Jason D. Williams
Jason D. Williams Has Some Killer Instincts of His Own
Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie-woogie players. And all points in between.”
Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.
As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In both his originals and carefully chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, R&B, country and gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.
“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”
And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis himself. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and R&B charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”
Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.
The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams’ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”
A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.
By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the ’90s, while doing sessions in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.
“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”
Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004’s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010’s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.
Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.
On 2014’s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely’s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Jason makes the tune his own. And he demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”
“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”
Though his trademark sound is to most ears an aggressively attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by a guitarist, bassist and drummer. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”
These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.