Otis Williams as country and western singer was improbable from the beginning. He was born and raised in Cincinnati. Now I don’t mean to slight the city– they have plenty of singers to claim: Rosemary Clooney, James Brown, Doris Day, Fats Waller, to name just a few– just not so many country singers. Williams himself wasn’t really a country singer if we’re laying out the facts. He was the leader of a doo wop band in the 1950s called The Charms and scored hits with songs like “Gum Drop,” “Ivory Tower,” and “Hearts Made of Stone.” The army derailed his singing career for a few years in the early 1960s, and he and The Charms went their separate ways. On leave in 1960 he ventured into country with a non-country version of “I Fall To Pieces,” for Epic Records, which I had not successfully gotten my hands on, until the ever resourceful Seth Otto tracked it down and threw a dog a bone, but otherwise continued to record mostly R&B songs. After his discharge in ’62 he did a few solo recordings and then drifted away from music for a few years working as a barber.
“I Fall To Pieces.”
In 1971, after tiring as a cut and trim man and being offered an A&R position with Key Talent Agency, Williams relocated to Nashville.
Now here’s what happened: tired of simply singing R&B Williams decided to sing country music. He formed the Midnight Cowboys, an all black country band, who played behind many of the country singers in Cincinnati, Ohio. At least that’s what you read on the brief album notes from Pete Drake. Louis McQueen handled the fiddle work, saxophonist Bennie Wallace handled the pedal steel guitar. At least that’s what you see on the album cover.
But here’s what really happened: while in Nashville, indeed as an A&R man, Williams shared an office with songwriter Tom T. Hall. Hall was working as a booking agent at the time and writing country songs. He would score big that year with his song “The Year Clayton Delaney Died.”
Pete Drake, who would write those dubious liner notes, came through the office one day and convinced Williams to try his hand at country music for his label Stop Records. There was no all black Cincinnati country band and The Midnight Cowboys was pure invention, named after the popular movie. Louis McQueen does not play the fiddle and Bennie Wallace sat behind the steel guitar just for the photo shoot. Incidentally, Drake remains best known as a mighty fine pedal steel session musician. You can hear his work on Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Liz Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” He also, and more infamously, invented the talking box which allowed him to blow sounds through a tube that would come out of his steel guitar sounding unearthly. Peter Frampton would later take the invention to dizzying heights on “Frampton Comes Alive.”
An early talking box clip from Pete Drake: Satisfied Mind.
The sessions took place at Music City Recorders and were produced by Drake and Elvis’ former guitarist, Scotty Moore. R&B historian, Marv Goldberg, also notes in a 2003 interview with Williams, that Elvis’ drummer D.J. Fontana also played on the sessions. My guess would be the steel is Drake’s. The rest of the sessions are an uncredited mix of Nashville studio cats and Williams current touring band, The Endeavors. The sessions didn’t reinvent the wheel, but everything can’t always be about innovation. Some things are fine just in form. That’s, more or less, where we catch the Midnight Cowboys. Speculatively, had there been a hit, who knows what could have been for Williams.
1971 wasn’t a slouch year for C&W. Sammi Smith hit number one with her take on Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and Haggard would hit number one with “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man). Johnny Cash had a number one with “Flesh and Blood,” and Conway and Loretta with “After the Fire is Gone,” would come out that year. It was also a tremendous year for the other famous black country singer, Charley Pride, who had three number one hit singles with “I’d Rather Love You,” “I’m Just Me,” and “Kiss An Angel Good Morning.” The closest thing Williams would come to a hit country record, though, was with “I Wanna Go Country,” which in May of 1971 peaked at 72 on the charts. It was a novelty number written by Charlie Monk and Jim Owen* that was a bit too jokey to be taken seriously. The single should have been his office mate’s “How I Got To Memphis.” Williams kills it. No one, but no one has Charley’s voice, and Stoney Edwards was certainly the real deal, but when it came to simply being cool, country music can sometimes come up short. Otis Williams had plenty of that.
C&W star he was not destined to be. He eventually moved back to Cincinnati and opened up a cafe.
How I Got To Memphis
Postscript ~ Jim Owen and Charlie Monk are themselves legends in country music. Owen wrote, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” for Conway and Loretta, and Charlie Monk is an old radio god who is referred to (deservedly) as the Mayor of Music Row. You want to be famous? Go see Charlie Monk. Oh, and be good.