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10/25/1998
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These tunes burn when this fiddler fiddles
By Loretta Shea Kline
Catholic Key Reporter

fiddler.JPG
Loretta Shea Kline/Key photo
Claude Williams performs the song 'You've Got to See Your Mama Ev'ry Night Or You Can't See Mama At All,' on his fiddle.
KANSAS CITY - You've got to see your mama ev'ry night or you can't see mama at all.
You've got to see your mama, treat her right or she won't be at home when you call.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, show me a woman that a man can trust.
You've got to see your mama ev'ry night or you can't see your mama at all.

It was the first song that 90-year-old jazz violinist Claude "Fiddler" Williams learned to play, and he still loves it. So does his wife of nearly seven years, Blanche Williams. (The couple are members of St. Louis Parish in Kansas City.)

"That knocks me out," Blanche Williams said after her husband performed the song for a reporter. "I love that."

And a lot of fans besides his wife are loving the music of Claude Williams. After more than seven decades of performing around the world, he is at the height of his popularity in the United States, and continues to be a favorite in Europe, where he is more well known. (The song "You've Got to See Your Mama" is on Fiddler's 1995 CD, "Swing Time in New York." His most recent CD is "King of Kansas City," which came out last year.)

Williams was one of 15 artists honored Oct. 6 with a National Heritage Fellowship, which is given by the National Endowment for the Arts to performers in folk and traditional arts who "embody the spirit of America's living cultural heritage," the arts organization said. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Williams with the award in a ceremony at the White House.

"It is a wonderful honor," Williams told The Catholic Key.

The East Room ceremony marked the second time Williams has visited the White House in recent months. In March, he performed for President Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton as part of a string trio in the show "Savion Glover - Stomp, Slide and Swing in the White House." The show aired locally last month on PBS.

Williams, who says he is making more money now than he ever made, is booked through April. Last year, he toured in Japan. A recent "gig" took him to New Orleans, and he is scheduled to play this fall in Germany, France and Denmark.

When he's in town, Williams is a regular at the Kansas City Jazz Museum's Blue Room. He recently played with Eddie Baker's Big Band in a benefit for St. Louis Parish, which is raising funds to renovate the Upper Room of the church for a youth center. But he won't take a local gig unless it's after noon, when his soap opera, "The Young and the Restless," goes off the air, his wife said.

Jazz violinists are a rarity, and fans appreciate the fact that Williams is playing "as well, if not better, than he ever has," Blanche Williams said. Although her husband would never say that, she said.

"Don't get me wrong, he does have an ego," Blanche Williams said. "But he rarely pats himself on the back."

Williams began playing music around the age of 8 with his brother-in-law in Muskogee, Okla.

His brother-in-law was "one of those fellows, whatever he picked up, he could play it," Williams recalled.

And when his brother-in-law put down his guitar, young Claude would pick it up.

"My brother-in-law told my mama that I should know something about music," Williams said. "So he found me a teacher."

By age 10, Williams was playing the guitar, mandolin, banjo and cello. He got interested in the violin after hearing Joe Venuti play at an outdoor pavilion. Williams heard Venuti's violin "above the orchestra, on top of all the other instruments," and told his mother, "That's what I want to play," he recalled.

The family got him a fiddle the next day. By the time he went to bed that night, he was playing "You've Got to See Your Mama Ev'ry Night Or You Can't See Mama at All."

Williams got his first paying work with his brother-in-law's string band, playing in barber shops, hotels and front yards. He made $6 to $7 a night in tips at a time when people worked all week to earn that much.

Williams moved to Kansas City in 1928 when it was a hot-bed for swing music, and "jumped" with various bands to New York and Chicago among other cities. He played with bands including The Pettifords Band, Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, Nat King Cole's trio and the Count Basie Band. He developed his trademark horn-like sound playing alongside Kansas City reed and brass musicians such as Charlie Parker and Lester Young.

In the 1980s, Williams played in the Paris production of the musical revue "Black and Blue," followed by an award-winning run on Broadway. The show brought him acclaim in the U.S.

Since 1990, Williams, the first inductee into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, has played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and at President Clinton's first inaugural. He has also toured Australia, released three CDs, played at festivals around the world and garnered numerous music awards.

Williams, the youngest of six whose mother was Baptist and father Methodist, joined the Catholic Church in 1932, the same year he had to leave Kirk's band after suffering a rheumatic stroke. His wife of many years, the late Mabel Williams, was Catholic, and was the one who introduced him to the faith, he said. The two had one son, Michael.

Williams said the Catholic faith has been an important part of his life. "I feel like everybody should have a spiritual belief," he said.

Williams met his second wife, Blanche, at St. Louis Church after Mass one Sunday morning, she recalled.

"He asked me if he hadn't seen me just a few hours earlier at one of the after-hours clubs, and he had," said Blanche Williams, who added that wherever jazz was, she was. "You teased me about just coming out of that club," she said, addressing her husband. "I said, 'Well, you were there, too.' And we laughed about it."

Blanche Williams works part time for the parish as office manager. But much of her time is spent helping her husband keep track of his busy schedule.

And he doesn't plan on slowing down any time soon.


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