The soulful singer's velvety baritone graced the jazz world for over 50 years

By Josef Woodard
Updated April 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jazz lost one of its most comforting and soulful voices with the passing of Joe Williams on March 29 in Las Vegas. The singer, who had slipped away from the hospital where he was being treated for a respiratory ailment, died just a few blocks from his home. He was 80, but active to the end, with a voice that seemed to mellow and deepen with age. Born Joseph Goreed in 1918 in Cordele, Ga., he grew up in Chicago and was weaned on gospel music. But Williams’ work with Lionel Hampton in the early ’40s, and most notably with the Count Basie Band from 1954 to 1961, established him as a jazz singer among jazz singers. His suave way with a phrase, his mildly spiced blues flair, and his creamy baritone — best showcased on his 1955 hit ”Everyday I Have the Blues” — appealed to listeners outside the jazz scene as well, making him one of the few jazz crooners with household-name currency. Through appearances on The Tonight Show and his role (courtesy of devoted fan Bill Cosby) as Grandpa Al on The Cosby Show, Williams affirmed his reputation as a one-of-a-kind artist — and a man of burnished, gentle charisma.

RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS: 1955’s Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings; 1966’s Presenting Joe Williams and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra; 1994’s The Best of Joe Williams: The Roulette, Solid State & Blue Note Years