting ready to go to Frankfurt. And they were explaining to us the politics of Frankfurt and that we had to be very careful, that they had a military base there and a lot of people were very envious of Americans. The G.I.’s had money and they’d spend it. In Germany, they hadn’t really forgotten the war. And so, you had to be careful, especially for the African-Americans in the band, because Frankfurt was kind of a working town and its politics were similar to the South in America, in terms of race relations. So they told us to be careful, go off in groups, things like that.

So we went through customs, and one of the guys was like, ‘Whew, made it!’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean, made it?’ He was right in front of me, and he’d had his heroin kit in there. They got through, but I’m thinking, ‘What if they’d seen it and he’d said, ‘It’s not mine.’ In retrospect, I realize there was no way the guys would have let me go down for that. But at the time, being young and scared in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘What if nobody spoke up and they pinned it on me?’ Because of the way they’d explained the politics were.

So I went to Mimi and said, ‘When we get back, I’m going to leave the band. I want to give you enough time to find the right person. And if the person’s not right and you need me to come back for a while... but I’m definitely out.’ So they found Hubert Tubbs. He’d been hanging around. I’d known Hubert for many years before I joined Tower of Power. There’s always somebody hanging around that kind of thinks that they can do what you do or do it better or they’d just like to do it, they’d like the gig. So, Hubert was in and I was out.

It must have been validating for you to go on to have hits on your own.

You know what? I had been working on an album at Warner Brothers and I put it out while I was in the band and it didn’t do anything. Warner Brothers was very hands-off in those days. When ‘So Very Hard To Go’ came out and it was number one, and we started doing interviews, they realized that Tower of Power had changed singers. They didn’t even know. Then one day, I get in the mail, this contract for me to sign. So then I had my own little manager, who had managed me before I joined Tower of Power, Sandy Newman, and she was like, ‘Oh, give me that.’ And she went up there and she was like, ‘There’s no way in the world I’m going to let him sign this.’ She said, ‘’You guys have to give him a record deal to do his own albums while he’s with Tower of Power.’

So Joe Smith, the president of Warner Brothers, he was loving it. He was like, ‘Yeah, he can do that. He can be like Mick Jagger, do records with The Rolling Stones and do his own records.’ So he was cool with that. So I had my own little record deal. But, unfortunately, the first record that I did, didn’t sell. And then I was working on the second record when I left the band. So Warner Brothers was like, ‘Okay, since the first record didn’t do anything, we’ll finish that record that you’re working on and then we’ll give you some money.’ So I left and I went to Motown and I gave Motown that second record that I’d been working on for Warner Brothers. And it didn’t do anything. So I started hearing all these rumblings, ‘Oh, boy, you made a mistake. You should have stayed with Tower of Power.’

And I was trying to resist that thought, but I had done two records that didn’t happen. There’s no denying that. I Ieft Motown. I tracked down Suzanne de Passe. She was in Las Vegas with Diana Ross and I told her I’d really like to leave Motown, be free and just get my thoughts together. And she let me go.

And I went to ABC and I did the record ‘Choosing You,’ which sold 450,000 copies. I was back. It took like a couple of years for this to happen. But I was validated. And I started making money, instead of spending the money that I had in the bank. And so that was a great time. It was like dancing in the aisles, so to speak, for me.

What have been the greatest challenges, over the years, in terms of trying to sustain the career?

I guess the greatest challenge, up until a few years ago, was having a hit record. But it would take the Bank of America to have a hit record now. And you’re not even guaranteed that. So after that record ‘Choosing You,’ came out, then the ‘Spark of Love’ record came out. And that was my first gold record, because we had never even had a gold record in Tower of Power. So that that record came out and bam, it was a hit.

And then after that, my producer, Frank Wilson, who produced those two successful albums for me, he decided to become a minister. We did another album and it sold fairly well, but it didn’t do great. And so, then, they sold ABC Records, which I was on, to MCA, which had no idea what to do with soul music. In the deal, they got B.B. King, The Floaters, The Dramatics, me, Al Hudson, Chaka Khan and Rufus, they got the whole shebang.

So then there was another big, downward turn. And I just stopped gigging for six or seven years. And then I ran into a friend of mine, who said, ‘They’re doing a show down South in Louisiana and they love you down there. Do you want to be on the show?’ I hadn’t gigged since I don’t know when. I was living pretty comfortably. I had money. I had bought some property and stuff like that. But I went down there and the people went crazy, so then that’s when I discovered a whole new market, the Southern soul market. They had Johnny Taylor. Tyrone Davis would be the headliner. And then they would have Betty Wright. And then they would have groups I never heard of, like Willie Clayton or Carl Sims, but these guys all had buses and had local hit records. One guy would be the headliner one night and go down the road and somebody else would headline. The only thing I didn’t have that they had, I didn’t have red suits and loud blue suits and shoes to match. So I started doing that. And then it’s like, ‘Wow!’ It’s like hitting a vein of gold on a mine claim that you have. So it was like, ‘Okay, let me work it.’

Then I started my own label and started putting out my own records. And Kanye West and Twista and now Jay Z and Young Jeezy, these kids started grabbing material that I had and sampled it. So I had this huge revenue stream coming in. And everybody wanted to see me. Steve Harvey did the movie ‘Kings of Comedy,’ and now every day, the phone’s ringing, somebody wants me to come somewhere.

Is performing as rewarding as ever?

I learn from different guys, what they do. Steal a little here, steal a little there, borrow this, borrow that. And have some new ideas of my own. And I’ve come up with a pretty exciting show that’s been happening now for the last decade or so, traveling around the country, even overseas. Radio stations are playing my music. So it’s exciting. The last couple of decades, I’ve been putting on the hat of a record company executive, learning that side, so I have a greater appreciation of record companies now, all the stuff that they have to do, all the mundane details.

I don’t have a current hit, but I’m out there gigging. From what I read, it’s the working bands that are going to be successful now, in this era of the computer-driven music and buying music online and people sampling and things of that nature. The bands who get out there and work and are able to sell records at the shows and meet the people, are the ones that will really do well.

Are there goals you still yearn to achieve?

Yeah, the ultimate goal is to write a song or do a song and have it be a hit record. I just still feel that that’s achievable for me. I know that in this era of having to be baby-faced, 18 or 19, and being to turn flips and sing out of tune, it’s not as easy. But I still feel like I can do it.

And so I guess I’m going to be the George Foreman of the music business and try to regain the championship by having a hit record.

I’d like to do that. And I’d like to, at some point in time, really operate as a record company. Right now, the record company is basically about me. I’m the owner, the artist, everything. But at some point, I’d like to find an artist that intrigues me and make it happen for them. So those are a couple of goals that I have.

Visit the artist’s website, www.lennywilliams.com.