on this day

January 7, 1980 – Larry Williams died at age 44

The death was deemed suicide, though there remains much speculation otherwise. No suspects were ever arrested or charged. He was a long-time friend of Little Richard.Williams seemed poised to become a successor to the hot R&B throne vacated by Little Richard when he gave up rock ‘n’ roll for God, and his songs were covered by a range of better-selling acts that included the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, he had a love of fast living almost as large as his musical talent and Williams’ life mixed tremendous success with violence and drug addiction. Williams sang rhythm & blues and rock & roll classics from 1957 to 1959 for Specialty Records, including “Bony Moronie”, “Short Fat Fannie”, “High School Dance” (1957), “Slow Down”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” (1958), “Bad Boy” and “She Said Yeah” (1959). John Lennon was a fan, and the Beatles and several other British Invasion groups covered several of his songs. The Beatles recorded three of his songs: “Bad Boy”, “Slow Down” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”.

Williams learned how to play piano at a young age His family headed west while he spent some time with relatives in Chicago before joining his parents in Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1945, a town then thriving on military-industrial contracts, and fell into music as a teen, eventually starting a band he called the Lemon Drops.Although the Lemon Drops didn’t last long, Williams had been bitten by the bug, and he decided to pursue a deal with Specialty Records, the New Orleans label where his second cousin, R&B belter Lloyd Price, was already signed. Williams took a job with Price, working as Lloyd Price’s valet, doing odd jobs as a gofer and filling in occasionally for missing band members in the bands of Price, Roy Brown and Percy Mayfield, but he soon found himself adrift again when Price put his own music career on hold after he was drafted.Working various temporary gigs while waiting for his big break, he started building his own network, rubbing shoulders with an assortment of future greats that included drummer Earl Palmer and local studio owner Cosimo Matassa, both of whom would figure heavily into his future success.In 1955, Williams met and developed a friendship with Little Richard, who was recording at the time in New Orleans. Price and Penniman were both recording for Specialty Records. Williams was introduced to Specialty’s house producer, Robert Blackwell, and was signed to record.In 1957, Little Richard was Specialty’s biggest star, but bolted from rock and roll to pursue the ministry. Williams was quickly groomed by Blackwell to try to replicate his success. Williams’ shot at the big time finally arrived after Price returned from his tour of duty and had a falling out with Specialty owner Art.

January 7, 1980 - Larry Williams died at age 44

Rupe, who in a rush to find an act who could fill the void left by Price and Little Richard, quickly steered Williams into the studio to cut a single. That first side, a copycat version of Price’s own “Just Because” didn’t really go anywhere, but it opened the door to a contract with Specialty. Using the same raw, shouting vocals and piano-driven intensity, Williams scored with a number of hit singles. Williams’ three biggest successes were “Short Fat Fannie”, which was his biggest seller, reaching #5 in Billboard’s pop chart, “Bony Moronie”, which peaked at #14, and its flip “You Bug Me Baby” which made it to #45. “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” charted at #69 on Billboard the following year. Both “Short Fat Fannie” and “Bony Moronie” sold over one million copies, gaining gold discs.After 1957 Williams did not have much success selling records. He recorded a number of songs in 1958 and 1959, including “Heebie Jeebies”, with band members such as Plas Johnson on tenor sax and Jewel Grant on baritone, Rene Hall and Howard Roberts on guitars, Gerald Wilson on trumpet, Ernie Freeman or Williams himself on piano, and Earl Palmer on drums. Unfortunately, aside from some early Top 20 success, Williams’ releases failed to gain much traction on the charts. Some have speculated that Rupe’s unwillingness to play the payola game thwarted his label’s chances at scoring hits, but whatever the reason, by the early ’60s, Williams’ recording career was on hold, partly because of Specialty’s woes, but mainly due to a stint in prison he was serving for possession and dealing narcotics in 1960.

January 7, 1980 - Larry Williams died at age 44

When Williams emerged from prison in 1962, he faced a very different musical landscape, albeit one in which his early cuts were starting to be discovered by a host of younger musicians, including John Lennon.Several of his songs achieved later success as revivals, by The Beatles (“Bad Boy”, “Slow Down”, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”), The Rolling Stones (“She Said Yeah”) and John Lennon (“Bony Moronie” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”). They were far from alone: the long list of famous Williams fans includes the Rolling Stones, who covered “She Said Yeah” and the Who, who cut a version of “Bony Maronie”.Williams made a comeback in the mid-1960s with a funky soul band that included Johnny “Guitar” Watson, which paired him musically with Little Richard who had been lured back into secular music. He produced two Little Richard albums for Okeh Records in 1966 and 1967, which returned Little Richard to the Billboard album chart for the first time in ten years and spawned the hit single “Poor Dog”. He also acted as the music director for the Little Richard’s live performances at the Okeh Club. Bookings for Little Richard during this period skyrocketed. Williams also recorded and released material of his own and with Watson, with some moderate chart success. This period may have garnered few hits but produced some of his best and most original work. Williams also began acting in the 1960s, appearing on film in “Just for the Hell of It” (1968), “The Klansman” (1974), and “Drum” (1976).In the 1970s, there was also a brief dalliance with disco, but Williams’ wild lifestyle continued. By the middle of the decade, the drug abuse and violence were taking their toll. In 1977, Williams pulled a gun on and threatened to kill his long-time friend, Little Richard, over a drug debt. They were both living in Los Angeles and addicted to cocaine and heroin. Little Richard had bought drugs from Williams, arranged to pay him later, but did not show up because he was high. Williams was furious. He hunted him down but ended up showing compassion for his long-time friend after Little Richard repaid the debt.

This, along with other factors, led to Little Richard’s return to born again Christianity and the ministry, but Williams did not escape LA’s seedy underworld.A native of Kenner, Louisiana and cousin of Kenner native Lloyd Price, Williams was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in a ceremony held on February 9, 2014. The date was the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles first American appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.Looking back, Watson remembered a lifestyle that — if it didn’t include that particular illegal activity — was nevertheless fairly dangerous. “At the time everyone was doing drugs, even myself. I didn’t escape, nobody escaped, it was just a part of that time,” he admitted. “Everybody was snorting cocaine, smoking weed, and, man, you’re talking about wild, man, it was just whooo… I can’t even begin to tell you how it was, getting through that era. Looking back now on that time it’s frightening.”Eventually, Williams’ luck was bound to run out, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that his death, due to a single gunshot to the head that investigators ruled a suicide, occurred under circumstances that some have always viewed with suspicion. A number of his peers were reluctant to believe he’d end his own life, and given how enthusiastically he crossed the law (even, according to Little Richard, pulling a gun on him at one point over a drug deal gone wrong), it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to wonder whether he’d really been murdered. Speculation persists — and so does the music Williams left behind.“The doors were locked from the inside when they found him,” shrugged Womack years later. “Maybe it was a professional hit. Anything is possible in the music business when someone talks as loud as Larry and names names like he did. The thing is, you never know what’s on a person’s mind who gets high the way Larry did. Something drove him there.

There will always be rumors. Someone will always say, ‘Man, I think somebody set him up.’ How come people just don’t die?”A Southern Illinois drummer and blues singer by the name of Martin Allbritton claims to be Larry Williams, alive and well. This claim originated at about the time Larry Williams was found dead. He recorded and performed as a drummer for Bobby “Blue” Bland in the 1960s. Albritton has toured the country performing under the moniker of “Big” Larry Williams, and claims that he recorded the hits “Bony Moronie” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”. He recorded an album in 1990 called Street Party with the Mellow Fellows band, previously headed by Big Twist. While touring with the Mellow Fellows in Chicago, Allbritton was confronted by Etta James, who knew Larry Williams.Williams’ family members have asked him to cease any future reference to “Larry Williams”. Allbritton has so far refused, and presently continues to use the name.









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