Skip to main content

Williams, Claude (Claude "Fiddler" Williams), 1908-2004



  • Existence: February 2, 1908 - April 15, 2004


Claude "Fiddler" Williams (22 February 1908 - 25 April 2004), violinist and guitarist, was born Claude Gabriel Williams in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the son of Lee J. Williams, a blacksmith, and Laura Williams, home maker. The youngest of six children, Williams learned to play piano, guitar and four string mandolin from his brother-in-law Ben Johnson. He picked up the violin at age 8 or 9 after hearing Joe Venuti. After becoming proficient on violin, Williams joined his brother-in-law's string band. The band traveled by train on a circuit between Muskogee, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City. The band performed ragtime, popular standards and blues for tips in barbershops, hotels, and on the street.

In 1927 Williams joined T. Holder's Dark Clouds of Joy at the Louvre Ballroom in Tulsa. The band alternated between Tulsa and Oklahoma City playing jitney dances, so called because management gave away a car, commonly referred to as a jitney, as a door prize on Saturday nights. Williams modeled his big tone after the reed and brass sections. A strong soloist, he improvised off song changes.

In December 1928 Andy Kirk took over the band after an irregularity with the payroll and shortened the name to the Clouds of Joy. In July 1929 the band opened at the Pla-Mor Ballroom in Kansas City, a wide-open entertainment mecca for the Midwest. Kirk moved the band's headquarters to Kansas City and established a regional circuit. In January 1930 the band replaced the Fletcher Henderson band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Williams resisted Kirk's repeated request to set aside his violin and concentrate on playing guitar with the rhythm section. When Williams fell ill while on the road, the band left him behind.

Back in Kansas City, Williams worked for a year with a small ensemble at a taxi dance hall. After a short stint with the Chick Stevens band in Peoria, Illinois, Williams joined the Eddie Cole band, featuring Nat Cole, in Chicago. A top local pianist with a stutter, Cole had yet to discover he could sing. Williams left the band when work became scarce during a southern tour and returned to Chicago.

In early fall 1936 Count Basie sent for Williams to join the Barons of Rhythm at the Reno Club in Kansas City. With the support of John Hammond and the Willard Alexander Agency, Basie expanded the band to 14 pieces for a tour to New York. Lacking suitable arrangements, the band got off to a rough start. The band arrived in New York to mixed reviews. George Simon in his "Dance Band Reviews" column in Metronome February 1937 tempered his criticism of the band's debut in New York by praising Williams' "good hot fiddle passages." Nevertheless, at the urging of Hammond, Basie let Williams go for guitarist Freddie Green, a steady rhythm player, during an engagement at the Hotel William Penn in Pittsburgh.

Williams returned to Kansas City and formed the Three Swing Men of Swing, a string trio that opened at Lucille's Paradise, a popular club on 18th Street. In 1938, Williams moved to Flint, Michigan, and joined a WPA band. During World War II, Williams worked a day job welding tanks before being inducted into the service in 1944. Discharged after nine months of service, he returned to Chicago where he worked with the Four Shades of Rhythm and guitarist Austin Powell, the former leader of the Cats and the Fiddle.

After being stranded in New York, Williams left Powell and traveled to the west coast where he replaced the guitarist in Roy Milton's Solid Senders. Williams easily mastered the electric guitar and adapted to the band's orchestral style of rhythm and blues. The Milton band toured widely up the west coast and across the Midwest. Williams left the group in Wichita and returned to Kansas City.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Williams worked mainly in Kansas City, playing the Blue Room, Orchid Room, Fandango and other small night clubs. Williams, doubling on guitar and violin, employed organist Charles Kynard, alto saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and other top players. In the late 1960s, when work became scarce in Kansas City, Williams freelanced in Los Angeles.

In the early 1970s, Williams teamed up with pianist Jay McShann and toured the Midwest. Although the two hailed from Muskogee and came of age musically in territorial bands, they previously had little opportunity to work together. Williams' fluid phrasing complemented McShann's boogie woogie and barrelhouse piano style. In 1972, McShann recorded the Man From Muskogee for the Sackville label. The recording prominently featured Williams, giving his career a boost. The next year McShann and Williams appeared at Newport in New York at Lincoln Center. They worked regularly together throughout the 1970s, touring Europe and recording prolifically. Williams and McShann went their separate ways in 1979.

In 1984, Williams joined the cast of the revue Black and Blue in Paris. Originally booked for a six week run, the revue that celebrated the legendary Cotton Club ran for eight months. Williams left the revue before it opened on Broadway and returned to Kansas City to care for his ailing wife.

Williams enjoyed critical acclaim during the last two decades of his career. In 1985, he was the subject of the documentary Fiddler's Dream. In 1989, he became one of the first inductees into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1990, he was featured with Dr. Billy Taylor on CBS News Sunday Morning. Williams played for President Clinton's first inaugural; then returned in 1998 for an encore performance in the East Room. He played a regular circuit of jazz festivals, conducted clinics, recorded numerous albums, and toured internationally well into his 90s.

Throughout a career that spanned the history of jazz, Williams refused to compromise and put down his violin and blend into the rhythm section. By virtue of his perseverance in the face of adversity, longevity, and devotion to his instrument, Williams enjoyed a great deal of well-deserved acclaim in the twilight of his career.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Claude "Fiddler" Williams Collection

Identifier: MS-0147
Scope and Contents The Claude “Fiddler” Williams Collection was gifted to UMKC Libraries in January 2009 by Blanche Fouse Williams, widow of Claude Williams. Inclusive dates are circa 1960s-2008, with the bulk of the collection dating from 1989-2004, the year of his death.The manuscript materials include correspondence; contracts; numerous awards; event programs; posters; news clippings; photographs; and miscellaneous ephemera and memorabilia. In particular, the correspondence, awards and various...
Dates: 1960 - 2019