Clarence Williams was equal parts artist and entrepreneur. He was extremely successful as a
pianist, composer, publisher, manager and recording director all rolled into one.
He was born near New Orleans in 1898 and left home at the age of 12 to join Billy Kersand’s
famous minstrel show as a vocalist. Soon he was promoted to master of ceremonies.
Upon his return to New Orleans he began playing piano in the honky tonks and saloons of
Storyville working with the likes of Sidney Bechet and Bunk Johnson. Soon he took over
management of his own cabaret and wrote “Brownskin Who You For” which launched his
In 1915 he started his own publishing company in New Orleans partnering with Armand Piron.
With the closing of Storyville, Williams, like many other New Orleans jazz pioneers, moved to
Chicago. He opened several music stores and continued to expand his contacts in the
business. The success of Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920 inspired him to get involved in
the recording of female blues singers.
In 1921 he married Eva Taylor who became one of the first female blues singers heard on the
radio. The two of them collaborated on a number of songs and he was convinced he could do
bigger and better things by moving east.
In 1923 Williams sold his music stores and moved to New York where he began producing
Bessie Smith recordings for Columbia Records as well as recording with his own bands
including The Red Onion Jazz Babies, The Clarence Williams Washboard Five and The
Clarence Williams Blue Five. Willie "The Lion" Smith claimed that Williams was the first New Orleans musician to influence
jazz in New York, also credited Williams with helping other African-American songwriters like
himself, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.
From 1923 to 1928, Williams was the artist and repertoire director for Okeh Records, and was
able to seek out and develop new talent. During this time, he organized numerous sessions
including many early jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong,Sidney Bechet, Buster Bailey, Don
Redman and Coleman Hawkins. He also continued to accompany Bessie Smith on many of
Williams was unique in that he was in a position to do it all. When working with an artist he
could arrange their recording session, supply their material, publish their compositions and
manage their business affairs. Between 1923 and 1937, Williams was incredibly prolific, organizing at least two recording
sessions a month and recording over 300 sides under his own name. It was common for him to record with one company and,
if he didn't like the results, go across town and record the same session for another company under a different name. The Dixie
Washboard Band, The Blue Grass Foot Warmers and The Lazy Levee Loungers are samples
are some of the pseudonyms he used.
In 1927, Williams even decided to get into musical theater. He wrote the book and music for and
also produced the show "Bottomland," which starred his wife, Eva Taylor. The show was not a
critical success. However, Williams's New York publishing company prospered, continuing to do
business until 1943 when he sold its catalog of over 2,000 songs to Decca for a reputed
During his lifetime, he had been a composer, pianist, vocalist, record producer, music publisher
and artist manager. Clarence Williams died in Queens New York in 1965.