William Herman Weems was born in Brookhaven-Lincoln County, Mississippi, to young, single mother Evelyn Weems, on 2nd August 1941.Brookhaven was an old Railroad town with a population of just over 6,200. Evelyn was just seventeen and had found work in the service of a white, southern family some 800 miles away in Virginia; she was young and uneducated and so did what she had to do to survive. With mum away, Willie, who was an only child, was cared for by an older cousin during those formative years.
At the age of 2 ½ yrs., Willie was moved South to be with his grandparents Ezekiel and Leola Weems. In Picayune, a 100 mile drive south from Brookhaven and a 40 minute drive From New Orleans. Still at an early age Willies Mother, Evelyn Weems met and married Silas McGee, who was 20 years her senior. The family moved north and settled in Maywood, a small village in Cooks County, Illinois. Following Evelyn`s marriage, Willie found his name changed to McGee, Willie was never entirely happy with it.
Willie's first memories of music go back to the age of round six while he was in Mississippi for the summer, hanging around with the local kids playing games and discovering tadpoles in streams. The gang of local kids went to visit an old man, he chatted and joked with the kids. On his wall he had an old acoustic guitar. Being inquisitive Willie ask about what it was, the old guy took his hand and strummed the strings. Willie remembers just standing and staring at it, and trying to visualize the sound and the six strings and the shape of it. This was the beginning of Willie's love affair with the guitar..
At the age of 12, Willie was given a small wooden Roy Roger's guitar by a friend who seemed happy to get rid of it. It had two strings, the low E & A. Around this time Willie was listening to a blues artist named Jimmy Reed. His songs relied heavily on those two strings. Willie listened carefully and practiced hard..
Gradually, Willie acquired better guitars and eventually took lessons, having decided he would become a star, just like Chuck Berry. Practicing at home could be an issue , due to the volume. But Willie was determined, so played with his naked thumb to help keep the noise down.
It was at Proviso East High School, that Willie and two friends, Joe Moore who played drums, and Mac Woods who played Guitar, formed their first band. The Downbeats, They played regularly and widely around the local area. They were still learning and doing well when they hooked up with John O'Neal, a local Booking agent/ manager. Who booked gigs for them at Adult clubs. These venues were usually dusty back alley joints, they were great times and they usually got paid a few dollars for doing what they enjoyed, plus mixing with some of the days great blues artists, such as the likes of Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles.
Over time a young blues singer Mack Carmichael joined them and they played the blues out of old tube fender amps, In the early days, the guys dealt with many of the great Black radio DJ's of the time, the likes of Lucky Cordell, E Rodney Jones, Pervis Spann, Herb Kent, and Al Benson. Benson was one of the first DJs Willie was aware of in his Community. He played the Blues and 1950`s R&B.
At 16 Willie graduated from high school; his name had changed back to William Herman Weems and he and his friends in the band had decided that they would join the Army and tour the world. By August 1957, all of the group members had signed-up. Willie recalls just how much younger than everyone he looked when they were sent for basic training.
The guys had been told that they would stay together, this turned out not to be the case. Mac went to Korea, Joe went to North Carolina, and Willie Germany. The two fields of training Willie best qualified for were Field Tactical Communication and Transportation. Choosing Transportation Willie was shipped to Germany as a Tractor Trailer Driver with the 594th Trans Company.
Once he`d settled into his unit and got to know the area and learning some German, he sent for his guitar. It transpired that Willie had a cousin in the town he was stationed. Albert Weems, owned a Bar and Restaurant. Now Aged 18 he began to play at his cousin’s bar. He also entered talent contests and recalls he would usually come second to white players. (Willie still laughs about this).
Due to the Cold War and other global crises such as the Bay of Pigs (March - April1961) Willie remained in Germany for an extended period. He returned to the US when he was finally discharged in 1962
Willie was now a professional Tractor Trailer Driver. Despite having driven across most of Western Europe, and covering in excess of 50,000 Miles without a single accident, the colour of his skin still remained a problem for the Teamsters Union back in the US.
Willie Passed the test to work as Bus driver, a Fireman and more but people still found a reason not to hire him. Undeterred Willie used his GI Bill to attend Triton College and North-Eastern University in Chicago, where he achieved credits for a BA in Human Resource Development and Behavioural Psychology.
In 1962, it was difficult to find a good job if you were black, Willie took the Civil Service Postal test, his score was good enough to be hired part time, and after about a year Willie made it to a full time position. Eventually making it to Federal Gov. Coordinator for the US Postal Service at Chicago's Bulk Mail Centre, Forest Park, Illinois.
Willie soon hooked up with musicians and singers who appreciated his guitar Style. He also played guitar for another group. The Downbeats aka Russ Vestee and the Downbeats, a group of white guys, who`s members included Larry Nestor on keyboard, Carmine Menna, Eddie Hoh on drums and Russell Vestuto (aka Russ Vestee) The Downbeats did Buddy Holly covers, and other popular songs of the time, and proved especially popular at weddings and Italian parties etc.
Around this time Willie began to take a greater interest in song writing, visualising songs in his head before rushing home from work to write the lyrics, playing and matching chords on an old piano. He became quite proficient in getting his ideas down and the songs recorded
Willie met lots of musicians who were already recording, and hooked up with Leroy Dandridge, who at the time was in a group called Condors. They had formed around 1958, and consisted of Gwen Bradshaw, Art Mitcham, Harvey Mitcham, all hailing from the Central Park Ave area on the Westside of Chicago.
In 1963 they changed their name to the Dontells and entered the studio to cut their first track on vinyl. The groups first release, 'Make change / Lover's reunion' , was on New York's Beltone label (which was distributed by King Records, Cincinnati). Chicago's Larry Nestor wrote, arranged and helped produce those two tracks.
Willie and Leroy continued to write under the team guise 'Wee Dan'; Willie also became a full member of the Dontells. In mid 1963 Nathaniel (Nate) Pendleton joined the Dontells; Nate had previously been a member of the Del Ray and soon ventured into song writing with the Dontells next track 'people gonna talk/ “I found a love” (Witch w119). Willie Played rhythm guitar on this track, Emanuel Seals sang lead along with Gwen, Leroy and Art Mitcham. This was soon followed-up with 'Lonely Boy / The Old Man” on the same label (Witch 121).
The Don-Tels (aka Dontells) were contracted to four tracks on Witch, part of Cortland Recording Company, both of which were owned by Bill Ermans. Cortland, established in 1961, was located on the north side of Chicago at 1501 West Cortland, above Bill Erman`s Diamond coal company. Willie recalls recording while the guys below shovelled away at the coal heaps!
Willie married Mittie Pearl Weems Nee Parker in 1964 and managed to balance his full-time job, raising a family and recording; he was instrumental in getting the group local gigs to help promote themselves and their latest releases. The group's line-up changed twice and consisted of three mail workers: Willie, Nathaniel Pendleton and Emanuel Seals.
The group departed Cortland in 1965 and peddled their musical wares around Michigan Ave. in an attempt to get another release. They went first to USA Records and finally secured a contract with Vee-Jay; the label had just moved back to Chicago and, unbeknown to the group, was undergoing major changes in an attempt to address some financial difficulties.
Calvin Carter, Vivian Carter's brother, was Vee-Jay`s A&R man and principal producer; he rushed them into Universal Studios and cut the tracks that they had written, which Johnny Pate prepared the charts for. The first, 'In Your Heart / 'Nothing but nothing'' (Vee Jay 666) was written by Nathaniel Pendleton, Seals, Leroy Dandridge (Dan Se Pen), Willie played Guitar on 'in your heart' and wrote the flip. This also enjoyed releases in the UK (Fontana 566) in May of 1965 and June 1970 (President 373).
Both sides of the group's next release “Is you Is or is you ain't my baby' / 'I'm gonna tell the world' (VJ 967) were again written by Willie Weems whilst hanging out at Leroy 'Sam' Dandridge`s apartment; Willie also passed some of the credits to the rest of the team. It was produced by Calvin Carter and Johnny Pate; this was also recorded at Universal Studios. This was the groups biggest session and was arranged by Riley Hampton. The guys thought they were going places and were ready to hit the big time .
While with Vee-Jay, the opportunity arose to promote their songs alongside other Chicago artists when a visit to Detroit was planned for 'The Jerry Butler Review' alongside The Dells and Tyrone Davis. One of Jerry Butlers backing singers, was a young 20-year-old by the name of Tammi Montgomery. That visit to Detroit with ‘The Jerry Butler Review’ led Berry Gordy to sign her to Motown; she also changed her surname to Terrell.
The Review was hosted by the man himself, Berry Gordy, and took place at Detroit's famous 20 Grand. Willie recalls how great it felt to rub shoulders with the likes of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Miracles etc. He also recalls that Jerry Butler did a great show while the The Dells positively brought the house down! For their part, The Dontells used the opportunity to promote their new release; they also played their others on the label.
From Detroit, they journeyed to St. Louis to perform on the show of the great Albert King, preceding him on stage. By this time, The Dontells were building a good following and their stage act was nearing perfection.
By early 1966, most of the artists had begun to leave Vee Jay - including future soul star Joe Simon - and the label was down to a nucleus of about a half-dozen acts. In January, the company filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws. By May, it was all over; Vee Jay closed its Chicago offices and released all of its employees, leaving The Dontells without a label.
Like so many artists at that time, The Dontells were just happy to record and perform; they didn’t research the company and were unaware of what was happening with their songs; they assumed that there was nothing they could do to protect the music. Jimmy and Vivian Carter sold the Vee-Jay catalogue, including released and unreleased songs written by Willie and Sam, to a Japanese business man.
After Vee-Jay`s demise, feeling let down by the label, Willie and Sam set-up their own labels and became independent label owners/producers. The labels were Dan-dy, Ambassador and Donte, and the production company was called 'Wee Dan'. David Green , the bass player at that time, lived at the address on the label: 744 South Central Park. Their discs were pressed and distributed by William Barney's Four Brothers.
West Side businessman Willie James Barney originally hailed from Parkdale in Arkansas. A long-time resident of the Lawndale neighbourhood in Chicago; he died at Mount Sinai Hospital on Feb. 20th 2016, aged 89, following a cardiac arrest at his Chicago home.
Born on 10th October 1927, like so many African-American southerners he relocated to Chicago in the early 1950s. With vision and an entrepreneurial spirit, he began selling R&B records from his car; eventually growing Barney’s Swing Shop into Barney’s One Stop Records.
By the mid-1960s Barney, along with partners Jack Daniels (A&R / Production), and Granville 'Maurice' White (Columbia Records Promotions man) created Four Brothers Records and its sister label Bright Star. Soon, they were producing records on the likes of Tyrone Wonder Boy Davis, G.L Crockett and Sam + Kitty.
Jack Daniels was the principal operator and handled administration, A&R, production and promotion aspects; he also owned Ja-Dan records which existed from 1965 through to 1967.
This was as busy time for Willie as he was playing a lot of live gigs with various local bands. Willie and Sam were friends and they spent time socialising: playing cards, drinking or just family time enjoying Sam`s wife's good cooking. Willie would have an idea and start pursuing it while they sat around, sharing ideas and music.
Their next release came from one such get together, released on the Donte label (based at 4509 W Jackson) was “Moaning and Crying” / “Soul Nitty Gritty” (Donte 100). 'Soul Nitty Gritty' is a really raw R&B dancer with Nate on lead. Written by Dandridge and Weems, the rest of the group dealt with the production side of things.
The follow up track, “I Cant Wait” was promoted on the Ambassador label, this time there was a temporary change to the line-up, with Sam being the only original member on this recording, with the addition of Nate on First tenor, Larry Nestor and with Willie on Guitar. “I can’t wait” which was originally written by Jerry Ragovoy (as Norman Meade) and Chip Taylor, and recorded by Baby Washington. The Guys did a complete different take on it changing it to a male vocal style love song.
Willie worked intensely with Larry Houston in the early days, and became a close friend. The two recorded together alongside John Davis, who shared the writing and arrangements with Leroy Dandridge. Willie has fond memories of playing on Houston`s 'I know we can make it' which got a double release on Ambassador 1032, flipped with “I Need Love” and “This World”. Willie played on most of Larry`s early Tracks.
Larry Houston – I'll Take the Blues/ It's no Secret – Donte 112
Willie Weems & The Outlaws – Greens / Snuff Time – Bran Dee 108
Willie Weems & The Palmadores – Greens / Snuff - Dan-Dy – D-101
Willie`s next venture was the first release on their Dan-Dy label which was another Wee Dan Production, this time featuring Singing Sam's 'Ooh baby / 'Move it baby'. (Miss Kitty Grove's contribution to the latter heralded the beginning of a working relationship with Willie which would become world renown in the context of the rare soul scene).
Willie`s self-penned track “Greens” with a group called Palmadores, again on the Dan-Dy label (Dan-Dy 101); was recorded at the Leaner brothers', One-Derful Studio on Michigan Ave., the band laid this track down, while Nate Pendleton shared his experience with snuff to the producers, they laughed so hard they asked him to add his story as the vocals ...It was Willies idea to name and write it. Snuff was inspired by Junior Walker and the All-stars. The Track got a second release on the Bran–Dee label (Bran-Dee 108), this release was “Greens/Snuff Time" a slight change on the title, also a change of backing group name to Willie Weems & the Outlaws, again credited to Willie Weems, Leroy Dandridge and John Davis. For whatever reason, the musicians were the same, but Willie came up with the name Outlaws. Which was a name used for live gigs. Matthew Angrum, played rhythm guitar, Kenny Thompkins drums, John Davis on horns, John Davis also arranged “Snuff”.
Sam and Kitty
Then there was Sam and Kitty,
Kitty (Katherine) Grove (nee Kitty Stewart), was an ex-lover of Willie`s, whom he had met in social circles, Kitty had become a creative inspiration to Willie, giving Willie the heart felt inspiration to write songs about how he felt about Kitty. Kitty now divorced lives in Decater, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Ga. She now sings gospel at her local church.
Willie wrote songs for Kitty and shared them with Sam because he sang on them, and they were partners. Sam, Singing Sam and Leroy Dandridge are the very same person, 'Sam' being Leroy`s nick name
Sam & Kitty - Your Money, My Love/ Don’t Hit On Me – 4 Brothers 400
Willies first release for 4 Brothers was a track that he wrote for Kitty called 'Your money – My Love' and it emerged from an idea and discussion between he and Sam while sipping Old Grandad 100%proof whisky. Willie recalls that the song came together because the love part just came naturally and once things were in motion.
Sam put more into the flip 'Don’t hit on me' and Willie gave his all on guitar too. He played two parts - also known as overdubbing - and says: “If you listen to it, you hear counterpoint in the musical guitars”. Willie added Johnny Moore and Daniels to the credits on this side too.
The next release was also on 4 Brothers; that too came about following a social evening playing cards and knocking ideas around. Written by Weems and Dandridge and produced by Jack Daniels, Edith Browns 'You did it' / 'You think love is something to play with' . 'You did it' is real, raw Chicago soul. It bursts immediately into life with Willie's guitar followed by Edith Brown`s raw vocals, both of which grow and flow as the simple but effective track builds. Edith Brown was the niece of Jack Daniels.
Edith Brown - You Did it / You Think love is Something To Play With - 4 Brothers 403
'You think love' is in fact the original A-side; a smooth, moody track with Willie on guitar and the Dontells doing a great job on backing vocals. The session was promoted and produced by Jack Daniels and Willie Barney. Willie and Sam encouraged Barney to finance the production as he had connections in so far as pressing and distributing records were concerned. In return, he would receive a high percentage on any sales.
During this period, for the most part Willie and the guys hung out at Sam Dandridge’s house, just kicking back. One time the group were over there when Willie just hit them with a song which would go on to become a soul anthem throughout the UK: Sam and Kitty's 'I've got something good' / 'Love is the greatest' was released in 1966 (Four Brothers 452).
Both sides, but especially 'I've got something good', were inspired by Willie's feelings for Kitty. Recorded at United studios and distributed via Atco, it enjoyed promotion via the late E. Rodney Jones`s radio show on WVON and rose to number fifteen on Chicago R&B Chart. (Jones, aka 'The Mad Lad', may have been the most prolifically-recorded of all the great R&B Djs, releasing a number of tracks himself, most of which are well known to rare soul fans in the UK).
Collectors will be only too aware of course that many variants of the IGSG original press have emerged over the years, demo and issue copies; not all of which were legit. That said, three original USA variants exist in both issue and demo formats:.
- east coast vinyl, Atco distributed with Four Brothers written across on one line
- east Coast vinyl, Atco distributed with Four Brothers written on two lines;
- west coast styrene with Monarch triangle/delta matrix and two lines across the label.
Sam and Kitty “I`ve Got Something Good” / “Love Is The Greatest” - Four Brothers 452
Following the Sam and Kitty releases, the group did engage in payola in an attempt to 'encourage' certain DJs to push the records although this rarely worked out as they had hoped as that initial push usually proved short lived.
Willie was getting known in Chicago music circles, both for his writing and production skills. While at Four Brothers he struck up a friendship with Johnny Moore, a Chicago writer/artist of some renown of course who is especially well known in the UK for his Date release 'walk like a man'.
Junior Wells - Girl You Lit My Fire – It`s a man down there – Blue Rock 4062
Willie regards Moore as having been a musical genius with a great voice and he feels that working with him helped to develop his own song writing skills quite significantly. Moore used one of Willie's compositions on Junior Wells and it got a release on Blue Rock records (do you know what and when?) - Moore told him that he was having a 'dry' spell and his contract demanded a quota of records each month. Willie got writing credits but was never paid for his material and still feels robbed on some levels...
The Turks - In other words ...
Willie continued to write and arrange then. In particular, he was hoping to get noticed by James Shelton Jr of Daran / DJO label. Shelton Jnr was the one-time Manager for the Hi-Lites aka Chi-Lites; he also owned the Shelton real-estate Co. on South King Drive in Chicago.
Following a chance meeting with his old friend Ted Long resulted in Willie hooking-up with Tom Williams. Ted and Tom had both been members of a local group, The Fascinators, who had broken up. The Fascinators had enjoyed a release on Bombay Records, 'In other words' / 'Gonna miss me' (B4502)) which had been produced by Bob Catron, A&R director of Witch/Cortland.
Willie put together a group of guys including Ted Long and Tom Williams whom he called The Turks / Fabulous Turks and managed to get them signed to DJO. On a limited budget, The Turks did eventually get into the studio where they cut four tracks, all of which were written by Willie. Willie was promised a full orchestra and he felt that the musical arrangements were good; the rehearsals were great. Unfortunately, a few days before the actual recording date Shelton Jnr. dispensed with over half of the orchestra. Willie was extremely disappointed to say the least although the session did still get finished somehow, with Willie on guitar.
The Turks discs 'You turn me on” / 'Generation gap' (DJO 0111) and 'The bad brought the good' / 'let it flame' (DJO 0113) are familiar to UK soul fans of course; both were written and arranged by Willie Weems and produced by James Shelton Jnr and became popular locally. However, it transpired that Shelton Jr was in fact using DJO/ Daran for 'tax purposes' and the tracks really didn't enjoy the promotion they deserved. A quick listen to the soaring harmonies on 'you turn me on' will confirm that there's no justice!
The Turks 'You turn me on” (DJO 0111) and 'The bad brought the good' (DJO 0113)
Ultimately, as The Turks lacked the know-how or finances to promote their records themselves they never realised their full potential or enjoyed the success their talents deserved. In Willie's own words: "we were basically a tax write off”. On the plus side, however, The Turks did enjoy larger shows as a result of their single. For example, they played the first Black Expo in Chicago in 1969 which was held at The International Amphitheatre on 42nd and Halsted. Many black businesses promoted their services and black entertainers performed each evening.
In the early 70s, a new version of the group formed, calling themselves the Four Shades. The group originally worked with Johnny Moore, cutting a demo for Blue Rock and backing Johnny (on 'Just my way of loving you') and Junior Wells on the label.
Willie and Mac Woods were Long time school friends, they tried to capitalize on Willies musical reputation and talents. They made an attempt to create a group, The Table of Content, Maurice Smith, Bonnie Lush, Tom Jones (2nd tenor) and Floyd Brown, who was last to join and had a great vocal range. Willie worked with and coached the group, and did many live shows with them. The Table of Contents were very good, but due to circumstances, it was not to be, It was a learning experience for all concerned. Soon after Willie and the group parted ways, Mac Woods went on to use Willie`s ideas, and under the leadership of Mac Woods, Table of Content went on to release a track “ Wrapped around your finger”
The track was written by Mac, who had started with Willie in the High School band The Deadbeats, (Willies states that “Mac Woods will " steal " what he thinks will benefit his causes. Just facts.)
Table of Content - Wrapped Around Your Finger / Michelle Your My Baby - LAKE
Finally all the guys, Dontells, Turks gradually drifted apart due to Family pressures and just bad luck with the music business, The Dontells and Willie lost track of their songs. Two members of the Dontells passed away, Leroy Dandridge(Sam), and Emmanuel Seals, since then many more have gone to pastures green, May they RIP.
It was years later that they heard that their music was still being enjoyed by a different generation and music culture in the UK..
Willie is working on a few tracks that he would like to present to Durand Jones and the Indications, after speaking to the group after a concert that he attended..
Laurance Francis Nestor was born January 29, 1940 in Chicago Illinois, He is a prolific songwriter and arranger who played keyboards briefly for The Buckinghams. Writing for the likes of Buckinghams etc, not forgetting his work for Leaner brothers, One Derful labels. Larry Nestor, (the tall guy in the back) also arranger for JIMMIE (Jim Verdico)& THE ENTERTAINERS on “New Girl” and “I'LL BE STANDING BY” on TODDLIN TOWN 8203 )
Russell Vestuto (aka Russ Vestee) produced “New Girl” and Engineered as well! Larry arranged and played keys board . Otis Clay, Harold Burrage, and Jimmie Jones sang background vocals, Jimmie also played bass guitar.
Beltone Records (Parent Label of Lescay) 1650 Broadway New York, was formed from Beltone Studio`s 1960 only lasting a few years was closed by 1963 and was situated at 1650 Broadway and was distributed by King Records Chairman : Les Cahan, Board Members : Sid Nathan, Ralph Perez, Arranger : Joe Rene
Vee -Jay Records Chicago
The label was founded in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, a husband-and-wife team who used their initials for the label’s name. Vivian's brother, Calvin Carter, was the label's A&R man. Ewart Abner, formerly of Chance Records, joined the label in 1955, first as manager, then as vice president, and ultimately as president. By May, 1966, it was all over, as Vee-Jay closed its Chicago offices, and filed chapter 11. Jerry Butler’s contract expired on May 31, and he signed with Mercury. In the August 13th edition of Billboard, a small item read: “Curtain down on Vee-Jay as liquidation ordered.”
Johnny Edward Moore, born 1st September 1940, West Point Missisippi. Johnny Moore never really made the grade as an Artist, but was a very successful writer, writing tracks for the likes of Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis and Syl Johnson, just to name a few of the artists, who had hits with his songs. Johnny Recorded most notably “ Lonely Heart in the City” on Blue Rock 4053, “Walk like a man” on Date 1562 and “A man should never cry”.. Along with Tyrone Davis`s “Turn back the hands of Time”, “We Did It”, was possibly one of his biggest track
Thanks to Willie Weems, for the friendship and the time and information, Thanks to Martyn Bradley and Kev Bodley for the Encouragement and Phil Threlfall for Proof reading and corrections of my grammar.. thanks Guys