R.I.P. The Mad Lads lead singer, John Gary Williams

(May 30, 2019) We at SoulTracks are sad to report the death of John Gary Williams, the original lead singer of The Mad Lads, who were signed to the legendary Stax Records label.  With a sound influenced by doo-wop harmonies, they rose to popularity in the mid-1960's with stellar hit ballads like "I Want a Girl," "Don't Have to Shop Around" and "I Want Someone."  Mr. Williams, 73, died on Tuesday at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, after battling throat cancer.  His passing marks the last of the original Mad Lads.

(May 30, 2019) We at SoulTracks are sad to report the death of John Gary Williams, the original lead singer of The Mad Lads, who were signed to the legendary Stax Records label.  With a sound influenced by doo-wop harmonies, they rose to popularity in the mid-1960's with stellar hit ballads like "I Want a Girl," "Don't Have to Shop Around" and "I Want Someone."  Mr. Williams, 73, died on Tuesday at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, after battling throat cancer.  His passing marks the last of the original Mad Lads.

Memphis was the birthplace of the group that became the Mads Lads.  They formed in 1964 at Booker T. Washington High School.  Calling themselves The Emeralds, the original lineup was comprised of Williams, Julius E. Green, Robert Phillips and William C. Brown III.  After signing with Stax Records, the young quartet underwent a name change because another group was already known as The Emeralds.  They were given the name Mad Lads for at least two reasons -- (1) as a nod to Memphis radio DJ Reuben "Mad Lad" Washington, and (2) "that's exactly what they were — just four mad guys, just mischievous, fun-loving, typical young men," according to Deanie Parker, who served as a publicist at Stax.

Though The Mad Lads' behavior may not have been impressive, their voices surely were.  Deanie Parker fondly recalled: "I loved [the group], their voices.  I thought they had a perfect blend."  That perfect vocal blend was on full display on their most recognizable hits, starting with their second release, "Don't Have to Shop Around" in 1965, which included instrumentation by Booker T. Jones and Isaac Hayes, who had previously written for the group.  The Mad Lads would go on to have further top 20 R&B hits with songs about wanting love, namely "I Want a Girl" and "I Want Someone" in 1966.  However, the tide changed at the end of the year when John Gary Williams and William C. Brown III were drafted into the military.  A few years later, upon Williams' return to the group, The Mad Lads had one final chart hit with their cover of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" in 1969.

Four years later in 1973, John Gary Williams recorded a self-titled solo album for Stax, which includes a cover of the Four Tops' classic "Ask The Lonely" as well as socially conscious tracks like “I See Hope,” which can call to mind the 1970's catalogues of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.  "I See Hope" is also the title of a documentary about Williams' life and career, produced by filmmaker John Hubbell.  The purpose of the project - which got under way in the 2000's - is to let the audience hear Williams' story, and that of The Mad Lads, in his own words and reintroduce his music to the world.  One of the cool things captured on film is Williams' meeting with hit-making duo Daryl Hall & John Oates.  Both men told Williams how they were inspired by The Mad Lads after seeing them perform in the mid-1960s at Philly's Uptown Theater.  The "I See Hope" documentary, which includes two new songs by John Gary Williams that he wrote specifically for the project, is to be released at a future date.

As of February 2018, more than 50 years since their beginning, Mr. Williams was still performing with The Mad Lads in concert.  But because he had lost his voice after an operation to treat throat cancer, he had handed over lead singing duties to Frank Phillips, whose voice bears a striking resemblance to his.  With that said, the group's legacy is being continued by the current members, namely Frank Phillips, Freddie Durham, Solomon Young, and John Gary Williams' brother Richard Williams.

John Gary Williams is survived by his wife, Trenni, as well as two brothers, two sons, five daughters, three step-daughters, 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.  Mr. Williams was predeceased by his fellow original group members, Julius E. Green, Robert Phillips and William C. Brown III. 

While it's sad that all four original Mad Lads are now gone, we are thankful for the beautiful music they left behind, led by the tenor of John Gary Williams.  And even though he couldn't sing or talk at the end of his life, Mr. Williams' voice is crystal clear on record.  If one wants to know what "soul" sounds like, you 'don't have to shop around.'  Just take a listen to The Mad Lads!

By Darnea N. Samuels

Darnea N. Samuels is a Washington, DC-based sports radio producer, news personality, writer, and host of her own radio show, "The Sound of Soul with D'Nicole" on Takoma Radio, where she shares her love of classic R&B/soul music. You can read her blog here and connect with her on Twitter.

 
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