Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Many celebrities use their elite status to set themselves above everyone else. Those that behave that way walk around with swollen heads and a rude demeanor. This type of attitude makes interviewing these types of celebrities uncomfortable and intolerable. However, this was not the case with my interview with the legendary soul singer " Lenny Williams." Lenny was extremely pleasant, wise, humble, and gracious. While interviewing him, he made me feel like I was talking to a family member I've known all my life. He could have played the "celebrity big-headed card" if he wanted to, but he didn't. Lenny is an influential rhythm and blues (R&B) artist who, in the mid-1970s, was the lead singer of the funk band "Tower of Power." After leaving the band, he pursued a solo career in which he recorded many amazing hits! One of my personal favorites is "Cause I love you." So, we had a chance to chat it up. Here's what he shared with me.
Okay, first and foremost, I am a huge fan of your music, and I love your voice! In my opinion, you're a legend! I feel so honored and blessed to have this opportunity to interview you. So, thank you again! My pleasure to be here.
Thank you. Okay, so tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, and how did you get started in music?
Sure, I love to. Well, I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. I left there when I was quite young. I think I was around about 13 or 14 months old. That's when we came to California. I settled in Oakland, California, and we joined a Baptist Church. My mom immediately put me in a little choir.
I remember saying "Easter" and "Christmas" speeches. They had speeches for just about anything. They would make up a day to have your speech. So, I was always in front of audiences. As I got older, I think around the fourth grade, I started playing trumpet and learning how to read music.
So, music became an important part of my life. My mom loved country and pop music, but my dad liked listening to Christian music. He didn't like us to listen to anything other than that, but whenever he'd leave the house, we would look out to see if he turned the corner, and once he did, we would turn the radio on and listen to the music we liked. That's how I fell in love with music.
I was fortunate as a teenager to go to a church with many aspiring musicians. Walter Hawkins, Edwin Hawkins, Tremaine Hawkins, The Steward Family, "Sly and the Family Stone,” and Odia Coates sang " Having my Baby.” We used to fellowship with a church in Los Angeles, where Andre Crouch, Billy Preston, Gloria Jones, Andre, and Sandra Crouch. So, music is always kind of been a part of my life. But, my introduction to music came from church.
Over a period of time, I watched a lot of my friends leave the church and go out and start doing secular music, and then I kind of followed them. That’s how the story began.
Awesome! So, at what point did you get signed to a recording contract? Also, did you ever participate in localized gigging before you got signed? When I was around 18, while attending college, a friend suggested I go to the " The Showcase Lounge" club in Oakland, California. There was a talent show that he thought I should participate in. He liked the fact that I could sing. At that time, I was just getting out of the church and feeling my way around; I only knew about two songs, "I Was Made To Love Her" by "Stevie Wonder" and "Sam Cooks," A Change is Gonna Come.
So, I would go down there on Thursday nights and win every time. So, one night, a guy approached me and asked me. " If I'd like to make a record". His name was "Ray Shanklin". He worked as an "A&R" guy for "Fantasy." So he took me over to Fantasy Records “in San Francisco. Over there, I met a young guy by the name of "John Fogerty.” John was working in the stock room, so I would learn how to write songs and things like that. (John Cameron Fogerty) is an American musician, singer, and songwriter. Together with Doug Clifford, Stu Cook, and his brother Tom Fogerty, he founded the band Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), for which he was the lead singer, lead guitarist, and principal songwriter.) Later, I met a guy named "Huey Lewis," who had a band called “Clover," and I learned a little about songwriting from him. I made a few records that received little notoriety around my hometown (the San Francisco Bay Area) but didn’t reach far outside that area.
So, I just hung around with bands and things of that nature and eventually started writing for a little band called "Tower Power," so I started writing for them. And then eventually became a lead singer of that band. And that's how I got my start.
Wow, that's amazing! So, tell me about your song, "Because I love you." That's one of my favorite songs by you! Did you write that song? Tell me a little bit about the history behind that song. I wrote that song with a good friend, "Michael Bennett." I met Michael because I bought a house and needed to do some work on it, so I hired a man named Mr. Bennett. So, whenever he worked at my house, he always told me that he had a son who did music and could write and play guitar. He told me that he played the keyboard and could sing and dance. He could do it all!
So, I'm thinking, wow, he's a proud dad, but he’s probably exaggerating a little bit. So, after constantly telling me about his son and wishing I would meet him, I finally agreed. I met his son, and his son was everything that he said he was.
His son and I started writing together. I got him to practice writing every day, so we wrote together every day. He told me that to write a great song; he has to be inspired.
I told him these guys go to work, punch in at nine o'clock, and stay in a room writing songs all day. I thought to myself, "Barry Gordy" wouldn't do that. So, I said, "you have to do something that inspires you to get yourself a paycheck at the end of the week, you know"?
So, I bought into that theory. He came by one day for our regular writing sessions, and I told him, "I didn't feel like it." He was like, why? I told him that "I and my girl got into it." He said, well, if you were working for Barry Gordon, what would you tell him? Would you tell him that you didn’t feel like writing today? I said, No, I probably wouldn't. He said, "well, let’s write". So, that’s how "Because I love you" came about.
Wow! I just love that song! Thanks for sharing that story. So, tell me, what was one of your most memorable moments? I'm sure there were many. But what would you say is your most memorable? There are so many! But I would have to say my most memorable time was getting a phone call from Aretha Franklin. She wanted me to come to Detroit and sing at her party. I was told that it would be at a theater with 100 special invited guests and that she had rented the theater where she wanted me to perform.
So, when I arrived in Detroit, they sent a limo to pick me up and take me to the hotel. I left to go out to get something to eat, and when I returned, there were flowers all over my room. Then the phone rang, and it was "Aretha Franklin"! She asked me did I like the flowers and if everything was okay. She also asked if I had anyone who wanted to come to the show. I couldn't even talk! I just lost my voice and everything! Finally, I was able to come to myself and talk to her. I called my wife and told her that Aretha Franklin had bought me flowers and everything! My wife said nice. Did you thank her?
So, that was one of the highlights of my career. We became good friends. Sometimes people who wanted to get in touch with Aretha Franklin to get her to come to California or their parties would ask me to get in touch with her. She also requested that I go on the road with her and everything! So that association with her is special to me.
That's an amazing story! Thank you so much for sharing that with me! Oh, my gosh, that's awesome! What would you say is the most challenging for a recording artist in this industry? Coming up with hit songs. You have so many talented people writing and doing music! It’s a phenomenon that a person could have a hit record. Just think about how many songs have been written every day, and your little song is the one that makes it makes it through. So, the challenge is to find something you create or somebody you know that hits a chord with a million people that would go out and purchase it. To me, that's the most challenging part.
How is everything different in the music industry from when you began? Well, I started in the music industry in the 60s. At that time, the contracts for unknown artists with no connections were rough. You didn't make a lot of money. After joining "Tower Power" and having hit records, I started doing my own thing. That's when my contracts got better.
Over time, my contracts became more lucrative because I had more negotiating power and leverage based on the record sales and the notoriety I gained. Now, it's almost back to where I started. Today, artists must be clever to make money in the music business with streaming and illegal downloading. I read an article the other day that said, “music is almost like a loss leader." You might wake up and see that Macy's has a deal where you can get six pairs of socks for $1.50, and everybody runs to Macy's to take advantage of that deal! Their main objective is to get you in there, hoping you'll buy a new coat, dress, suit, wardrobe, or even a new piece of furniture. So, they were saying that now, "these artists put out songs in hopes that you will gravitate to them." Once you do, they will try to sell you shirts or a certain kind of wig they wear. Some even try to sell you their brand of CBD oil or whatever.
They talked about how the songs don't make a lot of money. That's why they're hopeful that you’ll be able to come to their show. This way, they can make money with their live performances. One of the problems now is that they can't even do live performances because of the COVID situation. So, it's kind of interesting.
Another thing is, when I got started in music, you'd go to a record company, get signed, go to a studio and make a record. But now, you can use your telephone to make a good-sounding record. I was reading an article that something like 60,000 songs gets uploaded every day. The traffic is tremendous! When I was coming up, I didn't know how many artists put out a record a week. It might have been around 50/100 or something like that. Now, you're talking, 50 to 60,000 people uploading songs to Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and so on every day! The traffic is heavy, and the competition is tremendous! In a way, it's easier to make music and get it out there, but, on the other hand, you've got so many people that you're competing against. The music business isn't for somebody who's timid. You have to get out of there and go for everything you know to have a successful record.
Who were some of your musical influences? I love Sam Cooke. I thought that he was darn near perfect. He had it all! He was good-looking, had great songs, and was a great businessman! I guess he learned that from his dad being a church pastor. He owned his record label and publishing company. So, I thought he was somebody that I wanted to emulate. I listened to the radio a lot when I was growing up and found that the radio is a great teacher. You turn it on and get the opportunity to absorb various styles of music. As you absorb radio and begin practicing different styles, eventually, you'll come up with something that's your own. So, I would say that radio and Sam Cooke were my biggest influences.
Awesome! If you had an opportunity to work with a particular artist or producer, who would it be? David Foster. He's a great producer! I'd also love to work with Kanye West. I think he's very talented. I would say Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Taylor is such a great songwriter. If she wanted to write R&B, she'd be so successful. I think she might even surprise herself. I think that she would be an excellent person to work with. They’re so many great artists out there now.
What advice would you give up-and-coming artists about staying grounded in this industry? Remember your home training and have a good personality. Be nice to people. It's very important because, let's just say, "you walk into a radio station wanting to talk to the program director or one of the disc jockeys, and you treat the receptionist a little snotty. Well, three years later, when you return, the receptionist is now the program director. So, it is just always nice to be nice because you just never know when somebody can do something to help you.
Also, I think that it's good to get books about the industry that you're in. Also, find yourself a lawyer or manager. If you have those things in place and stay away from substance abuse, that’s a wise thing to do.
Substance abuse can deteriorate your talent, and it can cause you to embarrass yourself, especially if you’re intoxicated. For me, I just wanted an opportunity. So, those are the main things that are the key to staying grounded in this business, along with performing and perfecting your craft.
What would you say was probably one of your most embarrassing moments while performing that you wouldn't be too embarrassed to share with our readers? Once, a person introduced me at a performance and said, " and now, here's Lenny Williams!" I went out the wrong door! Instead of walking out on stage, I was in the audience, looking up at the stage. Then, instead of going back around, I tried to climb up the front of the stage to get on stage. That was kind of embarrassing. So that was kind of embarrassing. I turned left when I should have turned right.
That's funny! So tell me, how do you prepare artistically for a performance? I usually do my vocal exercises, warm up my voice and drink lots of water. I also like to meditate, say a little prayer, and then go for it.
What is it that inspires you to write? What type of songs do you feel that you're drawn to? The first thing is that I have to like it. It has to be something that makes me move or has a great melody and words. I believe that if it's something I like, then I think that other people would like it too. I looked at it as though I was going to have dinner at my house, and I was a chef. I would serve them something that I think they would like. If I like the taste of something, I think my guests would also like that. It’s the same thing with music. If it's something I like, then I think most people would like it. So, it must pass the Lenny Williams-like test.
Awesome! Tell me, who have you worked with in the past? And, what do you have cooking for the future? I've worked with so many different people. In terms of doing shows, I’ve worked with "The Jacksons, Usher, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and many others. The list is long. On the music production side, I've been working with Levi Caesar, who played guitar and bass in "Prince's "New Power Generation Band". They were touring for about 12 years. I’ve also been working with Derek Allen. He's the producer that just produced a new record on" Kem." So, I’ve been working with him, writing songs and producing. So, I'm excited about the music that we're doing. I did a song with Levi called "Fine “and "Southern girl." Those records are out now on digital platforms. So, I'm just excited about the future and the possibilities.
Will you be performing live when everything reopens? Yeah, most definitely. Once we get the green light, COVID is long gone and buried with a tombstone over it; then I'll get back out there. I don't want to be premature, run out there, and get sick. I don't want to cause anyone else to get sick, either. But yes, most definitely! When that time comes, I'll be ready to shine up the shoes, get out there, and do my thing.
All right! Well, when you come out this way, I want a ticket! Definitely
One last thing, what would you like to say if it were your last words on earth? I live my life as an open book.
All photos are courtesy of Lenny Williams
Lenny Williams Website: http://lennywilliams.com/