Originally appeared in 1995 on Ichiban Soul Classics (SCL 2107)
He possesses one of the most distinctive voices in the world of R&B, an emotive, soulful vocal style that instantly reveals his background in gospel music. While that style is indelibly etched onto classic hits by '70s funk band Tower Of Power, Lenny Williams has carved his own niche, created his own loyal base of fans the world over through a solid body of recorded work that spans over twenty years. A 1996 Ichiban Soul Classics compilation offered a real retrospective of his solo career, bringing together rare recordings made for Atco, Warner Brothers, and Motown between 1972 and 1975, never available on CD until now; his ten charted singles cut for ABC and MCA between 1977 and 1981; and six cuts, soulful gems taken from Lenny's albums recorded in that same period, including the much-cherished slow jam, "Cause I Love You."
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Lenny Williams moved to Oakland at a young age. Music played an important part in his early life: he studied trumpet in high school while nurturing his vocal skills singing in local gospel choirs in and around the Bay Area, alongside other up-and-coming artists including Sly Stone, Andrae Crouch, and members of the famous Hawkins family, Edwin, Walter, and Tramaine.
After winning several local talent contests, Lenny signed his first record deal with Fantasy Records in 1968, cutting two singles for the label including "Lisa's Gone," now regarded as an R&B classic among British soul music lovers; before switching to Galaxy Records to cut one single, "Feelin' Blue," written by John Fogerty (later of Credence Clearwater Revival).
Lenny's recording career took an upturn when Jerry Wexler, the legendary executive at Atlantic Records responsible for signing soul queen Aretha Franklin and supervising many of the company's R&B hits signed Lenny to Atlantic's Atco label in 1972. In all, Lenny cut ten sides for the company during '72, mostly at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida; however, Atco elected to issue just one single.
"People Make The World Go Round" had been written by Philly producer Thom Bell and his collaborator, Linda Creed. Bell had already established himself as a consistent hitmaker thanks to his success with The Delfonics, and by the time Lenny recorded his version of "People Make The World Go Round" in April, Bell was achieving further chart prominence with The Stylistics. Atlantic recorded fast and slow versions of the song with Lenny, releasing the latter as his one and only Atco 45. Within two months of Lenny's session, The Stylistics' version of the song was catapulting up the charts and Lenny's disappeared without a trace.
Dissatisfied with their seeming lack of interest, Lenny left Atco and decided to join Tower Of Power, an eight-member Oakland-based, horn-driven funk band as lead vocalist. The move proved fortuitous: literally weeks after his last abortive session for Atco, Lenny's distinctive voice could be heard on R&B and pop radio singing "You're Still A Young Man," from the group's "Bump City" album on Warner Brothers.
From the fall of '72 to the summer of '74, Lenny was featured on five Tower Of Power hits: the now-classic "So Very Hard To Go," "This Time It's Real," the funk smash "What Is Hip" and "Don't Change Horses (In The Middle Of The Stream)." Lenny participated on another two albums with the group, the gold 1973 self-titled LP, and '74's "Back To Oakland" as well as touring constantly with the band throughout the U.S.
Towards the end of his stay with the group, Lenny cut a solo album for Warners: produced by Eugene McDaniels (who had had his own share of early '60s hits) - who had just scored a hit as the songwriter on Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" - the LP was self-titled, although the vinyl itself was inscribed, "Pray For The Lion," that much more mysterious since none of the songs on the album bore that name!
Containing a number of his own compositions, the "Lenny Williams" LP on Warners came out without much fanfare although it contained some sterling material including an early version of "Problem Solver" (re-cut for Lenny's 1977 ABC debut set) and "We're Gonna See It Through."
Opting to return to a solo career, Lenny left Warners and signed with Motown in 1975. He recorded just one album for the label, "Rise Sleeping Beauty", working with Tower Of Power buddy Chester Thompson and although the LP failed to make much impact, the one and only single "Since I Found You" became Lenny's first solo chart hit in October of '75.
According to an interview he did in 1977 with Britain's "Blues & Soul," Lenny was disappointed with the response to his Motown set: "After that didn't happen, I took some time out to go back to school to study piano and guitar, really preparing myself for the future, expanding my knowledge as far as music goes..."
After a hiatus from recording, Lenny began speaking with ABC Records' executive Otis Smith in late '76: Smith suggested that Lenny might find musical compatibility with Frank Wilson, an accomplished producer and songwriter who had enjoyed several hits at Motown with artists like The Four Tops, The Temptations and the post-Diana Ross Supremes.
Signed to ABC, and discovering that Wilson was indeed a perfect match as a producer, Lenny cut "Choosing You" his first album for the label in early 1977. Three of the LP's eight cuts provided the dynamic vocalist with his first three hit singles for ABC: the happy-go-lucky "Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh!" (with fake 'live' audience sounds dubbed in) got its name according to Lenny after "I'd gotten the hook...really got the song together, and didn't have a title..."
It was followed by "Look Up Your Mind," and the album's dance-heavy title cut, which understandably received a considerable amount of club play, hardly surprising given disco's predominance in '77. Showing his pre-eminence as a balladeer, "I've Been Away From Love Too Long" was one of the key cuts on Lenny's ABC debut, an excellent example of his interpretative skills and his trademark vocal style. The album also included "Problem Solver," an uplifting Williams original (co-written with David Stallings) that reflected Lenny's bedrock religious convictions.
Buoyed by the response to the album, Lenny and Frank Wilson headed back to the studio to record "Spark Of Love" in the spring of '78: "Now that we know each other that much more, we found this album easier to do. Ideas seemed to flow that much more quickly," Lenny noted at the time.
Given the positive reaction among club-goers to Lenny's previous singles, ABC chose to release chose to release "You Got Me Running" and "Midnight Girl," two uptempo tracks as the album's 45s. The company was rewarded with consecutive chart hits but it was the exquisite soul ballad, "Cause I Love You" which really helped take Lenny's second ABC LP to gold status. "The funny thing about the song is that I wrote it four or five years ago," Lenny told B&S readers in September, 1978. "..We included it on the album I did for Motown. We did it a little faster that time but I have always believed in the song..." To this day, Lenny's performance is considered by many as his finest recording ever and he noted in a 1995 interview, "Wherever I go, I can sing all of the Tower Of Power hits and some of my own but if I don't sing that song, I'm in trouble! Although it was never a single, it definitely helped make "Spark Of Love" go gold. I understand that seventeen years after it came out, it's still the song that always ends the evening at dances on black college campuses everywhere!"
By now touring on a constant basis (with acts like The Brothers Johnson, The Emotions, and Natalie Cole), Lenny's stature as a consistent hitmaker seemed set. Working still with producer Wilson, his 1979 LP "Love Current" kicked off with the gimmicky "Doing The Loop De Loop,"; and finally acknowledging his obvious skill as a ballad man, ABC released "Love Hurt Me, Love Healed Me" as a follow-up single in the fall of 1979. The album was pretty evenly divided between uptempo tunes and ballads and from side two comes "Let's Talk It Over", another Williams favorite.
1980 signaled a notable change for Lenny: he switched producers from Frank Wilson to Steve Duboff for the "Let's Do It Today", released in November of that year. A slowed-down revival of The Five Stairsteps 1970 hit, "Ooh Child" was released as the first single while Lenny, who acted as associate producer for the album contributed four of the eight tracks including the follow-up "Messing With My Mind," and the title cut. Also included on the album was Lenny's tasteful cover of pop and country star Eddie Rabbitt's 1979 hit, "Suspicions."
Produced by Lenny and longtime manager Sandy Newman, and released as an MCA single in October 1981, "Freefall (Into Love)," was Lenny's final charted single for the label, taken from the album "Taking Chances." The response to the single was relatively lukewarm and by 1983, Lenny had switched labels to the independent Rocshire Records, where he enjoyed a couple of mid-sized chart hits before landing briefly at Knobhill Records.
In 1986, Lenny was invited to sing lead vocals on "Don't Make Me Wait For Love," a track from superstar sax man Kenny G.'s multi-million selling "DuoTones" album. When released as a single in 1987, the song became a Top 20 pop and R&B hit. In 1990, Lenny released the album "Layin' In Wait" on Krush Groove and over the past few years, Lenny has toured Europe and South Africa while continuing to do shows on a selected basis in the U.S. Away from the studio and the stage, Lenny has worked with various programs related to youth organizations and high schools throughout the Bay Area, arranging for key entertainment and sports figures to speak at schools in Northern California and working specifically in gang prevention programs.
In 1995, Bellmark Records released a new Lenny Williams album, "A Chill" and the inclusion of "'Cause I Love You" on a slow jams collection from The Right Stuff label has continued to spark interest in Lenny's work, reinforcing his status as one of music's most beloved contemporary soul men.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.