It’s funny how much an album cover matters. In the world of the digital download, the cover of an old LP found at a junk store can make an enormous impact. I stumbled across a record like this a couple years ago, a gorgeous Pedro Bell-style album cover featuring a giant purple hand on the front with a spider’s face replacing the middle finger and doodles of everything from helicopters to rhinoceroses on the back. I dug deep into my pockets and coughed up the 50 cents that the storeowner was asking and promptly dumped the LP in one of the many milk crates that litter my apartment.
Months later organizing my records (It’s not habit-forming, I promise, I can quit anytime I want), I found that same record and put it on the platter for the same reason that I bought it. Bracing myself for disappointment, I watched robot arm of the needle hit the wax and was immediately captivated. Tighter than tight drums punch in a funky groove and a bass that could only be played by Ed Watkins sounds so purposeful it’s hard to listen to anything else. And those horns. Those fucking horns come in like Memphis in 1965. Meanwhile, the singer sounds like Stevie Wonder would have if the eighties had never hit. The voice has got all the controlled openness and generosity of emotion that so many people try and fail to imitate.
Turns out the record is called Gone and it’s by a guy named Jerry Williams. A quick background search shows that Williams had been playing for a long time before Gone came out. At the tender age of sixteen he began his career by playing rhythm guitar for Little Richard, where the lead guitar player, one Jimmy James (who would soon change his last name to Hendrix) served as a mentor and advisor. After the authorities found out about his age, Williams was forced to leave the Little Richard tour and founded his own band, the Top Beats. When the Top Beats were less than successful and a solo record failed, Williams spent a few years working at a dairy farm. It would be nearly five years before he tried again.
In 1979 Williams released Gone and it is aptly named. Serious disagreements with Warner Brothers immediately after its release meant that the recording would never be as widely accepted as Williams had hoped. Today Gone is virtually unknown. Even so, one glance at the credits and it’s obvious that the cuts were made in the promotion, not the production. The liner notes could serve as a who’s who of late seventies session musicians, not to mention the historic figures. It’s the only album that both of the great pioneers of electric bass, James Jamerson and Donald “Duck” Dunn, appear on together. But even with all of these big names, Gone still sounds like one voice. There’s a continuity that flows between all of the songs, even the ones not penned by Williams himself. This is about as close to perfect as you can get and still have enough flaws to be human.
Records like this one are what make those milk crates in my apartment important. That urge to search junk stores can’t be just a twisted obsession if discoveries like Gone can come from it. And I can honestly say that just this once, I’m glad that I judged a book by its cover.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org