Over the course of 43 years in the music business, Viola Wills created a legacy of over 80 songs, 30 singles, and seven albums. Those numbers might not match the figures of certain other veteran artists; but considering the means by which Wills achieved them, it’s quite remarkable.
Her voice was full of life; ripe with sweet-natured yet riveting soul; and brimming with positivity. Her song lyrics and melodies evoked substance, style, and class - whether encouraging others to aspire to their highest goals and unite with fellow men in “Dare to Dream”; sending out an honest, true-to-life plea for genuine love in “Somebody’s Eyes”; or helping folks to forget their troubles and taste the other side of life in “Enjoy Yourself.” Listening to her songs, one can instantly make an authentic human connection with the music. There’s20no pretense, nor any attempt to capitalize on a specific market or reach one particular audience. It’s simply life: as it is, and as Viola hoped it would be.
Like her music, “Vi,” as her family and friends affectionately called her, was also a genuine and down-to-earth person. Talking to her, one instantly felt at ease. She had an authentic interest in learning about and from those around her, and was willing to be open and honest about her own experiences, unhesitant to share helpful words and to make good on them.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vi in 2001 for The Groove, the student newspaper of Berklee College of Music, and subsequently got to know her and hang out with her while living in Los Angeles. Of the many artists I’ve interviewed and gotten to know, I can truly say that Vi was a rarity. I’ve had the fortune to meet many singers whom I admire, many of them quite kind. And Vi was particularly impressive. When I would talk to her via phone or e-mail, she was willing to listen to my difficulties trying to make it in the music business and would offer positive words of encouragement. She even volunteered that I could room with her in Brighton if I wanted to try things out overseas. For these conversations and true goodwill, I was especially grateful. It meant a lot during a particularly stressful time in my life.
Vi was born Viola Mae Wilkerson in 1939 in South Central, California (then known as Watts). Her mother passed away at an early age, and although her father remarried, she was raised primarily by her grandmother. Vi recalled her early years: “I came up in an all black neighborhood. Back then, it wasn’t all built up. It was countryfied, sedate. We were poor, but we didn’t live in the projects. I wasn’t exposed to the street life. My grandmother exposed me to her world - gospel and the “Hit Parade”!
Singing was something that just came naturally to Vi -- nothing she ever thought about pursuing as a career. She remembered, “My grandmother made me realize I could sing. She told me the story of how I would sing in the crib, the gospel song ’Twelve Gates to the City,’ only I pronounced it ‘shitty’! Honest to God, if everybody at church hadn’t hooped and hollered, even today if people didn’t go insane, I wouldn’t do music as a career. It’s so natural, I don’t practice to go to high C.”
A single mother of six when she was discovered by a young Barry White in 1965 in her hometown of Watts (South Central), Los Angeles, Viola cut her first four singles for producer/manager Bob Keane’s Bronco label in 1966 and 1967. It was White who came up with the shortened stage name “Viola Wills.” Though none of the records gained much recognition at the time, they soon after received notable attention on the UK northern soul scene and have since become classics amongst fans.
Vi recounted her ea rly years of recording and performing. “I was very despondent. I had half a dozen kids and my marriage hadn’t worked out.” A determined Capricorn, she didn’t give up on music once the Bronco deal ended; but she had her share of roadblocks. In addition to performing in local clubs, she also worked as a stenographer by day.
“It’s amazing how many opportunities there are that you’re not aware of if you’re stuck in an impoverished area. I had this mistaken idea that it was too late for me to go to school. And I also thought that all you had to do was get a hit record to make it in music. I was really dreaming. It’s true that once you have a hit record, you’re gone. But no one told me the steps in between not having one and having one!”
In 1969, Vi cut her first self-penned single for the tiny Bem Sole label - a tune called “The First Time,” which now goes for big bucks in Northern Soul circles. (The flipside, another Wills composition called “You’ve Got My Blessings,” would remain one of her favorite recordings years later.)
While “The First Time” didn’t do much in sales or airplay, Vi’s next effort garnered her more exposure. A song called “Sweetback” which she recorded for the indie L.A. label Supreme, landed her a spot on “Soul Train” alongside Al Green and Bill Withers. Meanwhile, on the live performance side,20she had joined the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
Accounts vary as to how her next break actually came about, but Wills ended up joining Joe Cocker’s background vocal group The Sanctified Sisters -- a gig which meant moving overseas, leaving her children with family and friends. “I worked in a state of depression,” she recalls, noting that she only took the gig because she knew in her heart that she could get an album deal out of it in order to support her family. “Every day, I was at the piano writing my songs. There was no way [Joe Cocker’s] manager wasn’t going to notice me. I was a young, hotheaded woman...I guess it was beginner’s luck, because I had never really had a song published before. I had no indication if I was really a songwriter, but everything was riding on it. I was in this anxious mode of having to do it.”
And obtain an album deal she did. The result was Soft Centers, which Wills penned in entirety herself, with Nigel Thomas serving as producer and Cocker’s band playing behind her. The 1974 album spawned two singles: the soulful chugger “Run to the Nearest Exit” and the dreamy midtempo “Day in the Life of a Woman.” With releases in the UK, Germany, France, and Canada, Soft Centers did not move a lot of units. Several subsequent attempts at hit singles (including one in the U.S. produced by Mick Jones of future Foreigner fame) were also unsuccessful. “Nigel Thom as told me the reason he couldn’t sell the album was that in the UK, black artists could have hit singles, but were not accepted as album artists.” However, the release helped solidify Vi’s standing in the music industry as a force to be reckoned with. At this point having moved her family to the UK, she worked regularly as a touring and session vocalist, performing with the likes of George Benson.
Undeterred, Wills took it upon herself to pitch a soulful disco tune she had written, “Let’s Love Now,” to Arista Records. “I took it to the A&R guy there, and they released it.” Wills also produced the song herself -- an unusual feat at the time for a female artist in the disco genre, nonetheless on a major label! Again, commercial success eluded her, but she was making headway in her artistic vision. Having felt that Soft Centers would have been more accepted had it contained more of a danceable quality (which she felt was a part of her style), Wills merged the best of both worlds with “Let’s Love Now.” It was definitely in the spirit of disco, but had a lot of soul in the arrangements and meaningful lyrics.
Citing jazz and pop legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, and Doris Day as some of her influences, Vi recounted: “I knew that my voice wasn’t like the real divas, I was okay with that - the gospel, spiritual, sweet kind of voice that I had. It wasn’t li ke the hard, get-down singers; I didn’t feel it was necessary. I wanted what I had to say to stand out more than how I said it. I was always one of these ethereal persons who thought about world peace and how to better yourself. I’ve always lived in that mode of trying to make a difference. I realized that my songs weren’t necessarily the ‘booty’ things -- that was so beneath me. And since I was a mother already, I wasn’t necessarily in tune with the kids of my era...Being raised by your grandmother is so different. If you’re raised by your parents, they’re a little closer to the reality than their parents. My grandmother was way into the religious thing. I felt so good with these songs, I was just gonna turn the world around!
The next series of events in Viola’s professional life would serve as evidence that one’s path in life may not always be clear-cut. She was approached by producer Jerry McCabe to cut a disco rendition of a 50’s pop ditty popularized by teen duo Patience & Prudence entitled “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” McCabe owned the Whiskey a Go Go nightclub(later known as The Wag) and planned to use his connections to land a release for the recording. Previously unfamiliar with the song, Vi found it to be quite childish and was less than thrilled at the idea of covering it. Still trying to make ends meet, though, she recorded it. Over the course of a year, no one jumped at releasing it.
So, she moved on, ending up in France to collaborate with songwriter/producer Yves Dessca. Together, they recorded an album’s worth of original tunes, many Vi’s own. “It was disco, but they were my songs. And Yves would not let me get away with just singing, he wanted me to sang. I’m not naturally that kind of singer, but I can be.” Quite happy with the end product, she literally got a wake-up call one morning when, in New Zealand on tour, she was informed by telephone that her previously dormant recording of “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” had hit the charts.
“I didn’t realize Jerry was still doing anything with it. I thought everything was finished.” This happened right as Viola’s LP with Dessca was ready for release. But Ariola, the company which had released “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” along with its publishing company ATV and producer McCabe “ganged up on me. They were cold, honey! They could have cared less about all the money [Dessca] had spent. They didn’t want me to have anything to do with it.”
“Gonna Get Along Without You Now” shot to #8 in the UK and became an international hit, landing her on top TV programmes of the time such as Top of the Pops in England and Top Pop in the Netherlands. It would form the foundation for the rest of Wills’ career - initially a source of much unrest for Wills, who, a t heart, considered herself a songwriter with a message to get across. “My whole life in Vi as an artist just disappeared. I was enjoying going to the bank, but my heart was just broken. I had hundreds of songs that I was trying to get recorded, but everytime I tried, there was so much controversy!”
Vi recalled: “I love dance music to have fun with, but [for a long time], I didn’t understand what the disco thing meant, that it was not considered mainstream, but for the clubs. I wanted my music to have more of a beat, but not because I wanted to do dance music. All of a sudden I was thrown in to the disco world, and it threw me for a loop. I was not exposed to it before, and nobody in my family had ever wanted to listen to that style.
Nonetheless, Vi forged straight ahead, recording her now-classic disco album If You Could Read My Mind for Ariola. The titletrack, a cover of the Gordon Lightfoot folk classic, was chosen for inclusion by the record company because its publishing arm owned the rights to the song. But Vi herself picked the other five covers, and also managed to land three of her originals. For the covers, she picked songs she loved by some of her favorite singers -- “Secret Love” by Doris Day; “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” by Dionne Warwick; “Starry Eyed” by Michael Holliday, to name a few.
While her success as a disco artist in Europe was riding high, she decided to make her way back to the U.S., for some time “commuting” between Florida and New York, where she hooked up with producer/arranger Warren Schatz to record several singles for his start-up, Perfect Records. Two of the songs were covers (Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” and Dick Haymes’ “The More I See You”), but Vi was still happy with the end results. Unfortunately, the records were overshadowed by another release she had around the same time, a cover of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s classic “Stormy Weather” on Sunergy Records out of Miami. “My career has been a series of mishaps,” she remembered. “I’d have a hit record here, and another record out there at the same time.”
More proof of the latter statement came shortly thereafter. Producer Yves Dessca decided to release one of the songs from the unreleased 1979 album with a new vocalist, Phyllis Nelson. But he also included some of Vi’s original vocals where Nelson couldn’t hit the notes. The song was called “Don’t Stop the Train,” and became quite the disco hit throughout Europe. “When I heard it on the dancefloor, I flipped! But he had this record, and he couldn’t do anything with it. He had the performance he wanted, and just took a chance. It’s all about the money. If you’ve got a hit record, you figure you’ll have the money to fight your way out of any [resulting lawsuit].”
With “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” already having solidified Vi as a favorite within the gay community, “Stormy Weather” built upon that status. But while Vi was enjoying the love and adoration, she was also dealing with some troubling business issues. After Sunergy released “Stormy Weather,” she also recorded a remake of “Maybe This Time.” However, “that contract stunk to the heavens. And then they started throwing contracts at me that didn’t make any sense, and we just broke down.”
As a result, the company brought in another singer to record the lead vocal on “Maybe This Time.” Viola related, “You see, a hit record will always override everything. If [a record company has] one lying around, they’re going to find a way to release it.” Although some test pressings of the other version made the rounds, Vi was able to stop the official release in the U.S.
The Sunergy fiasco motivated Vi to start her own label, RVA, with then-husband Robert Ashmun, out of Minnetonka, Minnesota. The first release was a single entitled “Space,” a somewhat futuristic sounding splash of theatrical, slightly rock-tinged hi-NRG disco which served as the titletrack for a subsequent album of the same name (re-released on CD in 2007 by Get Disconnected Records). Wills wrote the bulk of material on the album, save for her own ne w recording of “Maybe This Time” and a cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain.” “Finally, I got the money to release my own album. The problem was, I couldn’t produce. That album was recorded all over the world. Every time I’d go on tour, I would go into the studio. It was an expensive bomb.”
The remainder of the 80’s saw Vi embarking on a number of recording ventures both stateside and overseas. But the highlight of it all came in 1986, when Vi released her second self-produced album, Dare to Dream. Inspired by one of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s speeches, she penned the titletrack with Robert Ashmun. “That song is my baby. I don’t know if it’s a hit or miss, but it’s a defining point for me. I dare to dream, and I want to pass that message on.”
Wide Angle, an independent label out of Minnesota, released the single and album in the states, but the song really picked up steam in the UK, where Vi had the rights to release it. She teamed up with the Streetwise label, where the song was slightly remixed and became a top-30 hit, landing her an appearance on the “Solid Soul” TV programme. Following that success, Vi released a string of singles for various labels, including “Take One Step Forward,” a duet with Noel McCalla on Ian Levine’s Nightmare Records; a remake of Yvonne Elliman’s “Love Pains” (now one of Vi’s20“cult” disco classics) on Belgian label ARS Records; and “Reggae High” on Mango/Island in the U.K.
In the 90’s, aside from a self-produced greatest-hits album entitled A Portrait and two singles released in the Netherlands, Vi remained relatively quiet on the recording front. She relocated to the west coast and reignited her formal education. “I had never gone to college, and I was still trying to make a living in the dance market. I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m tired of being nobody. I’m gonna be somebody.’ I had to be Viola Wills, and what I was was still not defined in anybody’s notion except my own. I wanted to do something credible and enjoy it.”
Her first step was entering the music department at Mesa Community College in Arizona. This was followed by continued studies at College of the Desert in Palm Springs, where she served as a student trustee, before landing at California State University. When I first spoke with Vi, she was almost finished earning her AA (Associate of Arts) degree, but she had been “trying to pass algebra for ages” -- the main stumbling block she had encountered.
While studying, Vi also tried her hand at theater, acting in several stage shows, and even writing and producing a one-woman show about her life entitled Willspower, which she performed at the Top Hat Theater in Palm Springs, California. She also penned an autobiography covering her life from childhoo d through the disco era. It remains unpublished as of this writing.
But the music never left Vi’s soul. So, it was no surprise when, in 2002, at 62, she moved back to England, where she formed a band called Jazzspel, which performed regularly in Brighton and recorded an as-yet unreleased album. She also stayed true to her dance “roots” by recording an album entitled The Essential Viola Wills, released in the UK on Klone Records in 2006. The album combined some new originals and covers with new recordings of classics and personal favorites from her catalogue.
In 2006, Vi returned to the states to be closer to her family. She released a single on Harlequin Records out of Miami, a cover of the standard “What Now My Love” backed by her original dance tune “Enjoy Yourself.” The latter brought her to the attention of many of today’s younger DJ’s, and led to subsequent collaborations with the likes of Peter Martine and James Hurr (aka The Starlet DJ’s). One of these, “Feel You Feelin’ Me,” was released to some clubs via dance-pool compilations; while the other, “Let Me Rock Your Soul,” has so far not been released.
Vi continued performing up until 2008, most prolifically at gay pride events throughout the world. Her audiences were devoted to her, as she was to them. But in 2008, illness started to take a toll on her. She struggled with cancer, and was in and out of the hospital=2 0frequently. On May 6, 2009, she underwent surgery, and did not make it through.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Vi just a few weeks before her untimely passing. While I could tell that her illness was affecting her spirit, I could also tell that she was glad to hear from me. I told her that many fans had been asking about her after I posted a clip that we made together on YouTube. Surely, she was already aware of the love that so many had for her; but I hoped that her hearing this at a low point raised her spirits a bit, and I think that it did.
With a vibrant catalogue of music that ranges from festive disco to pensive soul and melodious pop, and a positive, kind, peaceful spirit that touched all in her reach, Vi has left rich, warm memories and happiness that will continue to touch not only all who knew her or her music, but also listeners for generations to come.
Vi leaves behind her six children, 21 grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.
VIOLA WILLS DISCOGRAPHY
Compiled by Justin Kantor
All are 7” vinyl releases unless otherwise indicated. Many of these saw release on multiple labels throughout different countries. Most of the 80’s selections were also released on 12” singles, sometimes with additional mixes of the featured song.
Lost Without the Love of My Guy/I Got Love (1966)
Together Forever/Don’t Kiss Me Hello and Mean Goodbye (1967)
You’re out of My Mind/Any Time (1967)
I’ve Got to Have All of You/Night Scene (1967)
on Bem Sole:
The First Time/You’ve Got My Blessings (1969)
I’ve Got News for You/Sweetback (1971)
On Goodear (UK, France, Germany):
Run to the Nearest Exit/Day in the Life of a Woman (1974)
Day in the Life of a Woman/Some Other Day (1974)
On Ear, Inc.:
I Believe in Miracles/Set Me Free (1975)
on Arista (UK-only):
Let’s Love Now/Let’s Love Now (Disco Version)
Gonna Get Along Without You Now/Your Love (1979) [Europe only]
If You Could Read My Mind/Somebody’s Eyes 
Up on the Roof/Let Me Be Your Rock 
Secret Love/Let Me Be Your Rock (1980) [Europe only]
(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me/Don’t Ever Stop Loving Me (1980) [Europe only]
I Can’t Stay Away from You/If You Leave Me Now (1981)
Gonna Get Along Without You Now/Gonna Get Along Without You Now (Short Version) (1979) [12” only]
Love Letters/Wouldn’t It Be Fun (Charly) (1979)
I Can’t Stay Away from You/If You Leave Me Now (1981)
The More I See You/I Can’t Stay Away from You (1981) [12” only]
Stormy Weather/It’s Gonna Rain (1982)
Space/To Be or Not to Be (1983) [12” only]
If These Walls Could Speak/Medley: When Will It Be My Turn/Maybe This Time (1984) [12” only]
on Ariola (Europe only):
Gonna Get Along Without You Now (Dance Mix)/Your Love (1984)
on 20RCA (Netherlands only):
Tune in for Lovin’/Tune in for Lovin’ (Dub Version) (1985)
on Wide Angle:
Dare to Dream/Both Sides Now (1985) [12” only]
Hot for You /Love Transfusion (1986) [12” only]
Over the Rainbow/You Are the Reason Why (Radio Edit)/Rainbow Trilogy (1987) [12” only]
These Things Happen/Viola (Un-Rapped) (1987) [12” only]
on Streetwave (UK only):
Dare to Dream (London Remix)/Both Sides Now (1985)
You Are the Reason Why (Remix)/So Hot for You (1986)
on Sedition (UK only):
Somebody’s Eyes/Your Love (1986)
on Nightmare (UK only):
Take One Step Forward (with Noel McCalla)/Take One Step Forward (Instrumental) (1986)
Reggae High/Keep on Comin’ (1987)
on Rhythm King:
These Things Happen/Dub Things Happen (1988)
on Music Man (Europe only):
Gonna Get Along Without You Now (’89 Garage Mix)/Gonna Get Along Without You Now (Radio Edit) (1989)
Love Pains/Love Pains (Instrumental) (1989)
on Public (Europe only):
Viola Wills/Phyllis Nelson: Don’t Stop the Train
on Bite (Netherlands only):
I Think I’m Falling in Love/I Think I’m Falling in Love (Club Mix) (1990)
on Ex-It (as My Friend Sam featuring Viola Wills):
It’s My Pleasure (1992) [12” only]
I Can See Clearly Now (1993) [12” only]
on IMG/ZYX :
No News Is News (4 mixes) (1994) (CD single/12”)
A House Is Not a Home/Gonna Get Along Without You Now (1994) (CD single/12”)
on GMC (Europe only):
Always Something There to Remind Me (1996) (2 different CD-single releases)
Gonna Get Along Without You Now (Handbaggers Mix) (1997) (CD single/12”)
on XSV (Benelux only):
Happiness (1998) (CD-single)
on Delicious (Europe only):
Never Knew Love Like This Before/Gonna Get Along Without You Now (2003) (CD-single)
on World Domination:
Gaz Reynolds: I Don’t Care [featuring Viola on background vocals] (2004)
Gaz Reynolds featuring Viola Wills: In This House (2005)
What Now My Love?/Enjoy Yourself (2006) (CD-single)
Enjoy Yourself (Remixes) (2007) CD-single)
Dare to Dream (Remixes) (2008) (CD-single)
Soft Centers (Goodear) (1974) [LP]
If You Could Read My Mind (Hansa/Ariola) (1980)
(LP/cassette) (reissued on LP and CD in 1989 on Style (UK only)]
Space (RVA) (1983) (LP) [reissued on CD, 2007, on Get Disconnected]
Dare to Dream (Wide Angle) (1986) [LP; reissued on CD, 2008, on Harlequin with bonus mixes]
A Portrait: Greatest Hits (MFS/Ex-It, 1993) [CD/cassette]
The Best of Viola Wills: Gonna Get Along Without You Now (Hot Productions, 1995) [CD]
The Essential Viola Wills (Klone, 2006) (2-CD including enhanced content) [UK only]
The Very Best of Viola Wills [CD] (Harlequin, 2007)
Joe Cocker: Something to Say (A&M) (1972)
Gonzalez: Our Only Weapon Is Our Music (EMC) (1975)
Snafu: All Funked Up (Capitol [UK]) (1975) [background vocals]
Joe Cocker: Live in L.A. (1976) [background vocals]
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.