May 24--DECATUR -- For most artists in Lenny Williams' position, the ability to continue performing is simply a blessing and a welcome way to keep earning an income.
At 68, the soul singer has been a professional musician for well over 40 years, but he's not simply spending his later years on "greatest hits" concerts. His average day still involves writing at some point, and he's put out four records in the last decade.
For Williams, it's about more than just being able to get on stage.
"I am fortunate to be in a place now where I don't need a new record to work, but I still love to write new songs," said the singer, who will perform at Decatur's Lincoln Square Theatre on Saturday as part of its 'Memorial Day Extravaganza' concert. "It's in my blood, and worth the investment of time and money. I still perform just about every weekend, and spend the rest of the time writing and being a husband and grandfather. The touring isn't arduous, but it gets me out of the house whenever I get on my wife's nerves."
Williams has been performing since he was 20 years old and initially came to fame as the lead singer for funk band Tower of Power in 1973 and 1974. He joined the band already having years of experience, inspired by singers like Sam Cooke and mentored by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. And yet, Williams' arrival in the funk and soul genre was itself somewhat unlikely, given his first musical upbringing at home.
"I was raised on gospel and came up in a fundamentalist church," he recalled. "They warned me about music like this. As a young man in college I was singing in gospel talent shows when I was first approached by record industry people, and before long I was getting really into popular music."
Some of the warnings, though, proved all too accurate. Williams eventually left Tower of Power after feeling that he didn't want to get involved with the lifestyles of some of the more "rock star" members.
"We were at a show in Germany, and this guy in the band shows me a heroin kit that he smuggled in, and he's all excited," Williams said. "I knew I had to get out because I didn't want to be surrounded by it. It was too intense."
The move ultimately paid off for the singer, who went on to a successful soul career as a solo artist. His most successful and memorable hit was 1978's "Cause I Love You," which became his signature song. Even today, the song has been sampled in hip-hop tracks by artists such as Kanye West, Twista and Trey Songz, something that Williams has found both flattering and lucrative.
"It makes me feel good as an artist and a songwriter," he said. "It's quite flattering, and it certainly doesn't hurt money-wise either. That's been a godsend. The first time, I thought 'They want to give me big checks for music I wrote before these guys were born?' "
And yet, even with financial security, Williams still yearns to create. He has taken great care for his voice as he ages, and reflects often on how lucky he has been to stumble into a career in popular music.
"Soul music requires a lot of feeling and passion, and I think that's why many great soul artists come out of the church as I did," he said. "I'm very thankful that I can still sing and write each day. Even if I had a billion dollars, if I couldn't hit a note I'd be miserable."
Lenny Williams will be joined by comedy magician The Amazing Greg Walker and Decatur band "FRESH" at the Lincoln Square Theatre's Memorial Day Extravaganza concert.
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