I was born to be a bluegrass picker and I really don’t know why I done that [rock’n’roll sessions in Detroit]. [Jack Brown] liked my singin’ and he called in a voice lady to train my voice a little bit. He told me, “Now go in there and sing just like you always sing.” I sang high and low … and she said, “I can’t teach him nothin’! He knows more about it than I do.” — Jimmy Lee Williams 
When Jimmy Lee Williams took a job in an auto factory in 1955, he was known among country musicians for playing mandolin with the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. In Detroit, his friends called him “Big Jim Williams” due to his tall stature, but decades later, the name on his records for Michigan’s Fortune and Clix labels made him famous around the world as “Jimmy Lee.”
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Born on Leap Day, 1932, in Wythe County, Virginia, near the Tennessee border, Williams listened to the region’s string band music on his grandparents’ battery-powered radio, and it inspired him to learn fiddle, mandolin and guitar. His cousin Paul Humphrey (a.k.a. Paul Williams) lived a mile up the road, and the boys often got together to pick and sing. After winning a talent contest at their high school in 1949, WMEV radio host Cousin Zeke hired Williams and Humphrey to perform at his station, located one county over in Marion, Virginia. Late in 1950, the boys rode a bus north to Bluefield, West Virginia, where Ezra Cline was holding auditions for his Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. When Cline asked what they called their act, the boys replied, “The Williams Brothers.” According to Humphrey: “We were on WHIS [radio]. It was 5,000 watts … which was pretty good. … We was on there every morning. Jimmy and Paul, the Williams Brothers, and Ezra Cline and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. We did that almost two years. [Then] Jimmy went to work with Mac Wiseman. [The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers] had already auditioned for RCA-Victor and got the contract. That’s why it hurt so bad when Jimmy left, ’cause we had some stuff worked up.” 
Wiseman held a show at Bluefield’s Glenwood Park, and Williams replaced Ted Mullins on mandolin a few days after Wiseman’s appearance. Williams performed and recorded (for Dot Records) with Wiseman’s Country Boys until 1952, when he joined the Stanley Brothers (Carter and Ralph) at WCYB radio in Bristol, Tennessee. Besides working the road and radio, the Stanley Brothers cut several sides for Mercury Records while Williams was on board.
In 1955, Williams tired of traveling with the Stanley Brothers and called his brother, who worked for General Motors’ Cadillac factory in Detroit. With his wife and young son, Williams moved to Michigan and started work the morning after he arrived. Outside of the factory, he looked for opportunities to pick with local musicians and jammed with Jimmy Martin, the York Brothers, Frank Wakefield, Ford Nix, Bill Napier  and others, but didn’t join any groups.
One day in 1956, Williams met Fortune Records owner Jack Brown and cut a record for the label. Shortly after that session (possibly later that year, or in early 1957), Williams cut another two songs and handed that tape to John Henson of Troy, Michigan, for the earliest-known record issued on his Clix label.
Earlier that year, East Tennessee native Buster Turner cut an unorthodox bluegrass record with electric guitar for Brown (“That Old Heartbreak Express,” Fortune 187) in Detroit.  A few weeks later, Brown issued Williams’ first solo record, which sounded like bluegrass musicians playing rhythm and blues. Williams said the musicians he recorded with — at both sessions — were unknown to him, and the music on his records surprised his friends.
At the Fortune studio, located in a seedy section of Third Street, Williams set aside his mandolin for a flattop guitar, and recorded his songs “You Ain’t No Good For Me” and “Sad And Lonely.” Drenched in tape echo, both songs featured electric guitar and a snare drum. In the previous two years, rock’n’roll records steadily gained ground in popularity, and some country musicians, usually with encouragement from their record companies, experimented with the trend. In 1954, Elvis Presley’s first record included a remake of bluegrass monarch Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” with a boogie beat, and rockabilly musician Charlie Feathers, Presley’s neighbor in Memphis, Tennessee, once declared that the rockabilly style was a combination of bluegrass and “cotton patch blues.” 
“I knew rock’n’roll was goin’ real big,” said Williams. “I said, ‘Well, mine’s halfway rock’n’roll … and I don’t know what the rest of it is!’ I had a big ol’ guitar with leather wrapped around, and I had my name wrote on it (Jimmy Lee). That record played pretty good there, in Royal Oak [on WEXL radio]. One of the announcers (I think he was pulling my leg a little bit) said, ‘Hey man, that sounds a whole lot like Elvis!’ But I got better sense than that. I just cut the record, and on the side I was pickin’ bluegrass. I never did try to do anything with it.”
In October 1956, a record reviewer at Detroit’s Teen Life newspaper wrote the following: “Another recording artist joining the Elvis Presley gold rush is Jimmy Lee on Fortune. Jimmy is a little high for Elvis. He hits some real high soprano notes that sound like Nolan Strong.” 
In lyrics and feeling, his songs express emotions related to separation and isolation, feelings that he may have experienced when he left the Stanley Brothers and moved from the South to work within the confines of a Detroit factory. Compared to mainstream music of 1956, Williams’ performances sound introspective and dark. Williams’ vocal begins low and hits the ceiling during the refrain of “You Ain’t No Good For Me.” The song presents a dialog between a man and a woman (all sung by Williams), with her defiant response to his menacing verses sung as the high part in the refrain.
If you don’t want a lickin’ better sit right down,
Stop that lookin’ at me with that fra-ha-hown
[high] I-I-I-I don’t wanna
[low] Baby, you ain’t no good for me 
Listen to the entire song here.
While his Fortune disk received little attention, the Clix record fared worse. However, it represents an imaginative exploration of rock’s combinatorial possibilities, being one of the first mixed-race rock’n’roll sessions in town. A black vocal group backed Williams and his bluegrass vocal style, along with saxophone, drums, electric guitar, bass, and piano. 
One song, “She’s Gone,” features a danceable, uptempo beat, but Williams begins with a startling wail of despair. The refrain ends with, “I’ll never see my darling / She left me all alone.”  Listen to the song here.
The flip side, “Baby, Baby, Baby” is a slow blues with a desperate, pleading delivery by Williams trying to convince his woman to return to him. He sings softly, but with a nervous energy that sounds barely contained.
From here to yonder
After the sortie into rock’n’roll, Williams continued building Cadillac cars and picking bluegrass. Then his life took another abrupt turn: “My health got real bad and a preacher came to visit me at the hospital there in River Rouge. He invited me to come to his church. I told him I didn’t have good enough clothes. He said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. Just come on.’ I went to his church and gloriously got saved. From that I started writing songs, and went from here to yonder,” said Williams.
Williams listened regularly to country disk jockey and musician Red Ellis on WHRV radio Ann Arbor. One afternoon Ellis aired a Stanley Brothers record on which Williams had played mandolin, so Williams gave him a call. Soon after, the two men teamed up to play and write religious music. From 1958 to 1961, they performed all over Southeast Michigan. With Ford Nix on banjo and Bob Stiltner on bass (who Williams met during his time with the Stanley Brothers), the group recorded more than 30 songs for Starday Records, issued on several extended-play singles and two albums. They also cut singles for local labels such as Pathway, and Happy Hearts.
Williams said he “tore the sheet with brother Ellis” in 1961, and moved back to Bluefield. “I felt the callin’ to go out and preach,” he said. He started a group called Jimmy Williams and the Shady Valley Boys at WHIS radio. From there, he began his evangelistic work. Eventually Williams moved his family to Florida, but he returned to Michigan and cut a couple of high-energy bluegrass gospel albums with Ellis in the early 1970s for Jessup Records of Jackson, Michigan.
By now, Williams’ solo efforts for Fortune and Clix have reached the ears of rock’n’roll and rockabilly music fans around the world. While those records seemed full of raw, emotional yearnings for better times, Jimmy Lee Williams spent his later life communicating spiritual joy with a contagious fervor in his performances, which he kept up until his passing in 2012.
- Jimmy Lee Williams interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002.
- Paul Williams interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002. After the Williams Brothers episode, Paul Humphrey was known as Paul Williams for the rest of his career.
- Bill Napier moved to Detroit in 1954 and played mandolin with Curly Dan Holcomb (he later formed an act with his wife: Curly Dan and Wilma Ann) while working in the auto industry. Williams suggested that Napier try out for the Stanley Brothers band, and four months after his first audition, Napier joined them for a spell that lasted until 1960. He went on to work with several others, including Charlie Moore during the 1960s. Napier died in 2000.
- In a 2001 interview, Buster Turner told Keith Cady about playing bluegrass music in Detroit. “We had an electric guitar added in, to play a little more country … slow dancing. Up there [in Detroit], you couldn’t hardly get a job in a bar where they had dancing, if you played bluegrass. But if you had an electric guitar … you could play a little slower music like ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and stuff. That’s the way it was back then, with bluegrass.”
- “Now let me tell you where rockabilly comes from. It comes from the cotton patch blues, and from bluegrass.” Charlie Feathers quoted by Ben Sandmel from his liner notes to the “Charlie Feathers” Elektra Nonesuch (American Explorers) 9 61147-2, 1991 compact disc.
- “Variety Key In New Crop Of R&R Tunes” Teen Life (Oct. 19, 1956) 3. Nolan Strong was the lead singer of a Detroit-based rhythm and blues vocal group called the Diablos, who also recorded for Fortune Records.
- “You Ain’t No Good For Me” (Jimmy Williams) Trianon Publications (Fortune 191, 1956)
- Detroit-based record collector Cappy Wortman once speculated that Williams’ Clix sides were made at the Fortune Records studio with the Five Dollars vocal group.
- “She’s Gone” (Jimmy Williams) True Tone Publishing (Clix 100, 1957)
- Bond, Marilyn, and S. R. Boland. The Birth of the Detroit Sound: 1940-1964. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2002.