Soul Survivor: The Lost Recordings and Magic Touch of Robert Hosea Williams
It’s not rare for musicians to begin their careers in the garage and end them in the pawnshop. For recording engineer Robert Hosea Williams, it was just the opposite. He began his life’s work picking up used gear, and finished it by packing up storage boxes, stowing away some of the baddest D.C. soul recordings of the 1970s.
It was 1956 when Williams returned to the D.C. area a college dropout. “What is now Washington Music Center was a pawn shop in D.C.,” he says. Musicians “would run out of money and take their stuff to Chuck Levin’s pawn shop. Every time someone left a mic, I’d get it. If they left a tape recorder, I’d get it.”
Williams—or José, to friends—went from a hobbyist to a part-time engineer to one of the top producers in D.C. In the 1960s and 1970s, he manned sessions by Chuck Brown and Gil Scott-Heron, recorded an early demo by Roberta Flack, got regular work from major record companies, and started a couple of short-lived labels. While his name eventually became a footnote in the annals of ’70s soul, he’s now a key window to understanding the fertile, under-documented scene of post-riots D.C.
In the early 1970s, Williams took his recording practice solo, operating a studio in Silver Spring called DB Sound and recording in his parents’ basement in the same Maryland suburb. From that time until he retired at the end of the decade, he accumulated a stockpile of master reels—many of which, for one reason or another, never saw the light of day. When Williams and his wife moved to Severn, Md., he packed the shelves in his garage with tapes.
A year ago, the Chicago archival label Numero Group gave soul heads their first look into Williams’ cache with Who’s Gonna Save the World, a full-length by the Muslim spiritual soul group Father’s Children. But this was nothing compared to the mountain of material Williams had acquired.
Named after Williams’ production and publishing company, A Red Black Green Production is Numero’s newest look into Williams’ body of work—and an important glimpse at what D.C. soul sounded like in the ’70s. Much of the material—from groups like The Exceptions, Summits, Dyson’s Faces, East Coast Connection, and Skip Mahoney & The Casuals—was never released. It’s also a crucial look into Williams’ own production artistry: These were the acts with which he took his time, and which benefited from William’s orchestral touch and his sense for storytelling through song. None of the groups made it big—although some came close—but the tunes they left are exquisite. So are the tales.
LISTEN: Skip Mahoney & The Casuals – Town Called Nowhere
Williams was born in 1936 in Princeton, Ind., and his family moved to Silver Spring in 1947. He attended Dunbar High School in D.C.—then a breeding ground for doo-wop groups, to hear him tell it. But Williams’ knack was for vocal and instrumental arrangement. He brought that skill to Miami University of Ohio, where as a student he assembled and sang in the Bobby Williams Group, a boy band with a solid rhythm section that soon caught the attention of area label owner Joey Raye. (Williams wore a turban when the group performed.) Raye took the group into the studio for the first time, and although the sessions were never released, they opened Williams’ eyes. “After that, I said, ‘Gee, anybody can do recording,’” Williams says.
After leaving college and returning to D.C., he began recording his brother A.D.’s band, the Fabulous Terrifics, in their parents’ basement. (“My brother, he wanted to be like Jimmy Smith,” says Williams.) Those sessions are among the many unreleased tapes that collected in Williams’ garage, but demos from that time period would later serve as an ad hoc resume. After picking up a day job with the U.S. Postal Service, Williams was hired by Ed Barry to run a record lathe at Capital Transcriptions. From there, he scored a gig engineering at Ed Green’s Edgewood Studios on K Street NW—the most sophisticated studio in D.C. at the time.
Williams’ blue-collar work ethic and meticulous engineering skills steadily increased the demand for his services. “His forte was being the engineer,” says Kevin Coombe, a local music historian and DJ who’s writing a book on D.C. funk, soul, and R&B. “Literally, he was the guy to record it. He’d do whatever with tracks he needed to get done—that’s why they liked him. He had that sound, he was affordable, and he had a reputation for being able to get stuff done quickly.”
When he went solo, even Williams’ home studio earned a reputation. “They’d say, ‘Why go to a studio?’ There’s a guy in Silver Spring who does recording and it sounds great,” says Williams. Eventually Williams quit the Postal Service. “I realized it’s a government job,” says Williams. “They’ll pay you good, but you’ll lose your mind.”
As he engineered more records and live performances, Williams crossed paths with a number of budding talents. Roberta Flack was a roommate of one of William’s in-laws, and asked him to engineer a two-hour demo. “I said, ‘Roberta, nobody’s gonna listen to two hours of your tape, no matter how good you think it is,’” says Williams. “I took our tape and edited it down to 20 minutes, which really upset her. [Atlantic] still didn’t want her [at the time], but [jazz pianist] Les McCann said, ‘Let me take it up.’” To hear Williams tell it, using that edit McCann helped Flack score an audition for Atlantic. She debuted on the label in 1969.
While he was a versatile engineer, Williams was best known for his ballads. “One of the things he did so well was capture harmonies; we were looking for sweet soul and falsetto vocals, and the way he does that is very unique,” says Numero’s Rob Sevier, who curated the compilation. Coombe notes the prominent male falsetto in much of Williams’ work, which “flows and becomes beautiful and sweet with the music,” he says. “There’s like a space for it, and they found where it works.”
LISTEN: Dyson's Faces – Don't Worry About The Joneses
Williams explains his fondness for balladry as an admiration of songcraft itself. “I would always get vocals clean,” he says. “I felt a song was a story, so it has to have a clean storyteller.”
As soul music began to crest in the late ’70s with the coming of disco and go-go, Williams retired. “Recording is a fickle art,” says Sevier. “Some people get it right for a short period or a long period, but usually you have your magic moment.”
All of that magic might have stayed bottled in Williams’ home, where a cozy living room is filled with Afrocentric literature and Peruvian mementos collected by his wife. But in 2006, Coombe’s research on local soul groups led him to Williams, and the two struck up a friendship. Eventually, Williams showed Coombe the garage. When Coombe saw the name “Father’s Children” on one of the reels, he knew he’d stumbled upon something interesting. Eventually, Coombe introduced Williams to his friends at Numero Group, Sevier and Ken Shipley. They met with Williams, and eventually they agreed to move many of the master reels to Chicago for transferring.
LISTEN: The Summits – Ps And Qs (Unreleased Instrumental Mix)
Although A Red Black Green Production is culled from Williams’ archives, it’s not a comprehensive introduction to his work. It doesn’t compile his higher-profile engineering sessions with Hugh Masekela or Donny Hathaway. But it does showcase a coterie of deeply talented local artists deserving of the same crate-digging adulation of, say, Shrine Records, the legendary D.C. soul label that folded in 1968.
Of the groups on the compilation, perhaps the most unstoppable was Father’s Children. “They could find a warehouse and put up a placard saying ‘Coming to Duke’s warehouse, Father’s Children will appear,’ and it would sell out,” says Williams. Beginning in the fall of 1972, Father’s Children recorded what should have been its debut album with Williams, a gritty, stirring work of Messianic soul. Despite the band’s regional popularity, the LP remained dormant until Numero Records released it in 2011. “There’s probably about 60 different stories as to why it never came out, and they’re very conflicting stories,” says Sevier. Qaadir Sumler, of Father’s Children, puts it plainly: “No one paid for the sessions.”
The extent of Williams’ involvement with some of the other groups is less clear. He doesn’t recall working on one of the East Coast Connection tracks, for example. “I had nothing to do with ‘Generation,’” he says. “I said that song was terrible, so I didn’t even mix it.” Sevier doesn’t deny the claim, but leaves room for ambiguity. “[Williams is] pretty set in his ways on this, but his name is all over the tape box. The group says that he rerecorded it. We’re not sure, but it’s an unreleased track, and we think it’s cool.”
It wasn’t uncommon for bands to leave Williams’ studio without their tapes. “Sometimes they pay you and take it and leave; sometimes they want to help you to help them out; and sometimes they want to do something with it, but they can’t afford to pay for the studio time, so they leave it,” says Coombe.
To Coombe, Williams is a sort of Rosetta Stone to understanding D.C. soul in the ’60s and ’70s: “He bridges gaps between neighborhoods, between groups, and between time periods.” A musician might play in only one or two bands, but Williams worked with countless acts over the years.
Though he hasn’t stepped behind a board lately—he gave much of his gear to his son—Williams says still keeps up with modern R&B. As always, his favorites are the storytellers. “I really like R. Kelly,” Williams says. “He would’ve been someone I would’ve worked with, not because of his vocals, but because of his songs. ‘Trapped in the Closet,’ for example—the videos help tell the story, but if you listen, it’s a really great story.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery