At Bill’s Barn on a Saturday night, we would have five hundred or more people there. We would have about twenty-five square dance sets on the floor. I’d call the square dances, too. — Jimmy Williams 
From the age of seventeen, Jimmy Williams led country bands in the cities and townships just north of Detroit, Michigan. While Williams’ main territory spanned Rochester Hills to the Blue Water region (including New Haven, Richmond, New Baltimore, Fair Haven, and Port Huron), Detroit fans and fellow musicians got to know Williams and his yodel through guest appearances with Frankie Meadows, Casey Clark, and others. One of the first modern country music entertainers born in Michigan, Jimmy Williams maneuvered through a sixty-year career in music.
He was born in Romeo, Michigan, on Christmas day, 1934. Brother Russell Jr. was born three years later. “Went to school at Brooklands School in Brooklands sub, which is now Rochester Hills. I went to Rochester High School and graduated,” said Williams.
His mother sang a little, and dad, Russell Sr., passed the music bug to his sons. “He played in clubs,” Williams said of his father. “Him and Ralph [Maybee, fiddle player], they used to play for what they called ‘home dances.’ Back in the old days, they’d go to somebody’s house and clear the furniture out [of a room].” Russ Sr. played guitar and harmonica, as well as string bass. “He used to sit around with a guitar and a harmonica [rack] around his neck, get drunked up and sing,” said Williams.
Williams found his main inspiration, though, in the music of his famous namesake Hank Williams. “I thought he was great,” he said with a reverent nod.
Little money, lots of fun
In 1951 Williams and his brother began performing in public. With Leon Yoder (bass), Eddie Teal (steel guitar), and Russ Jr. (electric guitar), Williams played rhythm guitar, sang, and called square dances at Rayburn’s Barn near Imlay City on weekends.
“I was about seventeen and Russ Junior was about fourteen. We would drive all the way from Brooklands sub, which is at Auburn Road and Dequindre … all the way out to Rayburn’s Barn on a Saturday night. We’d get paid ten dollars each. I drove an old ’40 Ford. … We stopped at a restaurant, had a bowl of chili … put oil in the car. Got home and we didn’t have hardly any money left. … But we had fun,” he said.
After graduating high school in 1953, Williams worked at National Twist Drill and Tool Company in Rochester. He and his brother continued playing music on weekends, and soon their band included Russ Sr. (bass), Ralph Maybee (fiddle) and Delbert “Bert” McNally (steel). He called his band the Drifters, after Hank Williams’ band.
Williams met local singer Lonnie Barron around 1952. “He was playing Saturday night dances at Fair Haven Roller Rink. We got a job (the Drifters) playing on the same Saturday night with him. His band would play for an hour, then he’d take off, and our band would play for an hour,” said Williams. Barron broadcast at 1590 WSDC-AM (later called WDOG) radio in Marine City every day. Williams and band played an hour-long Saturday morning show at the station.
In 1955, Williams married and moved to New Baltimore, a small town on Lake St. Clair, about halfway between Detroit and Port Huron. He continued working at the factory in Rochester and established the Drifters at Bill’s Barn, an actual barn transformed into a social hall (at Auburn and Dequindre roads). Singer Jack Scott hosted weekend dances there, and Williams moved in after Scott took his band to May’s Barn near Rochester Road and Big Beaver. “We started barn dances at Bill’s Barn on Saturday nights,” said Williams. “We’d start at nine, and quit at one. … When it would come to a special holiday, we’d have a special dance. … It was fifty cents to get into those dances, and some of the kids who came to the dances, they would come with a handful of change — pennies, nickels, and dimes — to get fifty cents.”
Crowds frequently filled the hall to capacity on Saturday nights. Williams soon made enough money to finance a record. He called his label “Drifter,” and cut two original songs in his parents’ living room with one microphone. Howard Walker, a friend who frequented Bill’s Barn, and who worked at the Ford Motor Company’s Proving Grounds in Romeo while writing country songs in his spare time, assisted Williams by running the tape machine. “We wanted to put a record out, so we recorded on our tape recorder,” said Williams. “Then we sent the tape to Cincinnati, Ohio, to King Records, and they produced it for us.” For using one microphone, Williams’ recordings sounded balanced and professional. Williams’ feel for the blues shined through his vocals on “Loveless Kisses,” a honky tonk weeper. The flipside of the single featured “If You Could Love Me,” an up-tempo toe-tapper. The band included doghouse bass, electric guitar, rhythm guitar, fiddle, and steel guitar. Williams sold 78 and 45 rpm copies of the record at his shows.
Business at Bill’s Barn earned enough cash for Williams to replace McNally (Lonnie Barron hired him away) with Jesse Collins, add a second fiddle player and, at Russ Jr.’s recommendation, enlist a young guitarist from Utica named John Pavlik, a nephew of a local polka bandleader named Ted Pavlik. A couple of years later, Pavlik changed his stage name to Johnny Powers when he began singing rock ’n’ roll. “Running around as a teen-ager, I probably bumped into [Jimmy Williams] at a drive-in, or bumped into Russ Williams [Jr.], or went to a dance,” said Powers. “Then I started hangin’ with Russ, playing rhythm guitar. … Didn’t know a lot of chords, but I could play slap rhythm, which is what they wanted. He’d pay us, like, twelve dollars a night. Sometimes it got up to twenty dollars.” 
One night while at a drive-in restaurant with their dates, Russ Jr. played Elvis Presley’s “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” on a jukebox for Powers, and the two friends began following the country rock ’n’ roll trend that Presley spearheaded. At first, Williams wouldn’t allow it in the band’s sets. “Jimmy was straight country,” said Powers. Eventually, Williams gave way. “We did rock ’n’ roll music,” he said. “At the time it was … What did they call it? ‘Be-bop.’ It was Elvis’ music, and Carl Perkins … But we didn’t do too much of that. We did mostly country and square dances. Square dances were real popular back then.”
Next week! Jimmy Williams: Blue Water Drifter, Part 2
- Jimmy Williams interviewed by Craig Maki and Keith Cady in 2003.
- Johnny Powers interviewed by Craig Maki and Keith Cady in 2001. Powers is nephew of Michigan polka bandleader Ted Pavlik.