Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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VIOLA WILLS: 1939-2009

Viola Wills 1939-2009
Viola Wills 1939-2009 Viola Wills 1939-2009 Viola Wills 1939-2009 Viola Wills & Sharon Davis

We first met at an exclusive champagne reception in one of London’s finest nightclubs during the time when she was enjoying the aftermath of her first major British hit 'Gonna Get Along Without You Now' in 1979.

Why we should be in this nightclub escapes me but I do recall we had a fabulous time sipping champagne and gossiping. Or perhaps it was the other way round. We later met to talk more but our paths didn’t cross again I’m afraid. Nonetheless, it came as a bolt of sadness to read that Viola Wills passed away on 6 May following a long battle against leukaemia. She was 69 years old.

Vi was living alone in London at the time of the single’s release, with no family but a loyal contingent of friends around her for company. She loathed being by herself she told me but “I’ve got a lot of men friends to whom I can relate. I rely on everybody because I’ve never been independent. Most of my friends put up with me, and I’d die if I couldn’t depend on them.”

Let’s back track awhile. Viola Mae Wilkerson was born in December 1939 in the Watts district, Los Angeles, and at eight years old won a song contest hosted by the Federation of Baptist Churches. This led to a scholarship to the Conservatory of Music, Los Angeles, where she studied the piano. Her real ambition was to be a lawyer but, unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for her. She married as a teenager and had six children, but secretly longed to escape her lifestyle. She turned to singing because it came easy to her. Her cousin, Esther Ray Potts, invited her to provided support vocals for a recording session which linked her up with Barry White before he was a successful artist. At the time, he was head of A&R for Bob Keane’s Bronco/Mustang Records and signed Vi as a solo artist, changing her surname to Wills. While there she recorded several titles like 'Together Forever', 'I’ve Got To Have All Of You' and 'You’re Out Of My Mind' in 1967, but none took off, although during the seventies one of her songs 'Lost Without The Love Of My Guy' was sampled for a track on Barry White’s Love Unlimited album 'In Heat'. When Barry and Vi split up, she recorded unsuccessfully for the BEM Soul label. Nonetheless, via a licensing deal with President, her material was available over here including a Northern Soul favourite 'The First Time'. Later on, Gloria Jones came into her life. "She was a producer at Motown, as well as a singer and songwriter, and she’d had a really big hit with Gladys Knight. At the time she was organising some singers for Joe and I happened to be around. Joe liked us and we just started recording there and then. I replaced Claudia Linnear and we became the Sanctified Sisters – Gloria, Beverley Gardner, Virginia Ayers and myself. We were a gospelly sort of group … and because Joe was that sort of singer he gave us scope. He sang gospel and blues which is why the combination worked out so nicely.” As the Sanctified Sisters they toured Europe with Joe, where Vi was also given a solo spot to perform her version of Aretha Franklin’s 'Do Right Woman' which became a highlight of Joe’s live show. The Sanctified Sisters lasted two years.

While in Europe with Joe Cocker Vi signed a deal with the British company Goodear Records in 1974, the same year she released her solo debut album 'Soft Centers' featuring her self-penned material backed by Joe’s session musicians. Three years later she joined Arista Records, then its subsidiary Hansa where she eventually enjoyed success with her cover of 'Gonna Get Along Without You Now', first recorded by Teresa Brewer, but more successfully sung by the American duo Patience and Prudence during 1956. Vi’s version was an extremely happy go lucky version aimed squarely at the disco/hi-NRG market which passed silver status sales here in October 1979. At one point, the silver disc hung on her bathroom wall because it blended well with the décor. “That single started out as a result of some session work I was doing. If I’d waited longer and stuck to my guns perhaps I’d be doing something different. Maybe not as successful though. That’s the only thing that makes me say it’s good that I did it. When I got the disc I thought to myself it’s an achievement and it shows me that a lot of people liked the record. So it basically represents people.” Her 'Without You' album followed, while her new single was another dance track 'If You Could Read My Mind' which, for some reason, failed to repeat its predecessor’s success, likewise the following 'Up On The Roof'. However, this didn’t deter an album being released in 1980 featuring these titles among the track listing.

Around this time Vi decided to leave London for America where she worked on a music therapy degree, before her version of 'Stormy Weather' hit the top four in the US dance chart in 1982, the year she divorced her first husband to marry Robert Ashmun with whom she formed RVA Records. Her released work here included 'Wall' and 'If These Walls Could Speak'. She also wrote and produced her autobiographical one-woman show 'Willspower'. But the UK beckoned where the resurgence in eighties music was too much for her to resist. She formed her own band with some graduates from Brighton University, to create her own brand of music which she tagged 'Jazzspel' (jazz and gospel). And, during 1986 she charted over here for the last time with the double-sided single 'Both Sides Now'/'Dare To Dream', her own composition built around her favourite saying “aim for the sky and always dare to dream.” The single returned her to the top forty. (In 2008 a remixed version of the latter was issued.) She continued to release singles like 'A House Is Not A Home', 'Love Pains', 'Take One Step Forward' and 'Always Something There To Remind Me', but nothing worked. Nonetheless, she was a regular attraction on the touring circuit, and was feted by the gay scene where she became a huge favourite with audiences. A disco diva for sure.

One aspect of her career that she loathed was being recognised, claiming “Viola Wills” was a monster she had created merely as a means to an end. “Like, the wigs and the whole glamour trip. I thought that was what was needed..then I realised that was a load of bullshit and decided to hell with that plastic trip. People..they can see right through it.” And perhaps rather surprisingly, she also admitted disco music wasn’t for her but that it paid the rent and ensured her name stayed public. “I’m paying my dues now, then perhaps I can do what I wanna do.” Which of course she did!

Viola Wills died in Pheonix, Arizona. She leaves behind six children, 21 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Our thoughts and condolences to them and her whole family. Farewell Vi; you were a great talent and a fun-loving, caring lady. Have a safe journey.

(Quotes: 'Chinwaggin')

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