On 5 August 1986 New York City stopped to say goodbye. Throngs amassed, in "a spontaneous and unforgettable tribute,"* outside Riverside Chapel, on Manhattan's West. Inside, a memorial service was underway.
Among the mourners were taxi drivers and sanitation workers; bookies and hash slingers; singers and songwriters; hackers and musicians; politicians and homemakers from Queens. The young and the old were stood outside the chapel. Fire fighters, cops and EMTs, that would rescue thousands on 9/11 and many who'd die trying. The Rockettes, from Radio, were there, too. The crowd was a slice of New York City residents.
Two days earlier, radio stations across North America broke into programming to report the long-time host of "Make Believe Ballroom" had passed away. That night, the lead story on every New York television station was of the passing of a man who played records for a living and made millions of lives better.
His passing was front-page news in the New York "Times." All New York City papers had in-depth coverage; elsewhere wire services sourced the event. All would know, all should know: Williams B Williams had passed away.
Why did the busiest city in the world the hub of the world stop to praise and show appreciation for a man who spent forty-two years sitting in a cubby hole radio studio playing records, and talking about singers and musicians? What made thousands of New Yorkers, supposedly cold and impersonal, leave their jobs and homes for an hour or two to jam the area around Riverside Chapel? So many people attended, they packed six square blocks. Why was this man so important to so many New Yorkers?
Born William Breitbard on 6 August 1923, in Babylon, New York, William B. Williams attended the University of Syracuse and began his radio career on WAAT-AM in Newark, New Jersey. The first job came along, as it did for many, "filling in for a deejay who had failed to show up for work." In a few weeks, having the audacity to wear red socks to work got him fired.
"Maybe the station owner linked red socks to the 'Red Scare,' of the day, a fear of Communistis," says Shaun Eli, the comedian and nephew of William B Williams. "Maybe he violated the station dress code, in the extreme." Whatever the cause, looking back, from 2014, it was an unusual event, fired for wearing red socks.
Williams quickly found another job, at WNEW-AM, in New York City ("Variety", 6 August 1986: 93). He stayed at WNEW-AM for all but four of the next 42 years.That's some kind of radio record for employment.
In 1959, Williams inherited "Make Believe Ballroom" from Art Ford. Ford had taken over when Martin Block left WNEW-AM for WABC-AM. WNEW-AM dropped "Make Believe Ballroom" in 1972, but revived it 1979; again, Williams was at the helm (Billboard, 16 August 1986: 10). In an editorial aired on WVOX-AM and WRTN-FM, Bill O'Shaughnessy called, "Make Believe Ballroom," "an oasis of style and taste" and William B., "an icon, properly restored." The show continued until he passed away in 1986. Hard to believe it was 20 years ago.
“Willie B taught me everything I needed to know about being [on radio],” says Dick Summer, podcaster and radio legend. “One time, Willie B interviewed Vic Damone. Vic was talking, passionately, about a charity with which he was involved. Willie let him talk. Then, quietly, Willie B said, ‘You know, I like you.’
“The comment stunned me; so simple and honest. Thinking about it, all these years later, I still get the chills. Now, I realize why. Willie was talking to Vic, but he included me, Dick Summer, the kid, with big ears, from 61st Street, in Brooklyn. I was hanging out with Willie and Vic.
"Willie’s voice put an arm around you. He gave you a pat on the back. He gave you a play punch on the shoulder.”
“Williams was classy, bright and smooth,” says Dick Carr, one-time factotum at WNEW-AM and a long-time fan. “His humour was dry; his passion for the music and artists deep.”
“Williams’ voice,” Carr says, “was horse or husky; maybe a bit guttural.ï¿½ “The voice, of Willie B, was that way because Willie B was that way,” says Dick Summer. “He was strong, self-confident and undeniable."
Confidence was the most durable trait of Williams. "Unassailable," says Dick Summer, "he presented in a compelling way. He knew he was the best at what he was doing, but never made a big deal of it.”
“I first heard Williams about 1945,” says Dick Carr. “I was in primary school. He did AM Drive on WOV-AM, 1280, in New York City. Something about Williams stuck, even though I was, maybe, twelve years old.”
William B. Williams respected singers and songwriters, music and musicians, and it showed. He had a permanent, perhaps profound, effect on the lexicon of pop music.
William B. Williams, Edie Gorme and Patti Page
He bestowed the "Count" on Basie and the "Duke" on Ellington. Billie Holiday was "Lady Day."Ella Fitzgerald was the "First Lady of Song."Louis Armstrong was "Pops."Sinatra was "Francis Albert," the "Chairman of the Board."Nat "King" Cole was simply "Nathaniel." Mighy William B. have talked the "Chairman" into recording "Two Shot of Happy, One Shot of Sad"?
O'Shaughnessy views Williams as "sui generis". He was "unique and able to be defined only in his own terms." For more than 40 years and 12,000 broadcasts, he was "poet and bard." William B. was a "pre-eminent spokesman for the charms and attributes" of a popular music "filled with sweetness and gentleness and love." The words and the music were an "exquisite product of creative minds and hearts." Nightly, William B. confirmed, "good taste knows no age or season."
A quiet, shy man, Williams brought elegance, dignity, integrity and grace to everything he did. Whether it was playing records or hosting New York segments of the "Jerry Lewis Telethon," William B. was comfortable with everyone, and all with him. His friends were show business people, cab drivers, waiters and priests. He was "unfailingly generous with advice and counsel to aspiring broadcasters," says O'Shaughnessy. He squandered his name, talent and reputation across a thousand nights as the master of ceremonies of countless banquets and charity events.
Frank Sinatra said Williams was "simply the most generous man I know." George Maksian, of the New York Post, called Williams "a class act," in everything he did and the way he lived. He was a performer and entertainer who could not resist involving himself in the world. When Martin Luther King walked those desperate, dusty roads in Selma in the early 60's," William B. walked with him.
Williams did not preach or pontificate. When a situation called for it, he spoke "movingly about injustice or those occasions when we were less than kind and loving to one another." What was left unsaid was often the most eloquent and, perhaps, most cogent. There was no "idle or meaningless chatter." Williams respected his listeners. He understood they were thinking human beings with likes and dislikes; spouses and children; beliefs, opinions and attitudes, and above all feelings, which were too often hidden, but always vulnerable.
Thousands jammed the area around Riverside Chapel that August day to pay last respects to William B. Williams. It was not for his rating points, which were high. It was not for the honours bestowed on him during life, which were many. It was not for the monies generated for charity, which were millions. Nor was it for the sales generated for advertisers, which were tens of millions. Rather, as O'Shaughnessy says, it was because of his "contributions to the human spirit for the quiet grace, dignity and style" he brought to radio and the job of playing records. This is what compelled taxi drivers, politicians, bookies, cops, sanitation workers and "Rockettes" to gather spontaneously. William B. Williams was a professional, his greatest reward was knowing he did best by everyone, singer, musician and listener.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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