Earl Williams has done more for local music than anyone might know. It’s time to give the island’s resident “legendary entertainer” his due.
Story by Barry Kaufman & Illustrations by Megan Goheen
Maybe you’ve heard him every other Wednesday night at The Jazz Corner. Maybe your memory goes back to when he was the entertainer-in-residence at The Crow’s Nest. Regardless of where you’ve seen him, if you’re a fan of local music at all, you’ve heard Earl Williams. And if you’ve heard Earl Williams, you’ve experienced a moment in the ongoing legend of Hilton Head Island’s consummate entertainers.
Before he’d even set foot on Hilton Head Island, Williams had established himself as a powerhouse musician. In college, he was part of the Aristocrats of Bands marching band, the famed HBCU troupe which played at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. He’d also spent 15 year’s at Atlanta’s “Lark and Dove” dinner club honing his musical and comedic chops with pianist Jerry Farber.
Ernest Vantreese had been a roommate and bandmate back at Tennessee State before going on to play with the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles. Vantreese and Williams were part of a trio who scored a minor hit around Nashville called, “You Know What You Do,” and they would play together off and on throughout the years. “Earl has been a big part of my life… he was the best man at my wedding,” said Vantreese. “The thing with Earl is, he’s always been Earl.”
And if you’ve seen Williams play, you know exactly what that means. Part of the joy of watching an Earl Williams show comes from the sheer bombastic personality of the man behind the music.
“I can’t repeat some of the bits he used to do,” said Bobby Ryder, a deep chuckle punctuating his sentence. Ryder has traded off Wednesday nights at the Jazz Corner with Earl Williams for years, but long before that, they were two pillars of the music scene. “We’ve never worked with each other, but we’ve sat in with each other. We have a mutual respect.”
And while he can’t repeat the bit, it’s one you’ve likely heard as it’s one of Williams’ favorites. It involves introducing a musician and bragging on their outfit: $500 Florsheim shoes, $600 Italian suit, $800 silk shirt… and Kmart socks.
“That’s an old bit,” added Ryder. “I remember being a kid sneaking into bars, and they would do that same bit… He does a lot of the comedy, but he’s a really good saxophone player.”
For the last 18 years, that blend of side-splitting banter and toe-tapping music has made him a mainstay at The Jazz Corner. “Earl… is an integral part of the Jazz Corner family,” said Lois Masteller. “Earl is a consummate musician who LOVES what he does. His enthusiasm for jazz is infectious, and his dedication to entertaining his audiences in the most enjoyable way possible endears him to every audience member.”
The legend of Earl Williams the performer, however, can’t hold a candle to the legend of Earl Williams the friend to every musician he meets.
“Earl is one of those guys where everyone would tell you he’s their best friend,” said Lavon Stevens. “I can honestly say that we’re pretty close. I wouldn’t say I’m his best friend, because he has so many.”
That said, the pair go way back to the nascent days of the island’s music scene, when Williams was playing the Crow’s Nest and Stevens was playing at a place called Scratch McGoos (located in what is now Brother Shuckers). “I’d go see his show, he’d see mine and we just got to be friends,” said Stevens.
If there’s anything Earl Williams has become known for, apart from his bottomless talents and inimitable stage presence, it’s the friendships he’s formed.
“I usually talk to him once a week or once every other week. I pick up the phone just to get uplifted because he’s funny as (heck),” said fellow musician Sterlin Colvin. “He’s just a great person.”
Colvin recalls being confined to bed rest after an accident, and how Williams went out of his way to bring a little bit of happiness to a terrible situation. “Both of my quad muscles were detached. I had to be in a hospital bed in my living room for two and a half months… out of all the people I knew, Earl was the one who came by my house and brought me dinner when I first got home,” said Colvin. “It was one of the greatest gestures.”
It’s the humor and humanity behind the music that make Earl Williams such a great entertainer, but all of that doesn’t mean much on stage if there isn’t tremendous skill to back it up. And Williams has that by the truckload.
“He has one of the greatest feels of any musicians that I have met from around the world,” said Colvin. “He can play three notes on a piano and make me say, ‘Oh my god.’”
“I’ve learned so much from Earl,” said Stevens. “He is the consummate entertainer. He loves to make people feel good, and he’s a master musician… He’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever worked with.”
His impact on his fellow musicians has been enormous, whether mentoring on stage or by helping give up-and-coming players their first gig. Another local musician, Reggie Deas, benefited from both. The frontman for Deas Guyz used to come up from Savannah just to see Williams play, eventually landing a spot on stage with him as well as getting bookings for his band at the time, the Blue Sonics.
“One thing that Earl would always say to me – and I could never tell if I should take it as an insult or as good advice – he’d come up to me after a show and say, ‘Reggie, don’t ever quit your day job,” said Deas with a laugh. “I was like, ‘What’s he trying to tell me?’ I’ve been in education for 29 years, so it turned out to be good advice.”
But perhaps no musician has benefited more from Earl’s largesse than his own son, Kebbi. The Grammy award-winning tenor sax player, who has performed alongside groups such as Outkast, learned to play to a crowd on the stage at the Crow’s Nest under his dad’s eye.
“He taught me everything I know,” said Kebbi, who still plays the 1920s-era sax that Earl gave him. “My life secretly mirrored his – I didn’t know I was trying to be like him, I just was. I didn’t think about it.”As close as he is to his dad, to hear Kebbi speak about Earl Williams the musician is to hear the same sense of awe as nearly every musician who has crossed paths with the legendary entertainer. He talks of early days listening to Earl play at the Crow’s Nest. He talks of a legacy that extends far beyond the shores of Hilton Head Island (“When I first started playing around Atlanta, I heard a lot of ‘Oh, you’re Earl’s boy.’”). And he talks of a true musician’s musician, who continues to touch lives everywhere he goes. Putting it simply, Kebbi says of his father, “He’s touched a lot of people.” LL