By Robert Walker
The music definition for the word, Sangin’ is used to identify a singer who sings really well.
I would have to say that describes R&B/Jazz/Pop vocalist, Alyson Williams, perfectly.
Alyson is a singer and actress still singing after getting her start in the 1980s in New York City where she started out as a “Hook Girl” doing chorus vocals on tracks where rappers needed that R&B touch.
She did this for friend Kurtis Blow who introduced her to his manager, Russell Simmons. Russell would put her on session recordings where she quickly became one of the go-to “hook girls” recordings with some of the biggest names in music.
And when you can “sang” like Alyson can, there is no such thing as being an 80’s and 90’s Diva. Alyson’s new record will be released in early 2021, and her new single just dropped in November from her LP title, “Summer Nights In Harlem”.
I caught up with Alyson recently to discuss her career, life in a pandemic world, and new music and projects.
“Southern African American vernacular slang which purposefully uses the past tense to refer to singing in the present tense. Sanging means “singing really well”; “singing with a lot of soul”.
— Urban Dictionary
Q&A with Alyson
Thank you Alyson for taking the time to speak with me and allow our readers to catch up with you and some of the new things going with your career.
Robert Walker: How are you and your family doing as we continue to endure this pandemic?
Alyson Williams: Thank God, my family, my extended family, my friends, have fared well throughout the pandemic. We have lost a lot of people, but we remain faithful, and prayerful, and smart. Taking things seriously so that we can stay safe and continue to be well, but it is truly a challenge. I’ll be glad when we get back to some sort of normalcy, whatever the new normal is going to be.
RW: I was just speaking with the late David Bowie’s piano man for thirty years, Mike Garson, and he and many of Bowie’s bandmates were in the middle of a world tour when the COVID-19 virus became a pandemic, essentially shutting down all live stage performances for the year. I would imagine the same is true for you. How have you adjusted as a performer to maintain your career and livelihood?
AW: Yes, as an artist, everything was shut down very abruptly, and many of my colleagues have been figuring out what we can do to continue to have a livelihood and to maintain our careers. But, the one thing about music is, music is a bonding agent, music is a healer, and the world needs some medicine. So I think music is going to be that medicine (beyond any vaccine). I think we as artists will be a source of providing that healing. We just have to figure out how to keep that music going so that we can have that impact. Be it music, or dance, or theatrical, we just have to figure a way to make it happen.
RW: Have you turned to the internet and hosted your on-line watch-parties, like I have seen so many singers do in 2020?
AW: Yes, I have turned to the internet on many occasions to do virtual performances since the pandemic. I worked with Queens Public Library and we did a wonderful virtual concert that I produced out of Charlotte, NC. I also worked with the Jazz Mobile, which is a great organization I have worked with for years where I hosted Great Jazz On The Great Hill, and we were just lucky enough to get into Central Park with a special ordinance to film it, and we streamed it on the date the live performance would have taken place. That is now available to stream at the Queens Public Library and online at Jazz Mobile.org. You can check those concerts out on their sites.
So, yes, the internet is the go-to source for these types of events. It is normal for now until we can return to live performances with any consistency. I had a virtual birthday party that someone threw for me that was surreal, but we embraced it.
RW: Speaking of the internet, we are now in the digital age where streaming events, although were becoming more mainstream, have really been forced on us now. Is that something you embrace or see as a draw-back?
AW: The internet is the way to go, but the drawback is that there is still nothing like live performance, making that human connection is still what makes for a memorable musical performance, but, as mentioned, we have to remain smart and safe so that we can continue to perform, and so we’ll work the internet and strive to make as personable as if you were at a concert.
RW: I know that you started your professional career as a back-up singer with many performers and singers, including Ms. Melba Moore, one of my all-time favorite artists. How did becoming a back-up singer start for you, and tell us some of the other pros you performed with as a back-up singer?
AW: I started out singing background as Kurtis Blow’s “Hook Girl” – you know a hook girl is a girl who sings the hooks! Back before we had the terminology of hip hop, we had rap music, and Kurtis Blow was the King of Rap. Kurtis was managed by Russell Simmons who Kurtis introduced me to. I began doing a lot of recording sessions for Russell, singing, and arranging, and contracting the sessions.
It was really weird because as you may recall, everyone thought that rap music was just going to be a passing music fad, and that turned out to be the greatest untruth (chuckles), and so a lot of the established background singers weren’t doing rap music sessions, nor were rap artists seeking those singers who may have been working regularly with a Luther Vandross, or Duran Duran, and I happened to be in the midst of it, in mid-town Manhattan, and that allowed me to sing the mainstream music like, “They Playin’ Basketball” or “If I Ruled The World” (she is singing it); I sang that before Lauryn [Hill] sang it.
So, doing that sort of bridged mainstream music with rap and gave me a great opportunity in being noticed by mainstream artists. I had an audition with a group called “High Fashion” it was myself and Melissa Morgan, and Eric McLintock. The day that we got the word that we had been accepted, Kashif was one of the producers who asked me If I would like to come to sing a session for Melba Moore, and that was my start into mainstream R&B music.
I am still with “Auntie” Melba to this day. Shout out to her! That led to many great associations where I sang for Bobby Brown, Evelyn Champagne King – the list goes on and on, we’ll just need to do the book and then biopic (she says with a laugh).
I still like doing background singing and the teamwork in an ensemble thing. It just keeps you focused vocally. It’s a whole other discipline that most people do not recognize the importance of – so, shout out to all my background sangers (she laughs).
RW: Can you tell us who, of all the performers you worked with, who was the one that was the absolute most fun to work with or the most outrageous? Any “tea” you can spill?
AW: I have worked with a lot of people. I am celebrating my 30th-year anniversary singing professionally, and so you can just imagine over a 30 year period. It would be hard to choose, but I’d have to say one of my all-time favorite singers to perform with was Nancy Wilson. Nancy was a mentor of mine, a lot of fun and wisdom. But I just can’t name one because I loved working with Valerie Simpson; I loved working with Chaka Khan; I loved my camaraderie with Miki Howard.
When Miki Howard and I were on a bill together, we’d do nothing but laugh. It was the most fun you could ever have, the same with Tony Terry, so I really can’t just name one, but those are in the top five because every time I worked with them, it was going down like that.
I have no tea at this time to share because there is a book and a biopic on the way (she says tongue in cheek and a laugh).
RW: You come from a musical family, I understand your dad was a professional musician. Who else in your family was musically inclined, and when did you know singing was what you wanted to do professionally?
AW: My father was a jazz trumpet player who had a big band called The Bobby Booker Big Band, and for 25 years he was the premiere society band for the New York Tri-state area and beyond. He was based in Harlem, NY at the Kennedy Center. He had a 21 piece band. Nothing better than that.
My mother was an actress who gave up her career to raise me and my sister. So, I come by my gifts through God that were naturally nourished by my parents. I had a cousin who was a percussionist who passed when I was quite young. Another cousin, who just recently retired, was the first chair French Horn player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I am so proud of him because I know the level of professional musicianship you have to achieve and maintain, and so I am proud of him.
I knew I could sing from very early on – from the time I could talk. But I was quite shy and I taught myself to sing by impersonating other singers. I would do impersonations of the singers I liked and became really good at that as a way to overcome being shy because I knew singing, acting and dancing was it for me.
RW: Who were some of your musical influences as a kid growing up, and who do you like that is currently out there musically?
AW: My favorite singers coming up were Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine. You know, all of those great voices. We had limited people of color on TV, but I saw Pearl Bailey and loved Lola Falana, and Diahann Carroll. They all were so versatile back in the day, like with Sammy Davis, Jr. who sang, danced, played instruments, and just did it all. We had to! But, I also love Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland. Dionne Warwick. I was inspired by the best.
Who do I like now? Still love the classics, old school, but I do love India Arie, Ledisi, Lala Hathaway ~ I call them my little sisters; and I like H.E.R.
There are some good concepts out there musically with these young artists. I look forward to what I might be able to contribute to it.
RW: Was the single “Yes We Can Can” your first breakout song as a singer, which I know others have covered, but was it the Pointer Sisters who did the song first, and how did the song come to you to record?
AW: The single “Yes We Can Can” was a sort of introducing me as a solo act, but really as a desire by Russell to put me somewhere actively. I was just coming out of the High Fashion group on Capitol Records. Def Jam was not quite ready to launch me, so Russell put me on Profile Records, while he put the finishing touches on Def Jam. So that’s how that single came about.
Alyson’s chart-topping album “Raw” stayed on Billboard for 67 weeks.
RW: What is your favorite Alyson Williams song of all time?
AW: I don’t think I have sung it yet. At least I hope I haven’t. I hope I haven’t sung my favorite song yet. I don’t know (she thinks for a moment), I guess I’d have to say “Just Call My Name” because it is the song that allowed me to have my career. We had five top-ten singles on the Billboard charts, and the ‘Raw’ Album spent 67 weeks on the charts. So we spent over a year on the charts, and that single was the song people really related to.
RW: You are not just a great singer, but you act as well and portrayed your friend, Phyllis Hyman, in a stage play. I guess the obvious question is, how difficult was it for you to portray Phyllis, and where were you when you heard that she had passed away tragically to suicide?
AW: Yes, I did portray Phyllis in “Thank God, The Beat Goes On” with the Whispers. The show was really about them. Phyllis did a lot of shows with them, and you knew if you ever got a ticket to see that show, you were in for a good night of entertainment.
Phyllis was a dear friend of mine, and when that part was available, I was happy to play her. She was a sister in the name of music and love; a mentor sort of speak. I can’t go into great detail about the circumstances of her transition because again, there is a book and biopic coming. But, I was at the airport in New Orleans to attend the very first Essence Festival also when I got the news that Phyllis had committed suicide. I was devastated and actually passed out. I am still thankful to the two women who got me to the car until I came to.
What I took away from Phyllis’s suicide, because of what I knew about her is, to believe people when they say they are going to do something, take them at their word.
RW: What did her death mean to you about life?
AW: Life is short, and you have to value each and every moment, and don’t take anything for granted.
RW: What new projects are you working on currently Alyson?
AW: Well, speaking of Phyllis Hyman, people have been asking about a revival of that old show, and while I pointed out that the original show was about the Whispers that had Phyllis in it, it seems that people really wanted something more about Phyllis and her music, and that made sense to me. So, I did a one woman show called, “Old Friend: Alyson Williams Sings Tribute to the Legendary Phyllis Hyman”.
Now that was back in the late 90’s and we have done it a few times, but I feel it could be a Broadway show. So, since Covid, I just recently started doing some work with Nat Adderly, Jr. of the Adderly legacy who of course was Luther Vandross’ music arranger. And we will be doing a more intimate version of the show, just piano and me, at the National Arts Club. The National Arts Club is in New York and has a virtual performing portal on the internet.
I have a new LP that has just been released called “Summer Nights In Harlem“ and the title track single is available now. The LP should be ready after the first of the year, and so we are doing some “soft” launches with promoting the record.
“Summer Nights In Harlem“ and the “The Romance of You“, written by the great Maurice Lynch, and they are new school standards, is chock full of wonderful musician/arrangers like Christian McBride, Christian Sands, Ulysses Owens, Ron Blake, Kirk Whalum, Ray Chew, and the incredible Solomon Hicks on guitar. And I am so thankful because we have a hit on our hands.
The record is in the traditional Jazz genre, but we have Smooth Jazz features with Najee, and we did the Bobby Caldwell classic, “What You Won’t Do (For Love)” that was produced by Chris Big Dog Davis, and I covered Norman Connors “Valentine Love”, and so much more that I think this record will find a cross-section of listeners.
I also am still doing my community radio show from Harlem on WHCR. We broadcast live from City College when we can be there, otherwise, we are virtual, that’s Harlem Community Radio, “Love Notes in The Chill Room with Alyson Williams” every Tuesday from 8 to10 PM Eastern. You can go to WHCR.org to tune-in.
I am also finally doing what I have always wanted to do and that is a television show called, “Life After Def: The Gig, The Grind“ on The C.R.E.W. (Women) TV Network, Civically Re-Engaged Women. Shout out to Ms. Sharon Nelson for creating it. It was originally to be a reality show, but COVID has made it more a talk show with all of the wonderful personalities I have worked with since my days starting at Def Jam.
I have a show scheduled to air on the C.R.E.W. TV Network produced by BulLion Entertainment. Special thanks to Anre’ DaCosta, Sandra Trim-DaCosta, Gale Monk, Sherman Wing, Khirlu Burton, Helen Greenberg, for making that happen and you can check schedules for that show on the network to see it / https://www.crewomen.tv/
Alyson was one of the original “Hook Girls” who sang the hooks on those classic rap jam tracks!
Kurtis Blow introduced Alyson to his manager, Russell Simmons, and the rest as they say, is history.
Alyson reunited with one of her earlier mentors and Def Jam label founder, Russell Simmons
RW: I never like to close out these interviews without asking, if you were requested to give the commencement speech for the graduating class of 2021 after a year as we all experienced in 2020, what words would you share with those young people entering life as adults, starting their careers?
AW: I really hope that I will be asked to speak to a graduating class one year. From your pen to God’s ears. I would first say, Congratulations! You have survived and have come through something stranger than fiction. I would remind them that they are strong and braver than they even know, and now is the time to build their future.
Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop believing, don’t let anything deter you from your goals, not even a pandemic, not even a nation dealing with social and racial unrest, and a government out of control, just continue because you have what it takes to carry this on.
Thank you for this interview and for your support. Love and Light; Peace and Blessings. Ciao.
Thank you Alyson for this interview. We wish you continued success and look forward to supporting your new works from your one-woman show in tribute to Phyllis Hyman to your new record, “Summer Nights In Harlem”.
“You are stronger and braver than you even know, and now is the time to build your future. Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop believing, don’t let anything deter you from your goals, not even a pandemic, not even a nation dealing with social and racial unrest, and a government out of control, just continue on because you have what it takes to carry this on.”
— Alyson Williams to the Class of ‘20
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