DONNIE WILLIAMS BIO -- Is there Life after American Idol ? You Bet
Donnie Williams has been creating quite a stir around the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area over the past couple years with his dynamic performances as lead vocalist of the band Park Place. With the release of his debut CD, Just Like Magic on Chump Change Records, his reputation is sure to spread far and wide among lovers of world-class soul singing.
The East Bay Express, in its 2008 Best of the East Bay issue, named the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-born Williams "Best R&B or Soul Singer." He sings, the newspaper noted, "in ringing, remarkably pliant high-tenor tones, often executing long sustains that he follows, without stopping to take a breath, with strings of pitch-perfect, rapid-fire melismata."
And the San Francisco Chronicle called him "a soul stylist of the first order."
"It's phenomenal," Park Place producer Paul Tillman Smith says of Williams' voice. "He's like a musician, the way he hears. Nobody has the kind of control and ideas that Donnie has."
"He sings my stuff better than anybody I've ever known," adds Smith, whose compositions have been recorded in years past by such singers as Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne, Lady Bianca, Freddie Hughes, Derrick Hughes, Lenny Williams, Rosie Gaines, and the late Prince vocalist Bonnie Boyer.
Williams' soaring tenor is featured on 12 of the 15 tracks on Just Like Magic. Smith wrote seven of the disc's songs, including the title tune and the inspirational "Higher Power," and Williams wrote three. Terrell Williams, Donnie's younger sister and Park Place compatriot, leads on two selections and duets with her brothers on "Miracles." Guest vocalist LaToya London, who, like Donnie, was a 2004 American Idol finalist, leads on "Send My Baby Back" and duets with Donnie on "Just Like Magic." Multi-instrumentalist Nelson Braxton and Smith's longtime associate Norman Connors served as co-producers of the CD, which boasts an all-star Bay Area cast of players that includes keyboardists Kev Choice and Sundra Manning, guitarist Carl Lockett, and drummer Brian Collier.
""Each day I struggle simply for my family. Go to work every day and still have no money. Living in this world, it gets harder and harder. Waiting for my victory to come today and tomorrow," Williams sings in glowing tenor tones reminiscent of both Donny Hathaway and Ronald Isley on "Running," the self-penned mid-tempo ballad that opens Just Like Magic. Later in the tune, however, after addressing the trials and travails of life, he cries out, "A change gonna come, yes it is, yes it is," reflecting a Sam Cooke-like optimism. A similar sense of hope permeates the highly inspirational "Higher Power."
Positivity also flows through Williams' urgent readings of the love songs "Always Be," "Given You Everything," "Feels So Right," "Show Me Yours," "Splashing," and "Remember the Day." All are filled with sensually cascading curlicues, stunning leaps of register, and breathtaking sustains. Shades of Stevie Wonder and Lenny Williams crop up here and there, yet it quickly becomes obvious that Williams is a strikingly original stylist in the classic soul love-man tradition.
Born on July 26, 1983, Williams comes from a family of vocalists. His mother, Gladys Williams, performed in clubs around Baton Rouge with legendary soul R&B singer-pianist Bobby Powell and with blues singer and harmonica blower Raful Neal. Donnie' s father, Eddie McQuarter, is a gospel singer. And the renowned R&B-turned-gospel singer Beau Williams is a cousin.
Williams made his public performing debut at age 11 at Mount Wade Baptist Church in Baton Rouge with a rendition of the Winans' "He Set Me Free," "I didn't even know the words," he admits. "We just faked it and went all the way through it. The congregation loved it. It made me feel good. It kinda gave me that push, and I started getting involved in the musical activities in school."
At school, he and his sister Terrell, who is three years his junior, won first place in a talent show singing Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston's "Something in Common." "The trophy was huge," he recalls.
He made his nightclub debut at age 15 singing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" at Raful Neal's blues bar in Baton Rouge. "The place went crazy," he says. "That feeling made me know that this is what I wanna do. I just liked the feeling of everybody enjoying my music."
Before relocating to the Bay Area city of Livermore in 2000 with his mother and his four siblings, Williams made his recording debut singing hooks on a CD by the Baton Rouge hip-hop group Smoke Click. In Oakland, he did likewise for the hip-hop crew Big Bang Theory, with whom he performed locally, including opening a show for E-40.
Williams was lubing cars at Wal-Mart in Livermore in 2004 when two coworkers overheard him crooning as he worked and suggested he try out of for American Idol. One even offered to drive him to Pasadena for the audition. They arrived on a Thursday, and Williams sang "A Song for You" on Saturday for judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson.
"You're better than all the people we have heard throughout all the seasons,"' Williams recalls Jackson telling him. Even Cowell's take on his singing was positive, and Williams was put through to Hollywood.
Williams made it into the top 32, along with Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, and his friend LaToya London, and seemed a sure shot for the top 12. But one night before he was slated to return to Hollywood for the next segment of the reality show, he was invited to a celebratory party thrown by friends. He had too much to drink and was arrested on the way home for driving under the influence. News of the arrest traveled fast, and the producers of American Idol kicked him off the show and replaced him with George Huff.
Williams was devastated. "I didn’t even go to work for a couple days," he explains. "My girlfriend at the time and my family and my friends really pulled me through it."
The singer quit drinking. His sobriety is reflected in the ballad "Higher Power" on Just Like Magic and particularly in the anti-substance abuse message of the video for the song. "The lyrics have helped give me guidance to stay focused," he says.
Williams credits Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway as influences and also includes gospel singers Marvin Winans and Dorinda Clark-Cole among his favorites.
"Coming up, singing in church and in school, people used to tell me I sounded like Donny Hathaway," Williams says. "I was like, 'Who's Donny Hathaway?' I'd never really heard him. I'd heard 'Where Is the Love,' but I thought that was Stevie Wonder singing with Roberta Flack
"When I learned that Stevie was influenced by Donny Hathaway, I was like, 'Oh, OK.' I could even hear it in Stevie's voice. In the beginning, he was straight Stevie. Then he went to 'All in Love Is Fair.' He started holding that note and using vibrato like Hathaway."
Like Hathaway, Williams integrates his natural tenor tones and his high falsetto in an effortless manner. It took him years of practice to perfect the technique.
"My mom used to teach me," he says, "''Whenever you don't think you can get something, just keep doing it over and over.'"
Donnie took his mother's advice, and now, with the release of Just Like Magic, his astonishing vocal prowess is on display for all the world to savor.