At the tender age of 55, Gerald Williams' weather-beaten face is dotted with gray hairs. Those gray hairs are the result of a life hard lived, one that saw him play music alongside child prodigy Little Gary Ferguson, then fall into the deep throes of an addiction to crack cocaine that left him homeless. Now, thanks to help of author and filmmaker Alan Govenar and a mean Robert Johnson impersonation, Williams has found his salvation.
Williams started playing music 40 years ago growing up in Oak Cliff. His father worked in the mail room of an advertising agency. When Williams was 6, he appeared in an Aunt Jemima Cornbread commercial with his sister. “My dad worked for the company and they needed two kids,” Williams says. “They cooked the cornbread in the studio with heat lights. I remember the cornbread did not taste good at all. But they wanted me to really act like it tasted good.”
He picked up a guitar in 5th grade and started taking lessons. Then he briefly played bass for Little Gary Ferguson, who lived one street over. He remembers the two of them running home after grade school to practice for a show they played at Fort Hood. “He was a little guy who was being promoted like Michael Jackson,” Williams says. “He could have been Michael Jackson. He was hot. And he would do the James Brown kind of thing.” Little Gary Ferguson went on to get radio play, perform on television shows and even share a stage with the Mothers of Invention in Los Angeles. But he disappeared from the public eye long before he was 10.
By the time Williams finished high school in the late '70s, he had joined a group called Demands Band. They had regular gigs at local clubs and performed at Army bases. The group played an eclectic mix of music including R&B, '60s soul and even country. Williams remembers a gig at a particular Dallas venue:
“They told us we were the first black band who ever played there,” he says. He also remembers the club owner telling the band to not invite their friends. Demands Band had an enormous station wagon and pulled a trailer full of their equipment. They had jumpsuit uniforms and tuxedos. But they called it quits in the early '80s.
Williams continued making music, but started to focus on full-time employment. He worked many jobs and spent years working in a mail room like his father. Then he became a mover, driving a truck and moving boxes and furniture. By the early '90s, Williams owned a moving business, was married and lived in a four-room house. At that time he also had his first experience with crack cocaine.
Williams, in his 30s, was playing a gig with a band at an after-hours club. He'd never been a big drinker but enjoyed smoking pot and cigarettes. The first couple times he tried crack, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But the next thing he knew he was hooked. At first he was able to maintain his business. “But eventually it started getting the best of me,” he says with a sigh. “Doing that on a regular basis started taking its toll on me.”
Music was no longer a part of his life. Addiction destroyed his marriage. One day he came home to find an empty house and that his pregnant wife had left him. Williams lost his business and then his house a few months later. He was treated for addiction at a hospital but it didn’t help. His family and friends felt he would only drag them down, and soon Williams was homeless.
“Every chance I got I was still doing drugs,” Williams says. “I was stuck. I couldn’t get out of that position.” But after years of struggling with drug addiction and homelessness, Williams still managed to find occasional gigs playing with bands. In the last decade, he has toured with L.J. Echols for several shows.
Three years ago, Williams went to The Stewpot, a homeless service provider offering many resources. The Stewpot was having a Robert Johnson sing-alike contest to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the blues legend making his last recordings across the street at 508 Park in 1937. Williams didn’t have a guitar, but was urged to participate. He improvised a song called “The Stewpot Blues” and won the competition.
Alan Govenar was filming the contest for a documentary about The Stewpot and homeless people in Dallas. He was impressed by Williams and asked him where he lived. Williams was sleeping on a bench in front of City Hall and agreed to be filmed the next morning. Govenar ran into Williams several times by chance during filming and he appears prominently in the film, Serving Second Chances. “Every time I filmed Gerald, I never knew if it would be the last time I saw him,” says Govenar.
By this point, Williams’ body was in bad shape after two decades of wrestling with addiction and homelessness. “I lost so much weight,” Williams says. “I was probably smaller than Sammy Davis Jr.” Williams always believed, but he started reading the Bible everyday. He remembers shouting out to God for help more than once. Someone who knew him before he was an addict told him he wasn’t living up to his full potential and it had a profound effect on him. And then he bottomed out.
Alone on the streets, he gradually stopped using and was offered work. “I did it by myself,” Williams says. “I take that back. Prayer. Lots of prayer. I started asking people to pray for me and pray with me.” Williams remembers the day he had money in his pocket and didn’t buy drugs with a sense of great achievement. He was shocked to wake up the next morning with money he hadn’t spent on drugs.
Williams says he is now clean. He has rented a small house for the last few months and works in home repair. He has no Internet connection and is trying to get a phone. He has no money but he is no longer homeless. He isn’t using, but knows it’s a slippery slope to relapse.
Serving Second Chances screened last night at the Angelika, and the Gerald Williams Band, which includes his brother and a longtime friend, performed after the film to a sold-out crowd. A shorter version of the film will be broadcast on November 5 for KERA’s Frame of Mind series. “I’m definitely going to do more shows,” says Williams. He was not nervous about performing music, but seeing himself in the film made him anxious.
“Doing crack was the worst choice I ever made in my life,” Williams says. “I was tore up from the floor up. An evil spirit comes with that drug. It’s like a ritual, even the way you do it.”
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