Tony Williams Is So ‘World Famous’ It’s His Nickname, But You Probably Don’t Know Why
Kanye West and Jay Z love working with Tony Williams, and Williams says it’s all because of the skills he developed while performing with Dallas rock bands.
courtesy Tony Williams
One of the vendor’s at Lula B’s in Oak Cliff is a vintage clothing store called Space 137. When you enter the booth, you’ll see the slogan “Cool Stuff for Cool People” and racks filled with fur-trimmed leisure suits and letterman jackets. On the wall overheard are framed photos of the store’s owner, Fort Worth resident Tony Williams, with various celebrities.
In one, Williams stands next to Kanye West at an event for West’s fashion line, Yeezy. In another, Williams is with Jay Z at an inauguration ball for Barack Obama. How did Williams get into these A-list events? He’s West’s cousin, and the two share more in common than fashion sense.
Williams has also turned heads with his musical ability since 2006, when he provided harmonies and choruses for West’s pop-rap album Late Registration. His contributions earned him the stage name “World Famous,” and meant “multi-platinum albums, several world tours, Grammy awards,” Williams says.
One of the things Williams has done with his success is put together an annual local music showcase that he hopes will help DFW bands develop the showmanship required to make it on a national scale. The next “Uncle Pete’s Parade” showcase takes place 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at RBC in Deep Ellum.
“I’m a consumer as well as an artist,” Williams says. “As a consumer, I realize there’s a void. If I wanted to see some really cool live music, my options are limited. We need to create a training ground for bands to create innovative presentations that the consumer sees as viable.”
Williams’ dissatisfaction with his entertainment options stems from comparisons with the bands of his childhood. “I always go back to when I was younger, all those bands in the neighborhood, you were influenced by them, you mimicked them,” he says. “If there’s no bands for the younger musicians to mimic, the whole art form dies.”
Williams grew up in a musical family in Oklahoma City. Holidays were spent around the piano singing Christmas carols and gospel songs. He lists his parents’ record collection, which he started digging into at age 9, as one of his primary musical influences.
“Only children have imaginary friends that they talk to,” Williams says. “I can remember playing records and mimicking Michael Jackson, and I would be talking to Jermaine and Tito and Jackie and telling them where to line up and where to hit a certain step.”
Williams gravitated toward music early on, but he didn’t think of it as a potential career until 1982 when he was a junior in high school and saw some of the graduating seniors, who were in a band called Colorblind, sign a deal with Capitol Records. “Living in Oklahoma City, you never aspired to be anybody that big because it never happened to you or anybody you knew,” Williams said. “But once I saw them do it, it was like, ‘Ah, it can be done.’”
Williams briefly attended the University of Oklahoma, where he majored in journalism and planned to work as a sports broadcaster. Then he dropped out to move to Los Angeles, where he changed tracks entirely and studied fashion merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). During that time Colorblind also broke up, and half of its members moved to L.A.
It turned out they needed a vocalist, and Williams soon joined them for rehearsals. From that point he was bit by the musician bug and went on to perform in other bands as the frontman. Only once did he take a break, after he went through a particularly rough band break-up. “I didn’t listen to music for two years after that,” he says. “It was really like a girlfriend leaving you, like somebody stuck a stake through your heart.”
In 1992 Williams decided to move to Dallas to be closer to home. At that time he felt ready to rekindle his love of music, so he took out an ad in the Dallas Observer. “Musician in town. New to Dallas area. Looking for musicians to form a band together,” it read. The ad went on to list Williams’ influences: the Gap Band, the Bar-Kays and Cameo.
To his surprise, no funk or soul bands responded to the ad, but rock bands did. “That’s when Deep Ellum was flourishing with alternative rock bands,” he says. “I got calls from heavy metal bands, and I went and auditioned because I just wanted to sing.”
Williams credits his time playing in rock bands — including Uncle Pete’s Parade, the namesake of his showcase — with teaching him how to apply rock sensibilities to funk grooves. He believes that skill is what caught West’s attention.
In 2002, West reached out to him after hearing some songs he had recorded with the contemporary Christian band Souljah. West offered to fly his cousin out to rerecord the songs with him in L.A., and these sessions led to several features on West’s 2004 release The College Dropout, including the standout track “Spaceships.”
Two years later, West invited him back to California to work on Late Registration. Williams says that was one of the happiest times in his life. He recalls rushing to write lyrics for Brandy to sing on “Bring Me Down.” He had been suffering from writer’s block and finished them on the day of recording, just as his plane’s wheels touched down in L.A.
Williams also wrote lyrics for Patti Labelle, and sang on the songs “Drive Slow,” “We Major,” “Champion,” “All of the Lights” and “Lost in the World,” although he often goes uncredited and his voice is hard to distinguish from the other singers.
“Let me tell you how indistinguishable they were,” Williams says, and then goes into a story about the time in 2008 when West invited him to Hawaii to collaborate on 808s and Heartbreak, where he was also working on the production for Jay Z’s album The Blueprint 3.
One day, Williams and Kid Cudi were called into the studio to listen to a beat. Kid Cudi wrote and sang a hook for it and Williams padded it with background vocals that were turned down in the mix. One year later, Blueprint 3 came out and he heard the song they’d recorded, which J. Cole had since been added to.
“I heard the hook and knew it wasn’t Cudi. I figured the guy singing must be J. Cole,” Williams says. Kanye had removed Cudi’s vocals and pushed Williams’ up front, but hadn’t informed Williams. “And so I’m going, ‘Man, this J. Cole dude is nice. He’s so nice, he almost sounds like me.’ People are calling me, saying, ‘Man, you sound nice on that record.’ I’m like, ‘Nah, that’s not me, it’s J. Cole.’”
Williams will get more time in the limelight this spring, when he releases To Gain The World: King of Fool, An Opera: Volume II. For the album, Williams shies away from the major label producers and celebrity guests. Instead he’s working with veteran touring musicians from Dallas, to produce a vintage-style album with all live instrumentation. One of the musicians lending a hand is saxophonist Keith Anderson, who toured with Prince.
“With this album, understanding the elements we used to connect to the listener in the club, those are the elements that I made sure were present in this production: the live drums, and the way we mixed things sonically, and where you hear those instruments placed so they give you that live experience,” Williams says.
One of the lead singles from the album, “Money,” features powdery fuzz guitars and a technically impressive verse from Dallas’ Bobby Sessions
“I adore Tony,” says Sa’Tori Ananda, management for the Queens rapper Pharaoh Monch, who also appears on the album. “There are few visionaries like him, not to mention his guests are always quality as well.”
“I’m most comfortable when I’m around really talented musicians,” says Sessions, who was invited to perform “Money” onstage with Williams at the last Uncle Pete’s Parade. “Terminal D is a great band, [and] they complement Tony well.” “Money” and other songs from To Gain The World will again feature heavily in Williams’ headlining set Saturday with Terminal D, his current band.
More so than his own set, Williams is excited to see what the rest of the lineup will bring. He’s tapped singer-songwriter Mr. Carter Davis and soul singer Keite Young of the Medicine Man Revival to open. “I’m super excited [about] Medicine Man Revival,” he says. “He’s one of my favorite artists period, not just local artists, one of my favorite artists and one of the best soul singers out there.”
Williams already has the dates for the next showcases booked, so when he’s not working on his music or music videos, he’s looking for the next hot local acts to fill the lineups. “I’m a natural explorer, so of course I’m always looking for that new thing, the new experience.”
Uncle Pete’s Parade, 8 p.m. Saturday, RBC, 2617 Elm St., tickets $10 to $20, see Facebook.
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