Yes, you are reading that right. Billy Dee Williams, star of such films as Lady Sings the Blues, Hit!, Nighthawks, and some little movies called Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, cut an album.
This forgotten album from 1961 was a collection of Broadway standards and original songs written by Broadway composers. It lay in obscurity until it was re-released with Williams’ blessing by Explore Multimedia.
Williams’ smooth voice is outstanding throughout the whole record. It starts with “A Taste of Honey” from the 1961 play of the same name. “Let’s Misbeheave” is from the 1928 musical Paris. “Don’t Cry” is a particular showcase of Williams’ crooning. “Life’s a Holiday,” a favorite of Billie Holiday, is handled by Williams well, and you can’t help but appreciate that he played Billie Holiday’s lover eleven years later in Lady Sings the Blues.
“I Like It Here” was written by legendary songwriters Alec Wilder and William Engvick and given to Williams to premiere on this album. He does a fine job with such an honor and sounds like he’s singing it in a smoky bar at about 2:30am. “Warm Tonight” sounds like he’s closing the set in that smoky bar at 4:00am.
“Nothin’ for Nothin’” is from the 1950 musical Arms and the Girl. Williams has fun with the jazzy love song and is backed by some fine piano in it. “I Wonder What Became of Me” is a highlight. Williams’ love for the track is evident throughout it. You can see his warm grin as you hear it.
“House of Flowers” is from a 1954 musical of the same name, but it borders a bit on the psychedelic with its snappy jazz breaks, haunting clarinet, and lyrics about love, flowers, and heaven. Finally, “Red Sun Blues” was written by Langston Hughes – the same Langston Hughes who led the Harlem Renaissance and pretty much invented the idea of combining poetry and jazz. Williams handles the jumps between jazz, blues, and crooning with no trouble. It’s a fine closer to the record.
It’s a shame this record was lost to obscurity for over fifty years. Williams went on to concentrate on acting and painting, but it’s clear he had the chops to be a solid jazz singer if he’d decided to go further down that road. It’s a neat find and well worth a listen.
And you just know the Cloud City of Bespin had a swinging jazz club.
– Nik Havert