Lee Williams

Lee Williams

Gospel singer Lee Williams’s death at 75 was hardly noticed in the mainstream press. But the Black gospel community — radio DJs, fellow artists, and everyday fans — rushed to pay their deep respects to a singer who, along with his group the Spiritual QC’s, almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of the traditional gospel quartet in the 1990s.

Williams was a native and resident of Tupelo, Mississippi. His death was announced via his gospel group’s Facebook page on Monday, Aug. 30. 

A public walk-through viewing for Williams is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, at the St. Paul Christian Life Center in Tupelo. The city of Tupelo will sponsor a memorial service in Williams’ honor at Gumtree Park at 4 p.m.

On Sunday, Sept. 12, a homecoming celebration will take place at the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo. The event will include a second public walk-through viewing from 10:30 a.m. until noon, followed by a service at 1 p.m.

At their height, the QC’s were a dominant live attraction in the quartet field, often found near the top of the Billboard gospel charts. The group racked up 10 Stellar Awards, gospel’s equivalent of the Grammys. But Williams’ seemingly overnight success was three decades in the making.

The group, organized by Williams’ uncle, Mitchell Thornton, started up in the early 1960s. Like its predecessor, the Gospel Stars, the QC’s were at first a family affair. But members eventually came and went.

In the early ’70s, the group made a trio of 45’s for the Designer label. Many of that prolific record company’s releases featured gospel groups who paid for these sessions. The idea was to have a product that could be sold at live programs, a common practice in the gospel recording field at the time.

The songs didn’t make much noise — they can’t even be found on YouTube these days. (Williams wrote one of the B sides.) The group’s featured singer then was member Willie Ligon. These releases were followed by a long recording drought: the group continued to perform on the weekends while Williams drove a truck for a living.

In the mid-’90s, the group cut a release produced by George Dean of the Gospel Four. According to gospel historian Bob Marovich, that led to the group garnering airplay on Memphis’s hallowed WDIA-AM, which led to a deal with MCG Records. The resulting album, Love Will Go All the Way, skyrocketed up the charts at a time when the harder quartet style had been largely usurped in popularity and radio airplay by more contemporary gospel sounds.

During this period, Kirk Franklin was wearing casual clothes and sampling P-Funk; in contrast, the Spiritual QC’s wore formal tuxedos on their album covers and sang songs like “I Can’t Give Up,” a slow, firm testimonial that stretched out to 12 minutes when performed live. Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s were the biggest thing to happen to traditional gospel since the emergence of the Canton Spirituals, who two decades earlier had lifted the quartet tide.

A household name in many Black American homes, Williams had little need for the kind of crossover project that can earn a gospel act attention from the secular music media. The latter returned the indifference, ignoring Williams and his group’s success, aside from a CD review on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in the late ’90s and a few references to a single track the group cut for a gospel tribute to Bob Dylan.

In the meantime, Williams was given the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award by the Stellar Awards and a Mississippi Trailblazer Award by his home state.

Noah Schaffer profiles unheralded musicians from the worlds of Gospel, Jazz, Blues and other genres. This article originally was published at artsfuse.org.

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