John Gary Williams, whose brief musical career with The Mad Lads on Stax Records set the stage for a fascinating life, died Tuesday. He was 73.
If you’re like me (say, 50 or younger), you might need to google Williams or The Mad Lads, as their brief brush with fame happened in the mid-1960s. But just as the group’s popularity was climbing, Williams was drafted to fight in Vietnam – an experience which would permanently change the trajectory of his life.
What happened in Vietnam – as well as Williams’ life afterwards, which included being implicated in shooting a police officer – are the subject of a yet-to-be-released documentary called “A World Gone Crazy: The Trials of John Gary Williams.” I’ve seen only a few select clips from it, but by themselves the broad strokes of Williams’ story are riveting.
Known as a soulful vocalist, Williams had to put his career on hold while serving in Vietnam. Like so many who saw the horrors of that war, Williams came back with some emotional scars, but also an urgency to see justice done for African Americans, said filmmaker John Hubbell.
“He was a young man, singing love songs for Stax who was swooped of the stage of the Apollo theater and put in the jungle with a rifle,” Hubbell said. “He came back from Vietnam very anti-violence. John saw beyond race. He was more about justice than race.”
I’m working on a more detailed look at Williams’ life and legacy – look for it in this week’s print edition and here online Thursday. In the meantime, I’m doing my homework – starting with this solo track, released after Williams returned from Vietnam.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a songwriter just returning from war would write a ditty called “The Whole Damn World Is Going Crazy.” And because words matter, I’m glad I found a version that includes the lyrics over poignant images. Enjoy it and check back later this week for more about this Memphis musical treasure.