Part 3 of a biography of Southeast Michigan’s country-western radio and stage personality Jimmy Williams.
Jimmy Williams: Blue Water Drifter, Part 3
One of Southeast Michigan’s best-known country artists of the 20th century, Jimmy Williams promoted stars of Nashville on radio and in person during the 1960s. Click here to view Part 1. Click here to view Part 2.
In 1964, local producer Kit Wright hired Williams to make a record for the Glenn label based in Hammond, Indiana. With guitarist Tracey White, he cut “New Memories For Old” and “Jimmy’s Yodel” at Sound Inc. studios. “I’d go around to some of these bars where people I knew would play, like Frankie Meadows, who used to play down in Hazel Park [at the Wayside Bowling Lounge],” said Williams. “I’d go down there and they’d get me up to sing, and I’d always have to do the yodel. So one night I was at one of these bars when Kit Wright said, ‘I’d like to record you’.”
Williams started the “JW” label around 1965, on which he issued more sides by himself, including two songs written by local singer Hank Martin: “Two’s A-Plenty – Three’s A-Crowd” and “Revenge,” two classic honky tonk anthems about drinking and broken-hearted love that appeared on Williams’ first JW single.
In January 1966, the newly formed Michigan Country Music Association, led by Jack Wilkerson, Jim Mitchell, and Frankie Meadows, among others, honored Williams as “Country Music DJ of the Year.” Williams was working at WDOG Marine City when he accepted the award at an event in Burton High School, east of Flint. The Rhythm Rustlers also received an award for “outstanding showmanship and devotion to charitable assistance when called on for benefit shows.” 
High on the hog
One of Jimmy Williams’ best performances appeared on Howard Walker’s “Walker” label in 1966. With his brother Russ Jr. singing harmony and slapping a doghouse bass, Williams sang “High On The Hog.” His most rocking recording, the tune was cut without drums, with tambourine and a swinging guitar filling out the rhythm. Walker’s colorful lyrics celebrated a workingman’s life:
I give the man a dollar on my ’55 Ford
Then I’ll be on my way
I pick up my little Susie and head for town
We live high on the hog payday
High on the hog payday
High on the hog payday
I gotta eat beans all through the week
But live high on the hog payday
The record’s A-side, “Looking Through The Tears,” a song about lost love, presented a shuffle similar to Ray Price’s late 1950s hits. The single was attributed to Jimmy and Russ Williams, as if they were a single act. However, Russ Jr. was working at the Starlite Inn, in Utica, with his band fronted by singer Steve Glenn from Sarnia, Ontario, while Jimmy continued working with the Rhythm Rustlers at Dutch’s Outpost in Port Huron.
On August 14, 1966, Russ Williams Jr. and his wife Gloria died while returning home from a vacation in Nashville. A car struck their pickup truck head-on at the Fort Street exit ramp from Interstate 75 in Detroit.
Two weeks later, the owners of the Starlite Inn held a jamboree in honor of Russ and Gloria Williams. Top C&W entertainers of Southeast Michigan shared the stage in support of the Williams family. Eddie Jackson, Swanee Caldwell, Patti Lynn, Frankie Meadows, and Jess Childers, to name a few, performed from noon into the evening. The club owners estimated one thousand people visited throughout the day. Jimmy Williams kicked off the proceedings with his band.
One of Williams’ last singles on “JW” served as a memorial to Russ and Gloria Williams. He reissued “Jimmy’s Yodel,” one of his most requested songs, backed with “Looking Through The Tears.”
WSMA = WSM Action
Williams’ influence on country music in the Blue Water region manifested itself in WDOG radio’s next set of call letters, WSMA, adopted by a new owner in 1967. “Dick Sommerville of Port Huron bought WDOG and changed its call letters to WSMA,” he said. “I suggested … that he change the call letters to WSMA, to kind of [mimic] WSM in Nashville. … They were playing big band music up ’til twelve o’clock in the day, and they’d switch over to country music at twelve until sign-off. At that time, they had sign-off at sunset. They’re a thousand-watt station.” Sommerville decided to broadcast country music at sign-on until 12:30 p.m., filling out the rest of the schedule with pop music delivered with “all new total action,” as station advertisements read.
Williams mixed blues, country, square dance calling, and comedy in his shows. Besides playing music every night at Dutch’s Outpost in Port Huron, Williams and his band broadcast their Sunday matinee performances live on WSMA, until about 1972 when Mathieson turned over management of the nightclub to her son. “We had no problem,” said Williams. His new band, the Country Dukes, found a new booking right away at Brody’s Bar in Port Huron.
He cut a 45 rpm single “Loose Talk” b/w “Stompin Steel” (featuring Whitey Cutcher) on Sound Inc.’s label (Sound 283) and followed it with an album of old favorites, including Eddy Arnold’s “I Walk Alone,” which he used as the title of the record. Around 1975 he pressed an album collection of old recordings.
Although Williams’ vocal style remained heavily influenced by the music of his youth – country singers who projected their voices for dancers in halls and crowded bar rooms – when called upon by his audiences he could croon in the style of Dean Martin, and rock’n’roll like Carl Perkins. During the 1970s, Williams kept up with the times, as songs such as “Proud Mary” (learned from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit version) came into his repertoire.
As late as the mid-1980s, WSMA aired performances of Williams in local nightclubs such as the Ebb-Tide Lounge in New Baltimore. In 1987, Sommerville sold WSMA. “I left the radio station in 1988,” he said, adding he had no regrets. “I’ve enjoyed it.”
WSMA radio’s geographic position was such that its signal barely reached Detroit and Flint, major hubs of country music activity. Although Williams tied his career to this conundrum, he made a comfortable living in the Blue Water region.
After leaving radio, Williams worked in construction near his home north of Richmond, Michigan. “Every once in a while I get together with Ted Pavlik and the Polka Boosters down at the Belle River Lounge,” he said. “Once a month they have a meeting, and [they] bring their instruments and we get up. They get up and play, and I get up and sing.”
Author’s update: Jimmy Williams passed away Nov. 1, 2016.
- Williams also issued a single by Glenda Wolfe, “Early Bird” backed with “Oh Bright Moon.” “Early Bird” recently turned up on a European rockabilly compilation CD by Buffalo Bop titled “Restless Doll.”
- “Williams Award Winner” Billboard (January 22, 1966. Vol. 78, No. 4), 42.
- Norm Childs. “Memorial Tribute Paid To Detroit Area Artist Russ Williams” Music City News – Michigan Supplement (October 1966. Vol. 1, No. 1) 1B, 10B.