If Lenny Williams hasn’t sent Steve Harvey a gift basket for reviving his career, he definitely should.
In the late ’90s, the comic started using Williams’ classic ballad “Cause I Love You” in one of his routines and later in a movie, and it changed the R&B veteran’s life.
“I had gotten a call from a friend of mine in Memphis, and she told me that she’d gone to the Kings of Comedy show and that Steve Harvey had done this routine about my song,” says Williams, 70, on the phone from his Oakland home. “And, so I said, ‘Oh, that’s exciting.’ And, then, the next I know, they did the movie … And, so, I went to see the movie and, sure enough, there it was.”
Williams is referring to “The Original Kings of Comedy,” the 2000 Spike Lee-directed concert film which features Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and the late Bernie Mac. In that film, Harvey gets a Charlotte crowd to stand on their feet and sing along as he hilariously lip-syncs Williams’ song.
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“I didn’t really realize the total spectrum of what was happening, you know,” he says. “I didn’t realize that the Kings of Comedy was going to be so big and, wow, it was. And, then, the next thing I know, my phone started ringing, ringing, ringing, because I wasn’t on people’s radar.”
Soon enough, rappers began contacting Williams for samples. Kanye West sampled “Cause I Love You” twice when he produced songs for a couple of MCs. Says Williams, “This is the music business, so I had taken care of the business and I owned my own publishing. And, so, I was getting checks for $80-$90,000.”
Rappers haven’t been the only ones saluting Williams by sampling his work. R. Kelly paid homage to Williams two decades ago when he interpolated some “Cause I Love You” lyrics in his “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” remix.
“It’s flattering to think that I could sit in my house in Oakland and write a song and, then, a decade or two later, probably one of the greatest R&B artists of all time, R. Kelly, would actually take a piece of what I’ve done and copy it,” he says. “It gives you a sense that what you’re doing is correct, because people are emulating it.”
Whether he was serving as the vocal frontman for the horn-heavy funk outfit Tower of Power or later dropping music as a solo artist, Lenny Williams was a ’70s soul artist whose work has influenced a diverse group of entertainers. Born in Little Rock, Ark., Williams moved to Oakland when he was 18 months old. He grew up there right when the Bay Area was becoming a hotbed for music.
Williams, who learned how to read music when he played trumpet in the fourth grade, would later be chilling with a lot of future stars. He hung with a pre-Creedence Clearwater Revival John Fogerty and with Huey Lewis, way before he got with the News. He went to church with gospel icon Edwin Hawkins. And, of course, he and Sly Stone crossed paths a few times.
“I was just surrounded by music,” he remembers.
Williams still goes on tour and performs, as evidenced by his upcoming appearance at the 8th Annual Raleigh Blues Festival, Saturday night at the Memorial Auditorium. He’ll be sharing the bill with Mel Waiters, Shirley Brown and others. He also continues to record music; his latest album, the aptly titled “Still in the Game,” dropped in 2012. But Williams does say it’s difficult for vets like him to get music out in the world these days.
“It’s a Herculean task, to be honest,” he admits. “I mean, you definitely have to be creative. You look at it now – I mean, Aretha Franklin had a record out a couple of years ago. Who knows about it? I mean, the O’Jays had a record out. Smokey (Robinson) had a record out. Ron Isley had a record out. This is such a youth-oriented business – but I guess it was a youth-oriented business when I was in it.”
Williams is taking cues from young artists who want their music released but don’t have label backing – he’s releasing his stuff independently. “You have to make your own records, so I make my records,” he says. “We figure it out – you can go in the studio and you can do your record. And you can have your own record label and you can get it on iTunes and Amazon and have social media and things like that. Sell ’em at your shows. And so this is what I do.”
And, if all that doesn’t work, he could always holler at Steve Harvey about giving him a shout-out on his talk show.
What: 8th Annual Raleigh Blues Festival with Mel Waiters, Klass Band, Maurice Wynn, Lenny Williams, Shirley Brown and Theodis Ealey
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com