Check back over the past five years or so and if you have even a passing interest in real soul music - the kind that has been the very fabric of black music for decades - and you'd have to agree that â€˜rough times, they are here,' as Angela Bofill, one of the very proponents of the kind of music we're talking about, once said. Simply put, there's a whole plethora of artists who haven't had records out in years - think Adriana Evans, Tashan, L.V., Lalah Hathaway or Oran â€˜Juice' Jones. As for old school proponents, we're still waiting for new product from Angela Winbush, Ashford & Simpson, Evelyn Champagne King and The Whispers along with a host of groups like Midnight Star, R.J.'s Latest Arrival, One Way and Cameo who all seem to be in varying degrees of existence. In such an environment, it takes a lot of perseverance to hang tough and even more willpower to bring out a new record when radio play is at a premium and the opportunities for major label exposure for anyone over the age of thirty are virtually non existent.
All of which leads us to Ms. Alyson Williams. The native New Yorker hasn't had a new album on the market since 1991's self-titled set, her second of two she cut for Def Jam. Her debut set for the label, 1989's "Raw" did amazingly well at a time when rap and hip-hop were truly taking over the black music charts and as anyone in the know will tell you, label founder Russell Simmons was Alyson's prime champion, touting her soulful vocal talents to all who would listen. For a while, Def Jam actually made some great R&B records with folks like the afore-mentioned Oran â€˜Juice' Jones and Tashan, both of whom cut duets with Alyson and even ventured into old school territory with Blue Magic.
But we digress: the point is, that with rap and hip-hop dominating, many artists like Alyson found themselves without a record deal by the mid-â€˜90s. Fortunately, her singing and acting talents sustained her as a result of constant touring with different gospel musical plays but a chance at making a brand new record eluded her until about a year or so ago. She recounts, "I finally left Def Jam in 1994 and a lot of people didn't believe I was really free from the label. I went into search mode and it was a little disheartening at first because everyone [at the labels] I spoke with would say, â€˜let's talk when you come off the road or when you're out of the play you're in. The urban theater, doing those gospel plays, that kept my name and face out there..."
In a fortuitous turn of events, Alyson found herself working with smooth jazz pianist Marcus Johnson on a few projects: "I was at a club in New York and we did a song together," she recalls. "Marcus asked me to re-record a song he had done called "Morning Light" and that was the beginning of us working together." In addition to his keyboard skills, Mr. Johnson had also developed acumen in the business arena and put it to good use by forming Three Keys Music. "He told me he was honored to work with me and that if I was still available when he put his label together, he'd be in touch," says Alyson. While it took a moment for that to come together, Johnson proved he was a man of his word and while there were - in Alyson's words -
"ups and downs and twists and turns along the way," Alyson finally got the green light to start working on what has turned out to be the appropriately-titled "It's About Time." She admits that "there were frustrations, the parameters changed and I sometimes got angry with the time it took to get started," by November 2003 she and longtime associate Michael Elder started choosing songs and getting with different producers.
Given the jazz focus of Three Keys, Alyson expected her first album for the label "to be a smooth jazz CD. Personally, I wanted to do a straight-ahead jazz record because jazz is what I grew up with. Marcus came to me and suggested I â€˜bring up the funk again,' that I do a more R&B-type of album and I didn't mind the idea. It was really on me to A&R it since the company was more into jazz and smooth jazz. It was an obligation I was glad to take on and as a result, we have eleven songs I'm very proud of."
While there is no song of that name on the album, "It's About Time" is, Alyson notes, "obvious, a testimony to the journey I've been on and of course, that journey is as important as the destination." Making the project one in which she could "express my inner feelings," she was intimately involved in the creative process, co-writing and co-producing several tracks as well as drawing from her own years of experience singing behind the likes of Melba Moore, Bobby Brown and others and arranging the background vocals. "The album had to have integrity," she states. "It couldn't sound namby pamby. My audience wants to real music and personally, I hate the term â€˜coming back around' because good music is endearing and enduring. It never went anywhere and you don't have to throw all the extra tinsel and glitter on it. It had to be what I know to be real, to be Alyson Williams. I didn't want to be some 43-year ex-disco diva!"
Alyson looks at "It's About Time" as part of her personal reinvention: "I'm in an industry where I'm not even supposed to have a new CD!" she laughs. "I have shed about fifty pounds in weight but I can't do anything about my age and I wouldn't if I could." Acknowledging that European audiences have been embracing her music since the release of her debut LP, Alyson says the album was issued on Three Keys at around the same time it was released in the U.K. on Expansion Records. "Audiences in Europe have a different mentality. They keep the music alive and so it made perfect sense to release it there. Right now, we are working on getting me there..."
those sensible enough to purchase "It's About Time" will find it's an album filled with standouts such as "Blessed," No More," "Strangers," "Superstar" and "Right Through Me" along with a brilliant re-make of Simply Red's "Holding Back The Years" and two great duets with Tony Terry ("A Sexy Way" and "Tomorrow"). Alyson comments, "We approached a few other people like Gerald Levert and Will Downing and then we looked at some of the male talent that had music around at the same time as I did when I first started. Tony and I had been in a few plays together and our friendship has grown so it made sense for us to sing together."
The idea to re-do "Holding Back The Years" stemmed from Marcus Johnson around the time that Alyson's album was conceived as a smooth jazz project; the "Stepper's Delight" mix was, Alyson says, "a way to try to get the CD out there. I thought, why not take time to pay homage to the people who have supported me through the years including a great gay audience who have also been with me from way back..."
Naturally having a new record on an independent label can be "a little overwhelming," Alyson notes, "but things are moving in the right direction and every day brings us new opportunities to get the CD out there." With all the experience she's amassed in plays she's performed in over the last five years, Alyson is now "writing a play based on songs on the CD. Having done so much urban theater, I know how to put together a show that brings the polish to the stage, something that can be uplifting and not just have that slapstick approach." She's also working with labelmate Bobby Lyle on a double CD which will include "one side of standards which is what I cut my musical teeth on and the other, smooth jazz." Always inventive and a real go-getter, Alyson is also considering a show entitled "Friends On Broadway" for all the many singers in musical theater. "It will be an â€˜East Coast Meets West Coast' kind of thing because I know a lot of people who sing their face off! Yup, â€˜Friends On Broadway' is the kind of show that would shut down â€˜American Idol'!" Alyson laughs. Indeed, singing her face off is just what Alyson Williams herself does and look no further than "It's About Time," a welcome return for a truly soulful-singin' sister!