R&B music producer, Dennis Williams shares how he overcame challenges and how the experience has shaped who he is today. Despite being a classically trained musician, he was forced onto a new path in the music industry because of racial discrimination. Still he persevered and now celebrates 44 years as the musical director of the O’Jays; partnering with Patty LaBelle, The Temptations, Teddy Pendergrass, Gerald Levert, Stephanie Mills, Joe Coleman, and Jean Carne to name a few.
Weaver: Dennis, you have an associate degree in accounting. You’ve got a left brain, right brain kind of thing going on here.
WILLIAMS: I’ve always liked numbers. I’ve always had a head for business, a business deal. My father was a real estate broker, so I was locked in for numbers. But music was my first love. I mean, from the time I was younger, I think I started playing when I was about five or six years old. My mother played the piano. My father played the trumpet, so music and business were in my blood.
Unfortunately, the fact that my mother died when I was young, that allowed me to go to a cathedral choir school, which is in New York city and where I studied regular courses. I also studied music under the president of the American Guild of Oregon. I went on to go on to study with the Vice President of the Guild, Clinton Reed.
I’ve written classical music. I’ve sung at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Requiem mass. I was fortunate enough to do many things in my early days.
I had an extensive background with classical music and when I was at the Cathedral St. John, The Divine I had aspired to be a pianist with a symphony orchestra or a philharmonic orchestra, but I never saw many people of color doing what I aspired to do. I didn’t get a lot of encouragement to go further in the field of classical music.
Weaver: What happened by not getting the encouragement?
WILLIAMS: The lack of encouragement stopped me from continuing in the field of classical music. I knew I would continue to be involved in the music industry in some shape, fashion, or form, but at the time, I spent several years developing my craft and classical music.
That’s what I aspired to do but I wasn’t being encouraged or overlooked in some cases. I was as qualified or in some cases more qualified, but I wasn’t given the same opportunities. That meant that I would try to get into the industry in another avenue. It ended up being in R&B music industry.
I didn’t feel like it was second tier. It was just a different avenue of music. I was fortunate enough to be able to work with some of the artists because they were successful, and they heard what I could do or saw what I could do.
In some cases, they encouraged me to work with them or do whatever I knew to enhance their careers. Some of the people you named like Stephanie Mills, I was involved with her career at a very young age; from the Wiz, when she first started performing and doing concerts.
Teddy Pendergrass who was a friend of mine, when he left Harold Melvin, the Blue Notes, I put his act together. I’ve worked with different people in different phases of their career.
Weaver: What adversity has impacted you and then how did you overcome it?
WILLIAMS: Because of the color of my skin, I’m sure that played a part in being overlooked or not being encouraged to pursue the dream that I had. In the music industry, black artists are always pigeonholed as being R&B and are never given the same opportunities as white artists in general. That’s not to say that’s a unilateral situation. I mean, there are some that have crossed over.
40-50 years ago, you weren’t being encouraged to pursue the dreams where whites typically ruled and dominated. I wanted to do classical music as a career, and I wasn’t afforded the opportunity. I also wanted to write and arrange for symphony orchestras. I was discouraged from doing that. Perseverance and forming relationships with people in the industry allowed me to one day, get the opportunity to show what I could do.
Weaver: What afforded that opportunity to pursue classical music? What was the message that gave you? How did you translate that?
WILLIAMS: Well, the translation today would obviously be different than it was when I was a teenager. The message was to me that I wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, I realized that it wasn’t about my being good enough. It was that I was not wanted in that environment.
I was not someone that they wanted to see doing what whites typically did. It was disappointing because I knew I was qualified. But at the same time, it also made me stronger, more determined that I would continue to do what it is that I love. At some juncture, I would get to do something in the classical field or with orchestras.
I’ve written and co-conducted some music for the O’Jays performance, with The Columbus Ohio Symphony Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra, and the Washington Symphony Orchestra. Through R&B music and with some of the people that I’ve worked with, it also allowed me the opportunity to do some things in the classical field. I did get a chance to do some classical music. I didn’t get a chance to be a Van Cliburn, a pianist protege, but I did get a chance to live out my dream in part through the door of R&B music.
Weaver: When you talk about that experience, it reminds me of experiences that a lot of people of color have had. My parents and parents of my friends who had college educations, but the only job they could get was in the post office or women who wanted to be doctors, who had to settle for being a nurse because that was what was available and what they perceived as accessible. Although people seemed to put some limits and restrictions on what they thought you should do, you found a way to navigate around that.
WILLIAMS: It was determination, staying focused on your dream. Being determined is key. When you look back, especially in the entertainment field inclusion into pop music by black artists, I mean was a hard nut to crack. Today, if not for like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown, where would pop music be today without Motown the Temptations, the Supreme, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – people like that. Where would pop music be without Sly Stone and Jimmy Hendricks? And that’s Rock and Roll. That was the white world. I just always felt at some point, if I kept my nose to the grindstone, if I continued to work at my craft, if I continued to learn and encourage other people to do the same, I figured eventually I would be able to live out my initial dream, at some point in my life and my career. I’ve been blessed so far to pretty much do that.
Weaver: What’s some of the advice you want to share?
WILLIAMS: First thing I usually tell people is you never know what obstacles will be in your way with whatever passion you have that you want to pursue. There may be obstacles and roadblocks. Be secure in what it is that you want to do, you must be determined and focused. You never want to burn bridges with people or situations that you might encounter, because you never know when you might meet those people again, or you might need them again. Make sure you’re prepared. I studied voice, theory, and music composition so that when you do get the opportunity you’re prepared, you’re not stumbling and giving the opposition a reason to discount or disqualify you. White people may not want to see you beaten or murdered in home, but they also don’t want to see you as their equal. They’re going to be challenges in life and you just must keep on keeping on.