Musician | Class of 2012
Soul singer Lenny Williams is an influential rhythm and blues (R&B) artist who is best known for his time as the lead singer of funk band Tower of Power in the mid-1970s. He pursued a solo career after he left the band.
Leonard Charles “Lenny” Williams was born on February 6, 1945, in Little Rock, Arkansas; his family later moved to Oakland, California. He learned to play trumpet in elementary school. He started singing in church and considered becoming a minister before deciding to pursue a career in secular R&B.
Williams made connections with Bay Area musicians, the most notable being Sly Stone (who fronted the legendary R&B band Sly and the Family Stone) and Larry Graham, who was Sly and the Family Stone’s bass player. He also knew members of Tower of Power, which was at that time a “blueeyed soul” group called the Motowns. He signed his first record deal with Fantasy Records and recorded two singles: “Lisa’s Gone” and “Feelin’ Blue” (written by John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival fame). He then signed briefly with Atlantic Records.
In 1972, he put his solo career on hold and tried out to become the lead singer for funk group Tower of Power, whose front man Rick Stevens had gone to prison. The group had its heyday during the few years Williams was its lead singer, producing three hit albums: Tower of Power (1973), Back to Oakland (1974), and Urban Renewal (1974), with hit songs such as “So Very Hard to Go,” “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream),” “What is Hip?,” and “This Time It’s Real.”
In 1975, Williams left the band to resume his solo career and recorded a few albums for the Motown label. He then moved to ABC Records in 1977 and recorded several albums. He garnered a number of hits, including “Shoo Doo Fu Ooh,” “Choosing You,” “You Got Me Running,” and “Midnight Girl.” Choosing You (1977) was his first gold LP (selling more than 500,000 copies). In 1986, Williams sang the vocals for “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love” on popular saxophone artist Kenny G’s album Duo Tones.
Williams and his music continue to influence R&B and hip-hop artists in the twenty-first century. His 1978 hit “Cause I Love You” was sampled by Havoc of Mobb Deep for the track “Nothing Like Home,” and by Kanye West for the songs “Overnight Celebrity” by the rapper Twista and “I Got a Love” by Jin. The song was also sampled in 2007 by Scarface for his single “Girl You Know.” Williams’s song “Half Past Love” was sampled by the Coup for their 2006 single “My Favorite Mutiny.” In 2005, he won a BMI Urban Award along with Kanye West and Twista for contributing to “Overnight Celebrity.” In a 2013 interview, Williams—who had three daughters in college at the time—discussed his pleasant surprise at receiving two royalty checks for $94,000 each to pay for music Kanye West/Twista had sampled; he compared it to planting a seed a long time ago and watching it grow into something substantial years later.
Williams made a number of solo albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the twenty-first century, he released It Must Be Love (2007) and Unfinished Business (2009) on his own label, LenTom Entertainment, and he released Still in the Game in 2012. It was announced in February 2017 that he would be inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in Detroit, Michigan.
Williams has been honored for his involvement in the Oakland community. On November 14, 2013, the San Leandro Unified School District and the Keep Music Rockin’ Foundation unveiled the Lenny Williams Music Room at San Leandro High School, with Williams and his wife, Debbie, in attendance at the dedication. The Keep Music Rockin’ Foundation Lenny Williams Golf Classic also raises funds for the foundation, which supports music in schools. Williams is also an ambassador for Lazarex Cancer Foundation.