ON FEBRUARY 9TH, 2010 BILL WILLIS died at age 78. Willis was a smooth, solid, and articulate bassist, organist, and vocalist who sparked some of the strongest grooves to come out of the King Records studios, playing with such artists as Charles Brown, James Brown, Hank Ballard, LaVerne Baker, Little Willie John, Freddie King, Lloyd Price, and Syd Nathan.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Willis picked up his first bass at a pawnshop after he was discharged from the Marines in 1954. A self-taught player, Bill premiered as a professional performer two years later at the Zanzibar in Buffalo, backing Billie Holiday, who gave Bill the nickname “Namesake.” Ultimately, Bill joined Holiday’s quartet, performing around western New York and Toronto. Such valuable experience helped Willis develop his bass chops more fully, and when he landed in Cincinnati in 1957, he was ready to emerge as staff bassist at the King Records studios. As bassist on many of Freddie King’s recordings, he provided solid, driving, bedrock support on such gems as “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Hide Away,” “See See Baby,” “I’m Tore Down.” Bill played on many other seminal sides, including Little Willie John’s “Sleep,” Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go,” Bobby Turner’s “Tossing and Turning,” and James Brown’s “This Old House.” Bill’s remarkable, unobtrusive, masterful touch also graces the King Records LP Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs . Bill’s Fender bass playing, among the earliest recorded and widely disseminated on blues recordings, helped establish the sound and patterns of countless bass players.
After leaving King Studios in 1963, Willis spent six months playing bass and tuba at the New York World’s Fair, and then took an extended 26-year gig as bassist-vocalist with the Elegant Four, a Las Vegas lounge act. Subsequently, Bill worked with Jake Porter, guitarist Roy Gaines, and LaVerne Baker. Under the informal tutelage of Bill Doggett, Bill learned organ, and it was on this instrument that he performed both in Europe and stateside with such artists as LaVerne Baker and Floyd Dixon.
At an appearance at Antone’s in Austin, Texas, Bill was asked to join Jimmie Vaughan’s Tilt-a-Whirl band, whose members had been influenced by Bill’s recordings with the stars of King Records of 40 years earlier. Bill subsequently toured and recorded with Vaughan on all of his solo efforts, and played with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, and many other blues legends.— STEVEN DITZENBERGER