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Interviews

Interview with Lenny Williams

todayApril 8, 2021 70

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Lenny Williams has enjoyed a long and successful career as a singer/ songwriter and musician. With a rich, soulful voice that lent itself well to both ballads and up tempo numbers he was one of R&B’s most sought-after vocalists. Lenny scored hit after hit with Tower of Power and after going solo. 

Some of his biggest hits include “So Very Hard to Go “,“You’re Still a Young Man”, “What is Hip” ,“Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh”, “Cause I Love You”, “Choosing You” and “ Southern Girl”.

 

Fifty years after his first album release, Lenny Williams is still making music and he’s just as passionate about it as ever. In this interview he shares some valuable advice for aspiring performers and opens up about his prolific career, changes in the music industry, why he’s still going strong and what fans can expect from his new album.  

Read on to learn more of what Lenny Williams has to say!

Linwood Jackson 

Our guest today is the former lead singer of the supergroup, Tower of Power, one of the top Funk/Soul bands of the 70s. With hits like, So Very Hard to Go, What is Hip, You’re Still a Young Man, and Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream.

He also had hits as a solo artist with ‘Cause I Love You, and Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh. He has a new single out now titled Southern Girl, and with his passionate vocal style it definitely has the potential to become another hit. Joining us today to talk about the then and the now. A true musical legend from one of the biggest groups to perform on stage is, singer/song writer and former first tenor of Tower of Power,

 Mr. Lenny Williams.

How are you today, sir?

Lenny Williams: 

I’m good, sir. And yourself?

Linwood Jackson: 

I’m hanging in there. So Mr. Williams, it is certainly an honor and a pleasure to be speaking with you today. Welcome to the Linwood Jackson Radio Show.

Lenny: 

My pleasure.

Linwood:

Let’s start with the early days, where you were from, where you were born and raised.

Lenny:

Oh, I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. And I moved to Oakland, California, in fact, when I was about 14-months-old. And I was raised in Oakland, California, great city to be raised in at that time. Yeah.

Linwood:

Well, a lot of musical influences around that time. You’re talking the 70s?

Lenny:

Well, I was living there in the 70s, but I came out in the 40s. Right, yeah. There were a lot of things going on in Oakland around in the 40s, you know, that influenced me. The radio, I lived in an area that had a lot of black businesses, black nightclubs, churches, and things of that nature, 7th Street area of Oakland, in West Oakland. That’s where I got a lot of my musical influences.

Linwood:

What sort of music were you listening to when you were growing up?

Lenny:

When I was growing up, whatever my mom and daddy had on the radio. My dad was kind of a staunch Christian who didn’t believe in listening to anything other than Gospel music, so we had a lot of Gospel music. My mom was more liberal, so when my dad wasn’t at home, when he was working, we listened to everything, the Blues, everything that was on the radio at that time. And plus, my mom liked Country music, so we’d listen to that.

Lenny:

And then when I was in the 4th grade I started playing Trumpet, so then I was playing band music and getting into some Classical music. So I had all those various musical influences. And then there was a large Latino population in Oakland as well. And so, I was influenced by that music.

Linwood:

Any artist in particular who inspired you?

Lenny:

Oh yeah. When I listened to Gospel music, my favorite group was The Soul Stirrers, which Sam Cooke was the original lead singer of that group. And then after he left, then Johnnie Taylor and also Lou Rawls were singers in that band, lead singers. And also, Bobby Womack played the guitar in that group. So, Sam Cooke would probably be the person that influenced me the most during that time period that I was growing up.

Lenny:

But like I said, I listened to radio and I was influenced by all the singers that came on. Lloyd Price, Clyde McPhatter, just name them and go down the line. The Drifters, The Coasters, all of those groups.

Linwood:

And I suppose that’s where you get it from, it shows in your music today, your style.

Lenny:

Oh yeah, most definitely, we’re all influenced by somebody.

Linwood:

And this took you through high school?

Lenny:

Yeah, it took me through high school, growing up, doing the music. And then when I got out of high school, I became a Teenage Creature, and I did that for a few years. That was in the 60s, and we were right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I had a very conservative pastor, who didn’t want us to wear Afros, or didn’t want us to rock the boat, so to speak.

Lenny:

And so, of course, I inwardly rebelled against that. And then I was going to college and happened to be walking across the campus one night with my bible in my hand. And a young brother was like, “Hey, where you going with the bible? I want to talk to you.” And that happened to be two young brothers, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-founders of the Black Panther Party. So we had a long conversation. Huey’s dad, of course, was a minister and they were from Louisiana. And me being from Arkansas, my dad from Louisiana, we got in a long discussion about Christianity and it’s relevance to black people at that time.

So, I started having conflicts in my mind about the role that Christianity was playing in my life and in the lives of the American negro, as they were called at that time.

Linwood:

The Civil Rights Movement, at that time.

Lenny:

Right. And so, I decided I just couldn’t put together the reasoning that the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen’s Council, the John Birch Society, all of those types of groups that they said they were Christians. They felt they were superior to us, and we said, “We’re Christians and we feel we’re all equal in God’s sight.” How did that jibe? It’s like trying to find a solution to a problem. And sometimes when you can’t find a solution to a problem, you go and you try to find an authority on it, or a professor or somebody like that, a mathematician. If you can’t-

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

… then you just kind of walk away from it for a while. So, I decided to put Christianity to the side and walk away from it because I couldn’t reconcile the fact that there’s someone praying, or get up in the morning and say it’s their Christian duty to treat me bad or to kill me, or whatever. And I’m praying to the same God and feeling that he should be a blessing to me and keep me safe, and keep me from these

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

I’d always heard that if you don’t use it, you lose it. And so, that’s when I made a cerebral decision to just start singing secular music as opposed to Gospel music. I then went down to a local nightclub and performed in a talent show every week, to make a little money. I was in college and that little money helped too.

Linwood:

Right?

Lenny:

And then someone, a guy by the name of Ray Shanklin, I met him one night there. He asked me if I’d like to make a record, and he was an A&R guy for Fantasy Records. And that’s how I got into record recording. And I had grown up with a lot of people in my area, I actually went to church with, that had ventured out into music. The Stewart family, which was Sly Stone’s family, they had started making records. And then the Hawkins Family, Ed and Walter, although they didn’t do secular music, they did Gospel music. They did do one secular album.

And then, we would fellowship with the churches down in Los Angeles. And then, we’d fellowship with Billy Preston and Andrae Crouch and Sandra Crouch, and people like that. So, there were a lot of people that I was friendly with that had kind of stepped out of the church and were doing music and making records. And so, I just kind of took my time, kind of a late bloomer. And then when my time came I stepped out there.

 

Linwood:

Okay. So you’re in college at this time, you’re doing side gigs, your singing a little bit. You were recording at that time as well, this was before Tower of Power.

Lenny:

This was before Tower of Power, right, yes. I went over to Fantasy Records and I met this guy by the name of John Fogerty who had a little group called The Golliwogs. Eventually that group morphed into Creedence Clearwater Revival. And I met another guy by the name of Huey Lewis that had a band called Clover. And then eventually that became Huey Lewis and the News.

So, I was kind of out there-

Linwood:

In the mix.

Lenny:

… in the mix, right. Carlos Santana and the Escovedo’s, Sheila E’s dad Pete and his brother Coke. Just out there trying to do my thing and just be a part of that movement that was going on.

Linwood: 

Couldn’t have been a better time, actually, for civil rights and music. And this was before you got with Tower of Power.

Lenny:

Right.

Linwood:

Tell us, how did you get involved with Tower of Power?

Lenny:

I did a record on Fantasy Records. John Fogerty had written a song for me, and then I wrote the flip side. And then everybody was like, “Well, when are you going to do a show? When are you going to do a show?” And I didn’t have a bad or anything like that, because I’d been in churches singing Gospel music. So I didn’t really have a band. And one of my neighbors told me that the mailman actually managed a band, that was his side gig.

Linwood:

Of all people, right?

 

Lenny:

Yes, right. So then I met him and he said, “I’ve got the perfect band for you.” So he took me down to Fremont, California which is a suburb of Oakland, California, about 35-40 miles from Oakland. He introduced me to this little band called The Motown Soul Band.

And most of the kids and them were white, I think they had a couple Latino kids. But, some of them were still in high school and I’m thinking, “Well … At that time I was 21 or something and I’m like, “Man, I want to play in clubs.” So I said, “They’re good, but I’m going to have to walk away from that and find something else,” so I went and moved on.

Fast forward a couple of years later, I was working with Larry Graham, him and I were writing songs and hanging out together-

Linwood:

Graham Central Station’s Larry Graham?

Lenny:

Yes, right, yeah. But Larry, at that time, was still with Sly and the Family Stone. But it was getting towards the end, so he was working with some music with me. And eventually, the thing with Sly ended so he had to take that music that he did and use it for Graham Central Station. Matter of fact, I’m singing on about 3 or 4 songs on that first Graham Central Station album. I’m singing The Ghetto and Tell Me What It Is. I can’t think of the other songs on that album. If you listen to it you’ll hear my voice back there.

Linwood:

Okay.

Lenny:

And so Larry said, “We’re going to put some horns on this.” So he called this band, Tower of Power, the horn section, to come over. And when they walked through the door I was like, “Man, these are the kids from the Motown Soul Band.” So-

Linwood:

They grew up.

Lenny:

Yeah, they had grown up, right, a couple years later. And then, I started writing for them, then eventually I became the lead singer of the band. I think it was either December or November of 1972. And then we put out, So Very Hard To Go in ’73, and bam, it was a smash.

 

Linwood:

That’s a career right there for a lot of people.

Lenny:

Most definitely.

Linwood:

I thought I read somewhere, where you were working at the auto industry.

Lenny:

Yeah. During that time period I was working at Ford Motor Company. So when I’d get off work I’d come home and take a shower and put on my little fly suit, and head on out into the nightclubs, or wherever song writers or musicians were hanging out. And we’d write the songs and sing it and try to make it in the music business. So I was working at Ford Motor Company in Peters, California, working on the assembly line. Matter of fact, that’s when I wrote Don’t Change Horses. Because we had this assembly line, and I hated being out there because I felt like I should be doing music. I got hypnotized by the line, cars moving down the line, and I started writing Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream.

Linwood:

Really?

Lenny:

Right. So I had a friend of mine, a guy by the name of Terrible Tom, and he had a house in Los Angeles and a house in Oakland. He was a big time street guy, and so I went down to a party at his house in Los Angeles and he introduced me to Johnny Guitar Watson. I was telling Johnny about this idea I had about this song called Don’t Change Horses. So then I went to Johnny’s house and we wrote that song over there, yeah.

Linwood:

And it started at the Ford assembly line?

Lenny:

It started at the Ford assembly line, and then I took it down to LA, and had to get the great Johnny Guitar Watson to help me put it together. Right, yeah.

Linwood:

So I’m laughing because I worked at General Motors, and I had a lot of dreams myself.

 

Lenny:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linwood:

Although, I didn’t write a song or anything. But I guess I’m doing radio now, so I guess it worked a little bit.

Lenny:

You know, a lot of great people worked at the Ford Motor Company and General Motors. Berry Gordy was one, who worked in Detroit.

Linwood:

That’s right. And Bob Marley worked on the assembly line as well.

Lenny:

Yeah. So a lot of good folks came out of there, right. And so, definitely had some interesting times there.

Linwood:

Yeah. It seemed like working there, it was that hard work that make you want to work on getting off of there.

Lenny:

Yeah, most definitely, I tried to find my way out of there. But yeah, it was a good job, especially once they had a hot car come out. That was back with the Mustang was brand new in the 60s. We were working those 10 hour days and everything.

Linwood:

Okay.

Lenny:

A nice paycheck and everything, but the music was calling.

Linwood:

And it financed and facilitated your musical career. You wrote a great hit on the line.

Lenny:

Yeah, most definitely, right.

Linwood:

So, how old were you around the time when you did your first tour, and what was that like?

Lenny:

I was 21. I had actually gone on tour with Sly and the Family Stone before. I took a year off at Ford and I went on tour with Sly and the Family Stone, so I kind of got a good taste of what the road was like, what you should do and what you shouldn’t do, kind of watching Sly and them. There was a lot of drugs with Sly.

Linwood:

They were doing a lot of what you shouldn’t dos.

Lenny:

Yeah, right. Well, they were doing some thing that you should do, they were having hits, right?

Linwood:

Right, right.

Lenny:

But then there was a lot of stuff that you shouldn’t do.

Linwood:

So you were learning, it was kind of like an apprenticeship for you.

Lenny:

I was learning, right, the drugs and not taking care of your money. Just spending money frivolously, things of that nature.

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

And so … But anyway, everybody bought houses, so that was okay. “I’m going to buy me a house with my first money. I always have to have a place to stay.”

Linwood:

Right.

Lenny:

“But I’m going to walk away from the drugs. I’m going to make sure that I put some money away. Make a dollar, save a dollar.” That kind of thing. So, it was a great learning experience for me. And then like I said, I came back after that tour was over. It was time for me to go back to work, because whatever kind of leave I was on. I can’t remember whether it was some kind of family leave or whatever. It was time for me to go back to work.

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

And then that’s when I was just praying for God to let something happen, a positive for me. I remember calling up Emilio Castillo, the band leader for Tower of Power. I was like, “I know they’ve been having problems with their singer, so they might still be having problems, right? And I’ve got to go back to work next week.” So I just called them up, I didn’t say anything.

Lenny:

He was like, “Man, come on over to the studio.” I went to San Francisco, Wally Heider Studios, a famous studio. So I went over there and I sat up with him all night listening to their new album. They had So Very Hard To Go and What is Hip, and they were all finished and everything.

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

And they were just mixing it, so I just said, “Well.” I think hung out until about 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, just over there. Then I came on home, back to Oakland, and I told my girlfriend at that time I said, “Well, I have to go back to work Monday.” I think that was a Friday night or a Saturday or something. And then the next day, right before Monday, I think it was Sunday, he called me and said, “Hey man, we’re still having problems with Rick.” That was their singer at that time. He says, “You want the gig?”

Lenny:

I was like, “Yeah.” But I said, “I’ve got to go back to work Monday,” I said, “So, definitely it’s got to be for real.” Because, they had asked me to be the lead singer once before and then they had some gigs coming up and it was like, “Well, maybe not because we’ve got these gigs.” Kind of like a false start, “We’re just going to stick with Rick.”

Lenny:

So I was letting him know it’s my job now. I had two sons and it was like, if I don’t do it now, it’s now or never.

 

Linwood:

Right.

Lenny:

And it’s got to be for real, you can’t change your mind. So he was like, “Oh no, I assure you we’re going to move ahead.” So I just let him know. I don’t think I even called Ford, to let them know.

Linwood:

You didn’t give them a two week notice?

Lenny:

I didn’t give them no notice or nothing, I just never went back. Yeah. I just never went back or anything.

Linwood:

Wow.

Lenny:

You know, they had those strong unions so I said, “Well, I just won’t call-

Linwood:

You didn’t know what to do, you already had a year off.

Lenny:

Yeah, right. The UAW is pretty strong, I was like, “If I call and quit that’s it. But if I don’t quit and I just don’t go back, if you’ve got a good, strong union rep he might figure something out.”

Linwood:

You might have a chance.

Lenny:

He might think of something, “He fell and bumped his head.” So we had a good, strong union rep so I never did officially quit Ford. Who knows, I might be able to go back there now.

Linwood:

You might. Well, you know, if you’re looking for a side gig, huh?

Lenny:

Been 50 years, well, come on back. That was interesting. So I joined Tower of Power, joined them in December of ’72. Then I took off Rick’s voice off of everything, then I just put my voice on everything. And then, boom, put the record out and it was a smash.

Linwood:

Right off the get.

Lenny:

Right off the get, yeah.

Linwood:

Man, talk about a beautiful blessing.

Lenny:

you know what I mean? It was like I had to work for that, because I had been out there trying to do that for quite a few years.

Linwood:

Right. You were ready when the time presented itself.

Lenny:

Yeah, I was ready, right, yeah.

Linwood:

Now, Tower of Power is generally a band, musicians.

Lenny:

Right.

Linwood:

You’re a singer. Do you play music as well?

Lenny:

Yeah. Well, I grew up playing the trumpet, that’s how I learned how to read music. And then, actually, it was really interesting. Right before I joined the band, about a year before, I had gone to the city college with Huey and people like that. I had been taking piano lessons and music theory. And subsequently, I learned how to play.

Linwood:

Okay. Now you mentioned earlier, that you wrote a song, Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream and Tower of Power recorded that ultimately. Have you written any other songs for any other artists.

Lenny:

Yeah. Well, I’ve written songs for Jose Feliciano, I wrote songs for Jose Feliciano. Then of course, my music’s been sampled by so many people, so you get writing credit for that as well.

Linwood:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lenny:

Kanye West and Jay-Z and various people, Trey Songz.

Linwood:

How many songs have you written? Can you, have you counted them? It sounds like a lot.

Lenny:

Well over 100, that I have registered with BMI. And then I’ve probably written a lot that I just haven’t even registered, just songs that I’ve written and haven’t recorded.

Linwood:

Your latest CD, tell us about your latest CD.

Lenny:

Yeah. My latest CD is called Fine. Most of the songs that I did there I wrote with Levi Seacer. Levi is a guitar player and a bass player. He was in The New Power Generation band with Prince for about 12 or 13 years. He played with Prince. Him and I met and we started writing. And then I did a couple of songs with DOA, Derek Allen. He just produced a latest album on Kem, the artist Kem. And so, collaborating with those guys, just really kind of excited about it. The latest song that we’ve been working on is Southern Girl. And we also have another song called Fine, that we’re really excited about. And, another song called A Good Time for Love.

Lenny:

So, we’re just excited about the music and just looking forward to all the possibilities.

Linwood:

What’s the name of the CD?

Lenny:

It’s called Fine, F-I-N-E.

Linwood:

How many songs are on the CD?

Lenny:

I think it’s about 11 or 12, yeah. We put a lot of songs on it. We were just in a writing frenzy there. We just decided to put them all there. But this album came out right around the time of COVID, so we’re still pressing forward with that. We weren’t able to do everything we’d like to do with it because of the COVID virus, get out there and support it, sing the songs and everything like that live. But, the day will come for that, for sure.

Linwood:

Absolutely. You produced it in your own production company.

Lenny:

Yes. We did most of the work over at Levi’s studio, yes.

Linwood:

Okay. And your sons sang on one of them.

Lenny:

Yeah. My son sang on one song, Take it From Here, kind of like passing the torch from father to son ritual, so to speak. Just saying, “Okay, you’re grown now, it’s your turn.” And then I also wrote a song with my grand daughter, her and I and Derek Allen wrote a song together and I’m excited about that.

Linwood:

So your whole family pretty much is into music. Your wife was doing the pictures, the album covers, and your sons are singing now. And you’re passing the torch to your grand daughter’s writing.

Lenny:

Yeah, we’re kind of a musical family. I have a son that’s a minister at the church, so he sings, and his kids sing. And my other son, his kids sing. Yeah, we just kind of …get together

Linwood:

Okay.

Lenny:

We have a good time. We sing and dance and have fun, yes.

 

Linwood:

So y’all be singing at the dinner table. At Thanksgiving, “Pass the turkey.”

Lenny:

Who knows, a song might break, right, yeah. Bring the tape recorder to the dinner table.

Linwood:

Now, how can we purchase your CDs? Do you have a website?

Lenny:

Yeah. Lennywilliams.com, you can go to any of those sites, Spotify, Apple, you name it and I’m there. Amazon, and you can find the music. Just to to lennywilliams, Fine, and it’s right there. They have the album Fine and any of the song titles, Southern Girl, Fine, A Good Time for Love, and you’ll find the CD there.

Linwood:

You’re pretty active on the social pages as well.

Lenny:

Most definitely, trying to stay current. That’s the modern way, so I’m just trying to get with it. My wife is pretty good at that, and my kids of course, and my grandkids, so we try to keep it moving.

Linwood:

I know that you received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree from California State University, is that right?

Lenny:

I did, yes, right. I got a text one day from somebody saying they wanted to honor me and I said, “Well that’s good, because I have two daughters graduated from the University of California. And now I can go up there and look at my money.”

Linwood:

So they have to call you doctor now.

Lenny:

Yes, right, yeah. I tell my wife to call me doctor.

Linwood:

And she says, “All right doc, take the trash out.”

Lenny:

She do what she wants to do.

Linwood:

We’re going to wrap it up now. I’m just going to close the show by saying, Dr. Lenny Williams, it has been an honor for me to speak with you today about your extraordinarily musical career. I want to thank you so, so very, very much and I’m wishing you, and praying that you have more continued success sir.

Lenny:

Thank you sir, I appreciate that. I’d just like to let everybody know that this is Lenny Williams, and you’re listening to the Linwood Jackson Radio Show.

Linwood:

Dr. Lenny Williams, former lead singer from the Tower of Power.

Lenny:

I appreciate that. Thank you so much, Linwood, appreciate your professionalism. And, let’s stay in touch for sure, okay?

Linwood:

All right, sir. Thank you so very, very much.

 

Music has been a huge part of Lenny Williams life. He’s still going strong and you can get the latest from him on iTunes, Amazon or Spotify.

 

Linwood Jackson is the Founder /CEO of Rockin’ Hot Radio and host of The Linwood Jackson Radio Show.

For more on Lenny Williams go to lennywilliams.com

 

Written by: rhrbrandswan

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