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Claude "Fiddler" Williams was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on February 22, 1908. His father, a local blacksmith, his family, and his brother-in-law Ben Johnson introduced Williams to music. Johnson had a local stringband and allowed young Williams to play his mandolin. From the mandolin Williams progressed to playing the guitar. He played with other local musicians at barbershops and hotels in Muskogee.

Impressed with Joe Venuti's violin playing, Williams decided to learn the instrument himself. His early performances were limited mostly to the guitar and mandolin, which he played in "choc joints" in eastern Oklahoma ("Choc" or Choctaw beer was an inexpensive homemade beer deriving its name from the Choctaw Indians). Williams also played in what were called "jitney dances" (a jitney was a dime, the cost of admission). These dances were a part of the Jazz Age in Oklahoma, and the fox trot and Charleston flourished as the most popular dance steps.

A member of Andy Kirk's band, The 12 Clouds of Joy, Williams also played with other bands that traveled a territory in the Midwest and Southwest. By 1927 he resided in Kansas City. He played with Don Byas, Buddy Tate, and Lloyd Glen and with Nat "King" Cole's trio. Williams's most acclaimed job was in Count Basie's band, and while with this group in 1936, he was noted as the number one guitarist in New York by Down Beat magazine. By the time the magazine had published its poll, Williams had given up his guitar for the fiddle, which later earned him the nickname "Fiddler."

In the 1960s Williams began to play jazz festivals, including the Monterey Jazz Festival and Newport in New York. In the 1980s he performed in a Paris production of Black and Blue. He also performed in New York on Broadway, in Las Vegas, and at many other venues. His recognition as a part of jazz history was gradually established, and he came into demand because of his longevity. Even in his nineties Williams continued to thrill listeners. Critics compare his timeless style to the horn parts of the old jazz-band greats and to his boyhood hero, Joe Venuti.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Claude Williams, Interview by Rodger Harris, 24 March 1999, Oral History Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ian Carr, et al., Jazz: The Rough Guide (London: Penguin Books, 1995). Michel Erlewine, et al., eds., All Music Guide to Jazz (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1998). Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: Macmillan, 1988).

Rodger Harris

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