By Mike Greenblatt
There’s no argument about the greatest 1950s rock ’n’ rollers. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis all make the list. But so should Larry Williams.
Larry Williams? That’s right. This wild New Orleans native (born May 10, 1935) led a violent life filled with drugs, guns and run-ins with the law. Maybe that’s why history has been so unkind to him.
Still, from 1957 to 1959, this flamboyant showman wrote and recorded such indelible rock ’n’ roll classics as “Bony Moronie,” “Short Fat Fannie,” “High School Dance,” “Slow Down,” “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “You Bug Me Baby” and “She Said Yeah” for Specialty Records. These songs have taken on a life of their own through the years.
Most rock historians agree that one of John Lennon’s most affecting vocal performances is on The Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout,” and I concur.
But I also contend Lennon’s vocals on “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” and “Bad Boy” (“now Junior, behave yourself!”) are every inch the equal.
Lennon loved Larry Williams, who appealed to his sense of all-out anarchy. Rock ’n’ roll was dangerous when Larry Williams was top of the pops. You could hear it in his wail. You could see it in his leg-shaking, onstage delinquency.
Lennon wasn’t alone in his musical admiration. The Animals also covered “Bad Boy,” as did Paul McCartney in 1999 on his “Run Devil Run” album. Rush used to play it in concert. The Rolling Stones rock “She Said Yeah” on their fourth album, “Out Of Our Heads” (1965). “Bony Moronie” has been covered countless times, most notably by Lennon, The Who, Johnny Winter, Johnny Burnette, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Standells, Ritchie Valens, Bill Haley and Freddy Fender. “Short Fat Fannie” has been covered by The Beatles (while filming “Let It Be”), Little Richard, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, The Dovells and Levon Helm. “Slow Down” has been covered by Alvin Lee, The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Johnny Hallyday, The Jam, Brian May and The Young Rascals.
Although Williams’ music has stood the test of time, he couldn’t sustain his string of hits. “Heeby Jeebies” in 1959 should have been a bigger hit than it was. In 1960, Williams was convicted of selling narcotics and served time. Williams mounted a comeback in the mid-’60s with Johnny “Guitar” Watson, but he never came close to repeating his original success. He served as producer for his lifelong friend Little Richard in ’66 and ’67 and became musical director for Richard’s stage show.
Williams’ music has graced countless movie soundtracks, and he spent time on the big screen, too, acting in “Just For The Hell Of It” (1968), 1974’s “The Klansman” (which also featured Lee Marvin, Richard Burton and O.J. Simpson); and “Drum” (1976), according to IMDB.com.
After a fling with disco, Williams lost it completely. Adrift in a self-created miasma of paranoia and hard drugs, he brandished a revolver in 1977 and threatened to kill Little Richard over a drug deal gone sour. This ugly incident between friends, reportedly, was the impetus for Richard to clean up and rejoin the ministry. Williams, though, sank further into the abyss. On Jan. 7, 1980, he was killed by a bullet to the brain in Los Angeles. He was 44. Although his death officially is listed as a suicide, theories persist that he may have been murdered due to his alleged involvement in drugs and prostitution.
In a weird twist to this sordid tale, one Martin Allbritton, a drummer for The Bobby Blue Bland Blues band in the ’60s, the front man of Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows in the 1990s (upon the departure of the original Big Twist), has been touring as “Big” Larry Williams. Legend has it that the late Etta James, who knew Williams, confronted him about it. The Williams family has asked Allbritton to stop using the name and, thus far, Allbritton has refused. GM