As told to Hasan James
As the lead vocalist of the seventies group, Tower of Power, Lenny Williams became a household name. As a solo at thereafter, Lenny became a bonafide superstar due in part to a song that would literally change his life forever and also change the landscape of soul music as we know it. ”Cause I Love You”…
Root: It’s a pleasure to speak with you. You’re a legend.
Lenny Williams: Okay, I’m gonna tell my wife that to see if I get a little more respect around the house.
Root: [Laughs] Yeah, no matter what you do in life, to the wife you’re just husband or Lenny.
Lenny Williams: Yeah, I’m just Leonard Charles Williams so…she pushes me around but I’m gonna assert my independence one of these days.
Root: There you go…[Laughs]
Lenny Williams: What’s going on young man?
Root: Everything is good, just happy to be speaking with you so I’m ready to rock and roll.
Lenny Williams: Okay now where are you located?
Root: I’m from New York, but I’m located now in Pennsylvania; like 20 minutes from Philadelphia and 20 minutes from New Jersey.
Lenny Williams: Okay, cool.
Root: First, we are a gospel publication, however we do a lot of interviews with a lot of people who have gotten their start in gospel and have switched over to R&B, but still have their gospel roots and I know you are one of those people. First, tell us about your gospel roots with Andrea Crouch and the Hawkins family. Tell us about that connection in the beginning of your career.
Lenny Williams: I was born actually in Arkansas and I came to California when I was 14-months old and my parents started going to a Baptist Church where we had a great choir. We used to have choir competitions and I was in the choir. I basically was kind of shy and up until I was 14 or 15 years old, I just sang in the choir, never lead any songs or anything like that. When I was about 16, a friend of mine was going to this church, so he invited me to come over there. So then I started going over there and I started hanging out with Walter and Edwin (Hawkins) and Andrea and others would come from Los Angeles up to Oakland and the Sly Stone family and the Stewart family as well. It’s kind of like everybody either had their own group, band or was a solo act.
I was a young preacher, as a matter of fact, I started preaching when I was around 16 years old and I concentrated more on preaching and I would only sing when I was getting up to preach. When I went to college, I met another preacher’s son and started hanging out with him and that was Huey Newton, the founder of The Black Panther Party. The church was so restricted, especially the C.O.G.I.C. church at that time, so I decided to get involved politically and stopped preaching altogether. During that time in the 1960’s, everybody was talking about the KKK and all those people were running around talking about Jesus and the cross is was their symbol, so I had a conflict and I stopped preaching but deep down inside I knew that God had given me a gift with my voice, so that’s when I decided I was going to really start singing so that I wouldn’t lose my talent.
Root: Artists like Kane West, Jay-Z, Young Jeezy and others have sampled your music. That kind of keeps your music alive even 30 to 40 years later. Are you a fan of Hip-Hop?
Lenny Williams: Yes. I love Hip Hop! Money B from Digital Underground just so happens to be my cousin so I definitely love Tupac and al of those guys. I’m a family friend of Snoop’s family, his mom Beverly and his aunt Gayle. You know I’m from Oakland so I love Too Short and all them…
Root: And MC Hammer?
Lenny Williams: Hammer is my friend. I would read Hammer’s contracts for him early on when he was just getting started and I would give him some advice regarding the business. When Hammer started out he actually started out in gospel rap group, him and a guy by the name of Darrell Harris called themselves The Holy Ghost Boys. He was trying to make that happen and then that didn’t happen, so I know Hammer and I know he is a very spiritual person. When I met Hammer he was reading Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” and then he had an older Mercedes Benz and he kept it clean and shined up all the time. Hammer should put some of that stuff out there no. He was kind of like at the forefront of gospel rap scene.
Root: Considering we are talking about contracts and such, is all of your business in tact? Are you receiving all of the proper royalties?
Lenny Williams: Interestingly enough, I was with Larry Graham just the other day for the funeral services for his aunt and I had to give him a big hug and thank him because if it weren’t for me being at Larry’s house at the right time, I would not be where I am financially. One night Larry was having a big party and I did not feel like partying so I went up to one of the bedrooms and fell asleep. When I woke up about 5:00 in the morning, there was this white girl in the bed next to me, but instead of being carnal and thinking about the flesh, we started talking and she was like “I heard you’re a great singer” and I was like “That’s what they tell me” and she was like “Well do you write?” When I told her that I write, she asked me if I owned my own publishing and I told her that I did not. I’m thinking publishing was some big building on the Avenues of America in New York (Laughter). She was like “You can own your own publishing company for $25.” The next thing you know I had my own publishing because of the conversation I had with the young lady at Larry’s house. Who would have thought that hanging out at Larry’s house would have been a blessing for me over the years? I told Larry “I need to come and spend a week with you, never can tell what might happen this time.” But that’s how I learned about publishing, so whenever people do my songs or it gets played on the radio, I get money for it. It’s so many different streams of revenue now, the way the money comes in, it’s like I make more money on those songs now then I did when I recorded them 40-years ago.
Root: Everyone knows about the TV One series “Unsung” and I’ve always wondered if you were ever asked to be on there.
Lenny Williams: I was watching “Unsung” last night and they had Sly Stone on, so they called me up to do the Sly Stone thing but my schedule was conflicting. They even had somebody come up here, but every time we could get it together I just couldn’t make it. One day they finally reached me and I was on the phone with them one night, I think it was about 9:00pm in the evening, and then my wife woke up about 4:00 am and I was still on the phone with one of the producers. We just talked and we went through my whole life and he kept trying to find something scandalous. I never was homeless; I never was a drug addict, I’ve never been to jail for beating my wife, girlfriends, nothing. I own my publishing so I didn’t get raped in the music business so to speak; therefore there ain’t no dirt. So they come looking for something a little scandalous, and I’m not saying I’ve never done anything scandalous, but the little stuff I did I ain’t telling; that’s between me and God.
Root: So they wanted a little more juice is what you are saying?
Lenny Williams: Yeah, they wanted something a little juicier, and I was like well it’s a little juice there but it ain’t that much. Me and the guy actually talked for a couple of weeks and he just wanted to sell my story but he was like it’s not a lot of grief and horror there so the jury is still out as whether that’s going to happen or not. But he was like “Well tell me something Lenny…” I done told you everything I did.
Root: [Laughs] That’s funny.
Lenny Williams: [Laughs] I can make something up now, I am a writer.
Root: So you will be performing at the Hoodie Awards this year with Steve Harvey.
Lenny Williams: I am! I’m hanging out with Steve Harvey, that’s my boy.
Root: Steve is actually one of the people who made your song, “Cause I Love You”, popular again from the Kings of Comedy Tour.
Lenny Williams: Most definitely, you’re right; every time I see him I have to give him a big ole hug. I told him he ought to claim me on his income tax; I’m older than him but he like my dad or something, he shined a light on me. It’s just interesting how God can use somebody to be a blessing to you and Steve was definitely a blessing to me and I will always be indebted to him. I was at the Hoodie Awards a couple years ago, so they want me to come back so I will there on August 4th doing my thing.
Root: You have been touring all around the world with your music. How do other cultures react to your music?
Lenny Williams: They love it. It’s interesting because R&B music is respected and loved all around the world; people just love it. The melodies are so great and a lot of times they may not necessarily understand the lyrics but they understand the melody and the passion of the music. Hip Hop music over there is huge in other countries also so we’re very fortunate from that perspective that I’m used because the music of black Americans is accepted worldwide.