Despite a storied career as an engineer who’s worked with a treasure trove of A-list artists, Kenneth H. Williams remains remarkably humble. In a recent conversation with him, I found that’s he’s far more likely to bring up his mentors and associates than talk about himself. Our visit came at a recent Erykah Badu concert in Portland, and he was much more interested in my experience as a listener than in telling his own story.
Music runs in Williams’ family; his oldest brother, Emery “Detroit Junior” Williams, played and wrote songs for Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Albert King, and many others. For his own part, Williams was a guitarist in the 36th U.S. Army band, and shortly after his service, he found himself working on the initial release of Mo’Jazz records, Motown’s foray into the “smooth jazz” genre. The flagship artist was guitarist Norman Brown, and after the two men met, they began to write songs together.
Brown was also getting ready to go on his first tour, as the opener for Patti LaBelle, and he asked Williams to serve as his monitor engineer, something Williams had never done before. But Brown persisted, telling Williams, “I know how you do things, Ken, and I think you’d be really good. This is my first tour and I want someone on my team who I know will have my back.”
The first day of the tour, Williams was instructed by tour manager Michael “Huggy” Carter (who Williams notes is an excellent engineer in his own right) to be sure to be onsite for the load-in the next morning. There, LaBelle’s monitor engineer as well as his tech took Williams through the paces. It was initially nerve-wracking, Williams remembers.
“I had a few ‘monitor solos’ at first but Norman was patient with me. The band, however was another matter – they rode me like a government mule. I constantly scanned the stage, made adjustments, and in general just tried to keep all of the balls in the air.
He did everything possible to get up to speed quickly, including copious amounts of homework: “My nose was constantly buried in technical manuals, I asked questions, and by the end of the tour, everyone was giving me love because I did what was required and then some. Norman would slay the audience every night, too. I remember the 30 or so minutes that he performed was just full of adrenaline. It was stressful yet rewarding.”
Building It Up
Williams obviously learned the essentials of the trade, having gone on to work with a veritable “who’s who” of R&B luminaries, including Raphael Saadiq, LL Cool J, Destiny’s Child, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn, Ginuwine, Najee, New Edition, EnVogue, and many more. He’s also done some television work with, among others, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Williams started on monitors with Badu but has moved to front of house. The move came about when her usual FOH engineer, Gordon Mack, had a scheduling conflict, necessitating a replacement whom the artist wasn’t satisfied with. Meanwhile, Badu’s regular monitor engineer, Kenny Nash (currently the monitor engineer for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon) was coming back to the tour, with he and production manager Martin Thomas urging Badu to have Williams take over at FOH.
He adds that both Thomas and Nash have been helpful in the evolvement of his approach to mixing. “One time I asked Martin about a sound check and he replied, ‘We’re Navy Seals, dude. We don’t need sound check – we line check and keep it moving.’ And then Kenny added, ‘Ken, we know what you do; do you and she (Badu) will let you know if she’s not feeling it. That’s the best way I can explain it to you.’ He was right; in most cases, as experienced audio professionals, we know by listening to a room what we will need to do. That’s when I make my adjustments to bring my vision for the audio to reality.”
He pauses for a moment and then continues: “The highest compliment I’ve ever been paid was from Kenny after one show. He said, ‘You don’t try to mix like anyone else who’s ever been here.’ What he was saying, and I appreciated so much, was that he could see/hear what I brought to the table for Badu. Working with Erykah has been one of the best and most challenging gigs of my career.”