Ernie Williams and I were separated by a generation or two, but we both enjoyed fishing, took to music early and loved the blues the most.
We grew up in very different worlds.
Much of his world wasn’t pretty. Every now and then, he’d talk about how it was years ago, “When black was black and white was white,” as he said, when races didn’t mix. When coaxed, he would tell harrowing stories, but they aren’t worth retelling now except to say that even though Ernie was someone who experienced the hatred of racism, he wasn’t a bitter person.
He had a crazy cast of friends: Iceberg Slim, Wrongway Willie, his brother Acory, and all sorts of women of different sizes shapes and colors who had designs on him. He liked being the center of attention, but more than that, he really liked people. Or as he would say, “Peoples.” Routinely, we’d stop and get gas headed to a gig, and folks would call out and wave, “Hey Ernie!” like he was the mayor. They’d even call to him in the bathroom.
Ernie first hired me more than a decade ago, with shows in Cayuga Lake and the Glen Falls Blues Festival among the first. We never rehearsed, ever. Ernie would just start a song, and the other musicians and I would jump in and play what we guessed would work. Usually it did. It wasn’t perfection, but it was something that transcended that, something better: pure emotion coupled with chemistry that made it magic.
The shows I played with Ernie were some of the most diverse I’ve ever done: theatres, Empire State Plaza, Melodies of Christmas, and sports bars where more people watched NASCAR than us. Some days, Ernie was getting the key to the city and awards; the next day, we’d be fighting with a club owner to get our pay.
I was still touring with Savoy Brown at the beginning, and often would go away for three months at a time, but Ernie would always want me on the gig whenever I could do it, which was flattering. There was always a strong connection between us, albeit unspoken. Sometimes the gigs weren’t great — with litle money and long drives. Sometimes I’d ask myself why I was doing them. The answer was simple: I did it for Ernie.
Ernie taught me a lot: how to read a crowd, how to pace a show and what really mattered in a song. More than that, on a personal level, through his interactions with complete strangers — always with a smile and a good word — he taught me kindness and humility.
I’m still working on that.
The acoustic trio shows with saxophonist Charlie Vatalaro – a brilliant player – were my favorites, because without the bombast of the band, the songs could really breathe. The experience was more intimate and musical, and the playing more dynamic. We did our last one just this past Sunday, at the United Methodist Church in Northville.
There hadn’t been many gigs over the winter, but midway through the first song — Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do” — our playing locked in effortlessly, with Ernie walking the bass, and Charlie and I trading solos as well as little lines we played together in the verses and turn arounds, things we never planned, but came by listening to each other deeply.
We did our usual set, and laughed and joked between songs. The crowd just adored Ernie. But what I’ll always remember was Ernie telling the people “I was raised in the churches down South” then launching “My God Is Real” as he bared his soul singing,. His performance was simply jaw-dropping.
It was almost dark when we left. I’m touring again with Adam Pascal & Anthony Rapp in April, so I waved to Ernie and said, “See you in May,” and he smiled and said ,“Thanks Dave. Yes you will.”
Three days later he was gone.
In 2008, I interviewed Ernie for the Times Union. This means even more now that it did then:
“Albany’s been great to me,” he said. “I had more good times than I had bad times. But the thing is, I overcome all the bad times, and kept stepping on. I guess I’ll be doing it ’til I die.”
True to his word, he did.
I will really, really miss him.
David Malachowski is a freelance writer from Woodstock.
Very nice remembrance, David. Thanks for the insight into Ernie. I can see why you really do miss the man. It must have been a lot of fun, and a privilege, to have known him so well.
I say over and over again that music is medicine for the soul. Ernie treated and saved a lot of souls. David thank you for sharing such personal moments. Ernie’s spirit will live on.
Very nice tribute..really captures the sprit of Ernie Williams. He was his own person truly original. Ernie believed that there was good in everybody..it’s great that 20 years ago Mark E. and Rocky P. put their belief/dedication into him and BANG the Ernie Williams Band came to fruition without their efforts no one today on the north side of Albany would have shed a tear.
David, this is a very nice remembrance of Ernie. I have know Ernie for many many years. He an my mom use to play guitar together when I was a little girl. I am 48 years old now and my mom passed away in November of 2011. If I remember correctly, they met at the Jolly Inn downtown Albany. They use to jam their as well at our house in the summer time. My mom not only played lead guitar, but also base and piano and the harmonica. Ernie was a wonderful man. Very kind and soft spoken. He was one of the older generation of men that you never forget. The last time I saw Ernie was on Madison Avenue in a club next door to the Mason Hall. I cannot remember the name of the club, but I approached him and said, do you remember me? He looked at me closely and said you look very familiar. He went on to say I do know you from somewhere, but I cannot place where. When I told him that my mom was Ann Marie Guevin and that he met her at the Jolly Inn and that he had been playing guitar with her at our home on Alexander street. I told him that I was about eight years old then. He smiled, gave me a hug and asked how my was doing. He offered to buy me a drink, but I declined. We chatted for awhile and the he left with a friend that was with him and I left with my friend.
I was really sadden to hear of his passing today from my sister. He treated my sister and I and my brother as if we were his own children. He will remain in my thoughts, and I will never forget how much his friendship meant to my mom. I pray that they both meet in heaven so they can share the memories of their past and have some good laughs of the times they use to have.
Thanks for sharing your time spent with Ernie. There will never be another one like him.
Dr. C. Slater