One thing you can say about Lenny Williams is the man has staying power. At 67 years old, the Oakland, California native has been going strong since the early 1970’s, from his first solo recordings for Fantasy Records, to his stint with Tower of Power, to reinventing himself as a jack-of-all trades soul man in the 1980’s on through to today. Williams has always been one to keep his finger of the pulse of R&B music, and as the times changed, so did he. But unlike a smattering of today’s legendary R&B artists who appear lost as they try to stay current, Lenny never forgot that he’s, well…Lenny Williams. With Lenny, while there might be some compromise in terms of production style, that isn’t the case when it comes to the overall crafting of his songs.
Lenny Williams has a formula for his music. Always did. And he injects that formula into any song he sings, regardless of who wrote and/or produced the track, to make it uniquely his own. That’s the beauty of Lenny Williams, and it’s why he remains as one of the more endearing as well as enduring figures in R&B today.
Lenny Williams’ new CD, Still in the Game, is a testament to his staying power. The 12-track album has a little something for everyone, from contemporary R&B to smooth jazz to down home blues. Actually, Still in the Game evolves from contemporary to old school, but still in a contemporary package, musically speaking. As with many independent albums released by legendary R&B artists, on Still in the Game the keyboard is used to replace horn arrangements, and all too often the drum program can take away from both the song and the artist. Those flaws aside, the album does grow on you as it progresses.
The first two tracks, “Still” and “This Is for the One That Got Away,” are bona fide contemporary R&B songs, the latter, complete with auto-tune. While both are nice enough songs, they don’t fit the life experiences of a 67-year old man, lyrically speaking. But that’s what happens when a song is written by a much younger person in today’s music world. The older artist is usually made to fit the song, and not the song fitting the artist. We see that happening with Charlie Wilson right now in the R&B mainstream. But leave it to Lenny, ever R&B music’s version of an adaptoid, to come in and breathe life into both songs. With both “Still” and “This Is for the One That Got Away,” Lenny is actually competing with today’s R&B new-jacks in their style, but on his level. It takes a man who has been through life’s experiences to turn a contemporary song into something the 40 and 50-somethings will like.
From there, however, Still in the Game, gets more adult, both lyrically and musically. “Where Did Our Love Go” could easily be a spinoff of Lenny’s biggest and most heartfelt hit, “Cause I Love You.” The song certainly flows in that direction, and Lenny even gives a few “Oh-oh-oh’s…” to bring “Where Did Our Love Go” home. On “Happy Man,” Williams provides an Al Green-sequel performance, with a bluesy-soul feel. As on a good Memphis soul song, on “Happy Man” the rhythm guitar gives the song color and feel. “Stepping And Dancing” is just that: a Chicago-styled steppers song that’s good enough to crowd the dance floor. On “Sunshine,” Lenny stays in Memphis blues mode, with a hue of Oakland soul dashed in for good measure. Lenny converts back to the contemporary world, albeit with a mellow feel, on his cover of the Heather Headley hit, “In My Mind.” The song would be A-plus in today’s music world, but it’s still a young person’s song sung by an older gentleman.
On “Grown Man,” however, Lenny Williams is just that: a grown man laying down a grown man’s down home blues song that will drive the patrons in a blues club or liquor house wild. Somewhere, Clarence Carter is applauding the song. Lenny flips the script and goes the smooth jazz route on “On This Day.” The song, featuring smooth jazz sensation Kirk Whalum, delivers to smooth jazz fans what they long for: a jazzy underpinning with experienced, excellent vocal accompaniment. Lenny then turns the corner, heading for the 90’s D’Angelo neo-soul style on “Make Love.”
With the noted exception of rock, there are few music stones left uncovered on Still in the Game. Lenny combines both Motown and Stax on “Good Girl,” which lyrically takes you back to a more innocent music time in the 1950’s and 60’s. The coupe de gras, however, is the final song on the album, “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Know It Was Your Mama,” a down home blues song that’s sure to get you out on the dance floor.
Lenny Williams is ever the chameleon, but in a very good way. And on Still in the Game, he shows the reason for his impressive staying power: he is an artist with the ability to not only adjust with the times, but, more importantly, to make the times adjust to him and his unique gift. Recommended.
By Gabriel Rich