Joseph Leon Williams (born February 3, 1935), better known as Jody Williams, is an American blues guitarist and singer. His singular guitar playing, marked by flamboyant string-bending, imaginative chord voicings and a distinctive tone, was influential in the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s.
In the mid-1950s, Williams was one of the most sought-after session guitarists in Chicago, but he was little known outside the music industry, since his name rarely appeared on discs. His acclaimed comeback in 2000 led to a resurgence of interest in his early work and a reappraisal as one of the great blues guitarists.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, United States, Williams moved to Chicago at the age of five. His first instrument was the harmonica, which he swapped for the guitar after hearing Bo Diddley play at a talent show where they were both performing. Diddley, seven years his senior, took Williams under his wing and taught him the rudiments of guitar. By 1951 Williams and Diddley were playing on the street together, with Williams providing backing to Diddley's vocals, accompanied by Roosevelt Jackson on washtub bass. Williams cut his teeth gigging with a string of blues musicians, notably Memphis Minnie, Elmore James and Otis Spann. After touring with the West Coast piano player Charles Brown, Williams established himself as a session player with Chess Records.
At Chess, Williams met Howlin' Wolf, recently arrived in Chicago from Memphis, Tennessee, and was hired by Wolf as the first guitarist in his new Chicago-based band. A year later Hubert Sumlin moved to Chicago to join Wolf's band, and the dual guitars of Williams and Sumlin are featured on Howlin' Wolf's 1954 singles "Evil Is Going On" and "Forty Four" and the 1955 releases "Who Will Be Next" and "Come to Me Baby." Williams also provided backing on Otis Spann's 1954 release, "It Must Have Been the Devil", which features lead guitar work from B. B. King, one of Williams' early heroes and a big influence on his playing.
Williams's solo career began in December 1955 with the upbeat, saxophone-driven "Lookin' for My Baby", released under the name Little Papa Joe by Blue Lake Records. The record company closed a few months later, leaving his slide guitar performance on "Groaning My Blues Away" unreleased. By this time, Williams was highly sought after as a session guitarist, and his virtuosity in this capacity is well illustrated by his blistering lead guitar work on Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?", a hit for Checker Records in 1956. (The rock musician Marshall Crenshaw listed Williams's guitar solo on "Who Do You Love" as one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded.) Other notable session work from the 1950s include lead guitar parts on Billy Boy Arnold's "I Ain't Got You" and "I Wish You Would", Jimmy Rogers's "One Kiss", Jimmy Witherspoon's "Ain't Nobody's Business" and Otis Rush's "Three Times a Fool".
In 1957, Williams released "You May" on Argo Records, with the inventive B-side instrumental "Lucky Lou", the extraordinary opening riff of which Otis Rush copied on his 1958 Cobra Records side "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)". Further evidence of Williams's influence on Rush (they played on a number of sessions together) is Rush's solo on Buddy Guy's 1958 debut, "Sit and Cry (The Blues)", copied almost exactly from Williams's "You May".
The frequency with which Williams found his distinctive guitar phrases being copied without credit led to increasing disenchantment with the music business. When the distinctive riff he created for Billy Stewart's 1956 Argo release "Billy's Blues" was appropriated by Mickey Baker for the Mickey & Sylvia hit "Love Is Strange", Chess Records took legal action. At the conclusion of the case in 1961, Williams gained neither credit nor compensation. "I was ripped off," he later told John Sinkevics in the Grand Rapids Press. In the early 1960s, Williams was making a living gigging with his Big 3 Trio (not to be confused with Willie Dixon's group of the same name), but by the end of the decade, he had retired from the music industry altogether. He studied electronics and eventually became a technical engineer for Xerox, his job for over 25 years.
Only after his retirement did he consider picking up his guitar again, which had lain untouched under his bed all the while. "One day my wife said if I started playing again I might feel better about life in general," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. In March 2000, he went to a performance by his old friend Robert Lockwood, Jr., and grew nostalgic for his music days. Back at home, an old tape of himself playing moved him to tears and inspired him to pick up his guitar again. He returned to playing in public in June 2000, when he was featured at a club gig during the 2000 Chicago Blues Festival. He was encouraged in this period by Dick Shurman, who eventually produced his comeback album, Return of a Legend (2002), on which his bold playing belies his thirty-year break from music. "He plays with a verve and vigor that sound as good today as it did on the classic records," wrote Vintage Guitar magazine.
Williams continued to perform around the world until 2014, mainly at large blues festivals, and often sitting in with the blues guitarist Billy Flynn at Chicago club appearances. Poor health has since curtailed his musical activities.
Williams is known for his imaginative chord selection, characterized by raised fives, and minor sixths and minor sevenths with flattened fives. He usually plays with an unusual open E tuning, originally taught to him by Bo Diddley.