By Noah Schaffer
A household name in Black America, Lee Williams had little need for the kind of crossover project that can earn a gospel act attention from the secular music media.
Gospel singer Lee Williams’s death this week at 75 was hardly noticed in the mainstream press. But the Black gospel community — radio DJs, fellow artists, and everyday fans — rushed to pay their deep respects to a singer who, along with his group the Spiritual QC’s, almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of the traditional gospel quartet in the ’90s.
At their height, the QC’s were the dominant live attraction in the quartet field, often found near the top of the Billboard gospel charts. The group racked up Stellar Awards, gospel’s equivalent of the Grammys. But Williams’s seemingly overnight success was three decades in the making.
Sharing a hometown of Tupelo, MS, with Elvis, the group, organized by Williams’s uncle, Mitchell Thornton, started up in the early ’60s. Like its predecessor, the Gospel Stars, the QC’s were at first a family affair. But members eventually came and went. In the early ’70s, the group made a trio of 45’s for the Designer label. Many of that prolific record company’s releases featured gospel groups who paid for these sessions. The idea was to have a product that could be sold at live programs, a common practice in the gospel recording field at the time.
The songs didn’t make much noise — they can’t even be found on YouTube these days. (Williams wrote one of the B sides.) The group’s featured singer then was member Willie Ligon. These releases were followed by a long recording drought: the group continued to perform on the weekends while Williams drove a truck for a living.
In the mid-’90s, the group cut a release produced by George Dean of the Gospel Four. According to gospel historian Bob Marovich, that led to the group garnering airplay on Memphis’s hallowed WDIA-AM, which led to a deal with MCG Records. The resulting album, Love Will Go All the Way, skyrocketed up the charts at a time when the harder quartet style had been largely usurped in popularity and radio airplay by more contemporary gospel sounds. During this period, Kirk Franklin was wearing casual clothes and sampling P-Funk; in contrast, the Spiritual QC’s wore formal tuxedos on their album covers and sang songs like “I Can’t Give Up,” a slow, firm testimonial that stretched out to 12 minutes when performed live. Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s were the biggest thing to happen to traditional gospel since the emergence of the Canton Spirituals, who two decades earlier had lifted the quartet tide.
2000’s live recording “Good Time” cemented the group’s popularity with its infectious, uptempo title track. So did a series of live DVDs, which perfectly showcased Williams’s charismatic presence. In a field made famous by shouters, Williams was more of a singer. But the DVDs also proved how powerfully he could deliver his message in front of an in-person congregation.
Lee Williams fans who wanted more than in-home viewing could see the group in person as it traveled the country, usually topping the bill and often at a hefty ticket price that few other quartets could command. The group also maintained a well-designed website with an up-to date tour schedule at a time when few other gospel quartets bothered and social media had not yet come into use as a promotional tool.
A household name in Black America, Williams had little need for the kind of crossover project that can earn a gospel act attention from the secular music media. The latter returned the indifference, ignoring Williams and his group’s success, aside from a CD review on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in the late ’90s and a few references to a single track the group cut for a gospel tribute to Bob Dylan. In the meantime, Williams was given the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award by the Stellar Awards and a Mississippi Trailblazer Award by his home state.
By the time he made his final Boston appearance in 2014 at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, Williams was already showing early signs of the Alzheimer’s that would lead to his retirement in 2018. While some artists like Glen Campbell openly communicated their struggles with the disease to their fans, Williams and his team were initially quiet. In response, the gospel gossip mill asked why his segments on programs had shrunk to brief, subdued affairs.
(Note: Proof that a popular singer wasn’t immune to the travails of the road. I was slated to see Williams at a small event in South Carolina when some police cars approached the venue. The promoter of this short tour was failing to uphold his financial end of the contract, so Williams’s tour manager made a physical grab for the cash receipts at the gate. After the struggle that ensued, the group departed without singing.)
Williams was given his flowers and final honors while he was here, thanks to a 2018 Lee Williams Birthday & Appreciation Day Celebration. The event had music, spoken tributes, and presentations from the Alzheimer’s Association and the NAACP. As one organizer told the local paper, the entrance to Tupelo now had a billboard that proclaimed the city to be the home of Elvis Presley and Lee Williams.
A full tribute to Lee Williams will be aired on Skippy White’s Gospel Train this Sunday from 7 to 10 a.m. on Boston’s Urban Heat radio.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka, and far beyond. He has won over 10 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.