Getting a driver's license places a lot higher on most teenagers' priority lists than figuring out their vocational future. Not so with Claudia Williams, who was barely into her teens when she began her life's work: using music to praise the Lord. Williams received the Maker's vocational command in 1974, as a young alto in Austin's City-Wide Youth Choir, and it was during a performance in Dallas that the choir's then-Musical Director Ruth Sauls noticed Williams' talent and passed the baton to her.
"She put me on the spot in the middle of the concert and asked me to direct one particular song," remembers Williams.
Until then, Williams had had limited experience leading the youth choir in her church -- Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church -- so this call-up was a significant promotion. Especially for someone who wasn't old enough to drive.
"Right after that concert, I started directing at City-Wide," says Williams. "I was 14 years old at the time."
Given that gospel is primarily vocal music sung by a choir, the director's role is paramount. Not only does the director (Williams prefers "Directress") conduct this singing symphony, she also provides primary input on song selection, decides on singers and musicians, and perhaps most important, shapes the raw mass of voices into a unified whole. To say Williams is well-suited to all these tasks is understatement. She has the gift
A native Austinite, Williams graduated from Huston-Tillotson College with a degree in education and music. Talent came early for her, but she wasn't the only one in the family with expressive gifts. Back in the day, her brother was hired by late, great Texas R&B/funk maestro Joe Tex to dance in his touring shows. Even as "a little bitty girl," Williams would join her parents as they attended choir practice at Mount Olive Baptist Church. She remembers sitting in the front row of the church so her parents could keep an eye on her, soaking it up all the while.
"I learned all the songs," says the animated Directress. "While they rehearsed them, I learned them."
Shortly thereafter, Williams began singing for the youth choir at her mother's home church, Greater Mount Zion Baptist. One evening at the house of prayer, Williams and friends were singing on their own when the Lord revealed His plan for the talented adolescent.
"We were standing around the piano, you know, messing around and singing, and all of the sudden I just started lifting my hands," recounts Williams humbly. "Nothing major, but very clean; I can remember that, very clean."
From that day forward, Williams started honing and nurturing her God-given gifts, getting more calls to direct.
"In 1976, St. James [Baptist Church] wanted me to come over to guest direct a special concert for the Bicentennial," Williams remembers fondly. "You know, St. James! That's big, because this church is known."
Even at such a young age, Williams was so successful at directing that St. James' pastor at the time -- the legendary Rev. E.M. Franklin -- asked her to direct his choir. Since she was so young and St. James was not her home church, it took several months of personal lobbying by the good Rev. Franklin before her parents acquiesced. In September of 1976, at age 16, Williams began as the Minister of Music at St. James, a position she holds today, overseeing all eight (!) of the church's choirs.
September must be a special time for the Directress, for it was during that month in 1981 the Lord guided Williams to found the Voices of Christ, or VOC, now one of the most well-known and highly regarded community choirs in Texas. In contrast to a church choir, which derives its membership from one particular church, community choirs draw from different churches, making competition for quality singers rather tight.
While VOC's membership fluctuates, it typically has around a dozen members: a mixed choir of accomplished sopranos, altos, and tenors backed by drums, bass, keyboards, electric guitar, and the mighty Hammond B-3 organ.
"You can't have church without the Hammond," exclaims Williams.
In 1998, VOC released the powerful Jesus I Love You, a live album highlighted by the galloping bass runs of "Focus on Jesus" and Williams' deeply burnished vocal talents on "In His Own Time." Given the raw emotive caliber of her voice, it's not surprising that Williams likes to listen to Mary J. Blige, who also began singing in the church.
"I like the hoarseness in her voice," she chuckles. "Maybe because it's like mine."
Thanks to her older brothers, Williams got ahold of Papa James Brown's brand new bag of groove while growing up, along with all those Supreme hits by Diana Ross and company, and as an adult has come to enjoy both Janet Jackson and Nancy Wilson. Naturally, though, her primary influences are gospel greats: James Cleveland, Harriet Hardin, Shirley Caesar. She also admires Kenneth Brown and Luke Mercer, both Austinites enriching Houston's gospel talent pool at the enormous Windsor Village United Methodist Church.
Zachary Scott Theatre Musical Director Allen Robertson and Managing Director Dave Steakley were looking for just such vocalists in the fall of 1996 when they were staging The Gospel at Colonus, and once they heard Williams, she was their first choice. At the time, Robertson told the Chronicle, "We saw Voices of Christ ... and we thought it would be foolish not to try to get a talent like Claudia Williams."
"The No. 1 person on our list was Claudia Williams," added Steakley. "She is extraordinary. Our hope was that she would be our choir director. But Claudia is in such demand, and there were just too many concerts for her to be able to join the project."
Austin is hardly the only place that knows and respects Williams and her work, however. Her reputation for excellence landed VOC singing jobs on regional radio and TV commercials, as well as a gig at Lady Bird Johnson's niece's wedding. In the past several years, Williams, the St. James Church Choir, and the Voices of Christ have all won top honors and/or first runner-up awards at the statewide Texas Gospel Announcers Awards. The group has performed all over the country with some of the biggest names in the genre.
Watching Williams direct the St. James Mass Choir on Sundays clearly proves she's doing the Lord's work, and that Austin is indeed lucky she's doing it here. Using animated gestures and facial expressions, Williams conducts the 50-plus singers and musicians with the razor-sharp precision of a drill team. The results are anything but staid and militaristic.
The vocal orchestra flows with the grace and power of a flock of eagles. All the singers keep their eyes on the Directress, because at any moment she might call an audible and point the music in other direction, repeat the chorus, or move the entire song up one key for an intensifying effect.
"When I first heard Claudia direct, I was really impressed with the quality of the music," remarks William Petty, a local singer and multi-instrumentalist who sang with Williams in the mid-Eighties. "At the time, I had been a church musician all my life, and when I noticed Claudia, who had so much skill doing what she does, I thought she raised the bar."
"Claudia Williams is one the most outstanding directors this side of Heaven," says Bill "the Mailman" Martin, who's heard his share of good gospel. "Her usual style of directing is majestic as well as powerful."
Williams has also performed with Mount Sinai choirmaster Chester Baldwin, who will help celebrate the Mailman's accomplishments at Texas Folklife Resources' "A Joyful Noise" concert this Saturday at the Paramount Theatre. Williams and Baldwin teamed for a series of concerts last fall in Chicago, where the latter's national hit "God Is Good" was heard everywhere.
"'God Is Good' is a traditional, down-home, rocking, Sunday-morning song," says Williams. "It catches you. Something just comes over your face. Chester is doing a wonderful job, and I'm just more than delighted that he lets me tag along to help him out."
A number of transitions lie ahead in Williams' future. This September, VOC celebrates their 20th anniversary, at which time the Directress will have to chart the group's future. Simultaneously, St. James is growing so rapidly that it's expanding for the second time in as many decades, perhaps providing Williams a full-time paying position. Whatever the Lord's plans, Williams is characteristically humble.
"I just think the Lord has blessed me here at St. James," she smiles.
There's a notion that people are called to particular vocational endeavors in part because they've been given the tools to help them succeed. This is unmistakably the case for the tireless Williams, who in addition to being minister of music at St. James and director of the Voices of Christ, holds down another full-time job with the U.S. Postal Service.
Austin is blessed to have Claudia Williams, for the Directress is one of the best gospel musicians around. Period. And in using the gifts the Maker has bestowed upon her, Williams embodies one of her grandfather's favorite sayings: "Do the best you can, while you can, for only what you do for Christ will last."
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