Tomar Williams Hones Four Decades of Soul
Breakout of his family band, the performer seizes on his pop, soul, R&B, and hip-hop successes and failures in Tomar & the FCs
Tomar Williams is as much a preacher as he is a singer, which is to say he has the unique ability to meet each person where they stand, while still connecting to the crowd as a whole.
The dynamic namesake of Tomar & the FCs certainly looks the part in his throwback cotton button-up with high-waisted pleats. Onstage, he points at the camera with a foot propped up on the front speaker, prepared to deliver his words of love and connection.
"We're filming tonight, so don't be shy," explains the career singer-producer with pastorly panache at packed-in South Congress mecca the Continental Club.
Weeks before this late-October evening, Williams casually disclosed that a documentary centered on his family had begun production. The broadcast-style camera suggests his getup is pressing business. As is the soul storm happening in the club.
Williams' simple declaration to the rapt audience isn't one expressing a latent fear. Nearly four decades of successes and failures in front of unforgiving audiences creates its own resolve.
"My dad told him that he would be a lead singer," says his sister Kadima. "He was probably 13 when we first started, and just like he performs now, he performed then."
Supported by a crisp, cooking quartet – guitarist Andy Tenberg, organist David Earl, bassist Mitch Fischels, and drummer Paul Kresowik – the frontman works up a merited sweat and satisfaction. His enthusiasm crackles, palpable and contagious. Together, the five locals pound out big-bottomed funk raves like "Shine Your Light" off 2016 debut Heart Attack.
In this, the youthful, 50-year-old singer proves himself an authentic soul man of old and new. His trials, tribulations, and visceral earnestness steamroll into his vocal command. The Williams' family message lives on in its locomotive firestarter.
On June 14, 1968, Las Vegas welcomed into the world Tomar Yassien Williams, the fifth of seven siblings. He's the second boy after his brother, Karriem, and ahead of Ishaq and Salih. Since his birth to Isaac and Bobbie Jean Williams, he's been called by his middle name. In fact, his first name draws pauses from every family member interviewed.
His siblings remember their asthmatic but devoted brother as responsible and protective without end.
"Yassien was the one that would go around and ask his older brother Karriem if somebody was messing with him," laughs older sister Cynthia. "He would be the one to take it into his own hands and handle the situation. As an asthmatic child, you tend to build your upper chest, so he would walk around puffed up like he was Hercules.
"He was puny, but the other little kids would be intimidated, like, 'Oh, he's got some muscles.'"
Ishaq recalls sharing an apartment with his brothers, a teenage Tomar effectively becoming their guardian.
"Even though he was still a kid, I never looked at him like that," says Ishaq. "He always had this leadership quality about him. We never got into a fight. He was my best friend and my leader."
Kadima, the third oldest and youngest sister after Brenda and Cynthia, echoes her siblings' sentiments and states that young Tomar usually sought agreement. That internal responsibility ran into music, already the family business. His mother belonged to the Luling-based Lamkin family of gospel greats, and his father once looked to be a jazz saxophonist.
Although music permeated the household, the Williamses lacked the necessary catalyst. Then a discovery came to the fore.
"One day, when I was in high school and Yassien was in the fourth or fifth grade, he was playing drums on the kitchen table and he started singing," says Cynthia, a beauty pageant contestant in her youth. "I was like, 'Wait a minute; I think he has skills.' So I had him do a song, 'Ben' by Michael Jackson. He started to sing, and I was blown away. I could hear when someone had that natural gift – where every time they open their mouth, the person made you feel what he or she were singing.
"From then on, I would hear him singing throughout the house. I never doubted his voice, because I heard it."
Relocated with his brood to Victoria in the early Eighties, the head of the family once spent the Williams' entire income tax refund on a full complement of pawn shop instruments – without consulting his wife.
"He knew she would kill him," quips Tomar.
The patriarch lined everyone up with an instrument by faculty – and perhaps perception – over personal desire. For example, Kadima wanted to play the drums, but Ishaq ended up on the skins. Karriem played sax.
Tomar fronted this new act at the behest of his father and a doting Cynthia.
From his initial bandmates comes a thrice-verified story of young Tomar's inborn musical acumen. Having never played before and despite being only in the third grade, he saw an opportunity in his father inviting a band over to rehearse for an upcoming performance by Cynthia. During a break in the playing, the men left their instruments just as Tomar and his brothers arrived home from school early.
"My brother says, 'Don't you touch those drums,'" laughs Tomar. "I said, 'Man, I gotta play.' I was studying, looking at them. Man, oh man, I still remember. I sat down at the drums and my brother's looking at me like, 'You lost your goddamn mind.'"
He played them, all right, and well – as if he had been born with Clyde Stubblefield riffs downloaded into his young mind. Everyone in the family demonstrated talent, but Tomar seemed more equal than the others, fronting the first Williams Band, then Black Magic, then Sophisticated Gents when the sisters left home, and the Sophisticated Gents Plus Two when Cynthia and Kadima returned to the fold. Finally, they settled on 6:AM in honor of their unusual work and school schedules.
"We played a lot of the chitlin' circuit," explains Salih, who first performed in the band as the token maracas player, in reference to the high-traffic African-American club periphery. "When we finally made it to Austin, it was the first time we played in a ventilated venue. We were used to playing smoky shotgun clubs – one way in, one way out."
At the time, the group played the vanguard of soul-pop, including Michael Jackson, Prince, and Alexander O'Neal – none of whom moved the needle for old heads. Dismissal ended in Austin, where 6:AM played Steamboat, Liberty Lunch, and other famed venues as Eighties orbitals to hit R&B groups Tony! Toni! Toné! and Ready for the World. If there's one particular indication of the band's inherent talent, consider their alignment with Kim Fowley, who discovered and managed Seventies icons the Runaways.
Fowley possessed exceptional taste, a fact well known to all corners of the larger industry. Equally notable, he built an infamous reputation for running acts aground with broken promises and dubious arrangements. 6:AM landed a major-label deal, but while cutting their debut, Fowley allegedly ran off with $15,000 earmarked for the album's completion.
"What we found out is that RCA Records gave him that last installment," says Tomar today, with a residual mixture of astonishment and what-could've-been wonderment. "His wife wanted a house, so instead of completing our album, he took that money."
They managed to finish the album, but couldn't find placement with another label given the material's publishing rights issues with RCA and Fowley. 6:AM never recovered.
One dream down, Tomar consoled himself in a handful of bands, including a strong stint in jazz/soul Austin collective Hot Buttered Rhythm – as second keyboardist. Meanwhile, Salih lived and briefly played in California, and traveled to Africa. Back in Austin, an argument with his then-girlfriend about the beats he created for no one in particular resulted in him leaving his day job for lunch one afternoon and never clocking back in.
His cousin, Anthony James, told him late Houston rapper Big Moe would be making an appearance in San Marcos. They set up a meeting. In astonishingly short order, the Salih-produced "Barre Baby" caught fire on Southeast Texas' airwaves. The Williams family band's default percussionist wound up producing the majority of Moe's mainstream star turn, 2002's Purple World, including the hit single "Purple Stuff."
Under the production moniker Carnival Beats, Salih and Tomar hoped to become the antithesis of mainstream rap's hardcore fare during the early Aughts. Their live instrumental brand implied fun with a knowing wink – a syrupy, trancelike sound that managed to be playful and warm. Salih's connection to Moe ultimately led to producing nationwide smashes for Paul Wall ("Sittin' Sidewayz") and Mike Jones ("Back Then," "Still Tippin'"). Tomar reveals that the latter song originally belonged to an MC they signed named Swip.
"Whenever he'd do shows here in Austin, he would do it as a freestyle warm-up before he'd go into his actual show," he says. "We told him, 'You need to write something to that, man. Put something on that.'"
He did not. Fortunately for the duo, Mike Jones did, although Salih says the Houston rapper wasn't in love with the track. It took a side-eye from associate Paul Wall, who had designs on the production, to generate some enthusiasm.
Tomar, who featured heavily on Trae tha Truth's 2003 debut, Losing Composure, became increasingly involved with production and songwriting once the brothers earned a publishing deal with label behemoth Universal. They worked with Trick Daddy and the Ying Yang Twins, but by 2010, the pair mostly bowed out of hip-hop and Houston's scene specifically, which had splintered. Infighting amongst the metropolis' stars plus changing tastes and budgets had put the duo between a rock and a shrinking paycheck for production.
They needed to turn around and go back home – literally and figuratively.
The Final Call
Tomar Williams' origins reside in Luling, just off a dirt road leading to the house his father built more or less by himself. (How much more or less is lost to time and the 82-year-old's fading memory.)
The house sits at the head of a spread totaling over 60 acres, punctuated with a cane cholla in the front yard. It's an interesting plant at a treelike size, gnarled roots undecided about earthen comings and goings. The bark bears prickly cactus as fruit, with each sprouting its own flowers.
Weathered and resilient, the Williams family homestead couldn't be better represented by vegetation.
Born of Gullah heritage from along Georgia's Ogeechee River trail, Isaac Williams is one of 10 children from Yemassee, South Carolina, a small, low country town split between the counties of Beaufort and Hampton. A mechanic in the Air Force during and after the Korean War, he eventually settled in Texas. Introduced to a young Bobbie Lamkin by her sister, Isaac initially was kept at bay from his future wife of 57 years by her father, the great James R. Lamkin.
Even so, the great mystery at the center of the Williams family is their relationship to the Nation of Islam, a controversial religious group that hosts a small but ardent contingency in the Austin area. Through Bobbie's brother Joel, she and Isaac joined the Nation during the Sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Aside from the spiritual perspectives, which can vary in Islamic orthodoxy, self-sufficiency and black-positive cultural aspects were likely attractive for two people born roughly two generations from slavery and within Jim Crow states. Tomar and his siblings were chiefly raised in the Nation. Today, it's reasonably apparent that the family has long ceased following NOI doctrine in its strictest sense.
Cynthia, for one, no longer practices or adheres to any of the NOI's tenets. Others in her immediate family have reduced the influence to its rough essences and day-to-day guidance in living. Alongside his wife Flora and their children, Tomar calls himself a Muslim and recalls pushing the Nation's publication, The Final Call, on 38th Street and Interstate 35.
"Brother, I made so many connections," he insists with conviction. "It wasn't about the paper, because I knew once I made that connection, the paper was just only a newspaper. Making those connections, I ultimately changed a lot of people's perceptions of how they think and how they perceive or begin to even think about how a young black man would conduct himself."
Nearly all of the siblings admit that the intersection of NOI doctrine and music made a significant impact on their lives.
"[It's about] love and respect, giving without expecting something in return," states Salih. "Whatever you believe in, just know there's a higher force guiding you. With music, it's like another religion in itself. You meet people who are so in love with music and you relate with them."
The genre pivot for Salih, with his blues-centric Dirty Water project, and Tomar into soul and R&B in 2012 behind Latasha Lee & the Black Ties isn't new. The transitions of Aloe Blacc, Mayer Hawthorne, and Phonte of critically acclaimed trio Little Brother all come to mind. Nor is the axial change necessarily a departure at all.
For Tomar, he only needed the right band, one both talented and comfortable in its own skin. Their paths collided at Austin's Music Lab. With a distinct irony and to the likely chagrin of his bandmates, Tomar & the FCs drummer Paul Kresowik defined an "FC."
"People would come up to us after a show and say, 'Man, y'all some funky Caucasians,'" recounts the beat-keeper.
Both Andy Tenberg and Mitch Fischels recall the band's intentions not being made entirely serious before Tomar's arrival. The latter occurrence is credited to mutual friend and former Black Ties horn player Nikolas Bouklas.
"We were playing Booker T and Meters tunes," says Fischels. "There wasn't much pressure then."
During the first jam session by both parties at the Music Lab, that changed significantly. Everyone in both camps and within earshot of the new assembly heard it. When they emerged from the room, they were immediately accosted.
"They were like, 'That dude can sing. We thought that was a recording the entire time,'" recounts Fischels. "When we saw musicians out in the hallway [in shock] I looked at the guys, I said, 'We don't get this, not in Austin.'"
With a new album on the horizon, there will be pressure for the band going forward. All of them say it feels like the right time for everyone involved. For his part, the singer brandishes faith. He believes in the band, in his God, and in the moment.
"I told my wife, 'I think this is it,'" says Tomar. "She said, 'You think so?' I said, 'This is gonna be it.'"
In 1982, Tomar Williams resembled your average 14-year-old with a Michael Jackson obsession. Thriller had hoofed its way to global soundtrack status. The local teen's mother booked her M.J. doppelganger to perform at the retirement home where she worked.
"I had the whole nine yards," laughs Williams, "the gloves, the glasses, the 'Beat It' jacket. Hell, I still have [the jacket]. Man, it was funny. So, I decided to go, and I had my boombox, the ghetto blaster.
"I put that Thriller cassette tape in, man, and boy, those old folks honestly thought I was Michael Jackson because I studied the steps. I learned every single move Michael had. I had the hair, the curl. I'm tellin' you, it was crazy. I would go around and do it for charity, not for money.
"It was never about that. When [the senior citizens] see me walk by, or I walk up to 'em and shake their hands, man, it was that look – the look in their eyes. I've never forgotten that."