Love Therapy marks a homecoming for Lenny Williams, owner of one of the most glorious high-tenor voices in the annuals of r&b. Famous for his soaring leads on such Tower of Power hits as "So Very Hard to Go,” "What Is Hip?,” and "Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)” and for numerous solo hits that include "Shoo Doo Fu Fu Oh!,” "’Cause I Love You,” "Midnight Girl,” and "Doing the Loop De Loop,” the singer began his recording career in 1969 at Fantasy Records. Now he’s on Volt Records, the historic r&b label that was recently reactivated by Fantasy, Inc.
The new album, Williams’s first in six years, is a multifaceted diagnosis of romantic relationships, from the sweet to the scandalous. It features six new songs from the singer’s pen, a prolific implement that produced many of his previous hits. There’s also one apiece by producers Felton Pilate (of Con Funk Shun fame) and Preston Glass (who hooked Williams up with Kenny G in 1986 for the smash "Don’t Make Me Wait for Love”). And Williams applies his signature approach to the Brian McKnight ballad "Anytime” and to Stevie Wonder’s "I Was Made to Love Her.”
Although Williams never recorded it before, the Wonder tune was actually one of the songs responsible for launching Williams’s career as a soul singer. He’d been singing in church since childhood and even preached as a teenager. After turning 21, however, Williams set his sights on secular music and began competing at the Thursday night talent shows at the Showcase club in Oakland. He knew only two secular songs at the time—"I Was Made to Love Her” and Sam Cooke’s "A Change Is Gonna Come”—and sang them every week for months, taking home a $20 first prize each time. Producer-arranger Ray Shanklin heard Williams one Thursday and was so impressed he brought Saul Zaentz, his boss at Fantasy Records, the next week. Williams was soon signed to Fantasy and made his debut in 1969 with a self-penned ballad titled "Lisa’s Gone.” The single got airplay in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area and parts of Texas, but it wasn’t really a hit. Williams pleaded with Zaentz to give him a nonperforming job at the company but was turned down.
"I want you to keep on writing,” Zaentz told the singer, who recalls being angered by the rebuff. "I figured I could do something around there, learn how to be an engineer or something,” Williams explains. "I couldn’t understand why he kept on telling me to write, but now, every time I get a fat royalty check for a song I’ve written, I know he was onto something. Maybe he felt that if he gave me a nice job, my passion for the music and songwriting would fade away. I believe that Saul genuinely cared about me as a person. I knew that then, and I know it now.”
Born February 6, 1945 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Leonard Charles Williams came to Oakland with his family when he was 14 months old. His parents were deeply religious, and he did all of his early singing in church and with gospel choirs and groups around the Bay Area, often on programs with such other then-little-known singers as Edwin Hawkins, Sly Stone, Billy Preston, Andrae Crouch, and Odia Coates. As a teenager, Williams briefly attended Simpson Bible College in San Francisco and planned on becoming a minister. He’d earlier studied trumpet in public school and thinks playing the instrument had an effect on his stratospheric vocal style. "Trumpet players think high,” he says. Seminal vocal influences included Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, the Caravans, and Carl Hall, the sensational male soprano with the Raymond Rasberry Singers.
At Merritt College in Oakland, Williams became friends with Huey Newton, who would soon launch the Black Panther Party. Newton introduced Williams to Franz Fanon’s book, Wretched of the Earth, which greatly expanded Williams’s intellectual horizons beyond those of the church world. But instead of entering politics or religion, Williams decided to apply his altruistic inclinations to pop music. After recording two singles for Fantasy, Williams was signed by Jerry Wexler to Atlantic Records and sent to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record "People Make the World Go Round,” a tune off the Stylistics’ debut album. Before Atlantic could get Williams’s record on the market, however, the Stylistics’ version was issued as a single and shot up the charts. Discouraged, the singer returned home to Oakland, finally hitting paydirt when the horn-fueled Tower of Power hired him to replace Rick Stevens as its lead singer in 1972. With Williams at the helm, the band enjoyed its greatest period of popularity. After spending 261 days on the road with the group in 1974, he quit to pursue a solo career and attend to his growing family. After two little-noticed albums for Motown, Williams firmly established a musical identity apart from Tower of Power with 1977’s Choosing You for ABC Records. The album sold close to 500,000 copies, while the following year’s Spark of Love—containing a seven-minute ballad tour de force titled "’Cause I Love You” that has remained a perennial r&b radio favorite—earned him his first gold record. More hits followed on MCA, Rockshire, Knobhill, Krush, and Al Bell’s Bellmark label, for whom Williams made the 1994 album Chill.
"Al Bell really did his homework,” the Bay Area-based singer says. "He realized that people in the Southeast and Midwest really knew me, Lenny Williams, not Lenny Williams formerly of Tower of Power. He immediately started hooking me up with the radio stations and having me go back and do shows. I just quadrupled the amount of dates that I was getting, and that’s kind of maintained itself. I have a band in New Orleans, and we go back there and do these huge outdoor summer jams.”
Playing the Southern circuit put Williams in contact with singers like Marvin Sease, Carl Sims, Bobby Rush, and Willie Clayton who specialize in adult material that might be characterized as "naughty but not nasty.” With Love Therapy Williams lends his considerable lyrical, melodic, and vocal gifts to the genre—which, unlike some of today’s vulgar hip-hop, still leaves something to the imagination—on saucy numbers like "Your Sister,” "Next Door Neighbor,” and "Jody.” Such songs have been a primarily Southern phenomenon in the past. "Instead of doing that on a regional level,” Williams says. "I’d like to be able to do it on a national level. "The album, on which Williams also reprises elements of his classic "’Cause I Love You” with the new songs "Oh Oh Oh” and "’Cause I Still Love You,” offers advice on affairs of the heart to suit practically any situation. "If you were a therapist and saw ten people a day, you might get all these different scenarios about love,” he says. For lovers of great soul, Love Therapy is just what the doctor ordered.