The history of Blues music is liberally populated with figures that just quite can't overcome their own worst character traits due to a variety of conscious choices. It's equally — if not more — populated with figures that have been ripped off blind by unscrupulous record companies and even other artists.
Noted music photographer W.A. Williams, a.k.a. The Reverend Billy Rose of the Blues/Soul group The Reverend Billy Rose! And The Legendary SoulShakers!!!, shares those traits — to a point. But where he departs from the "standard Blues story" is that his troubles, including two harrowing suicide attempts, weren't necessarily brought on by "conscious" choices as he has suffered through bipolar disorder through most of his 53 years. And the rip-offs he's dealt with haven't been through his music, they've been through unauthorized use of his photos, most specifically photos of his friend, Blues/guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash after a concert in 1990.
"When Stevie died, it took the wind out of my sails, it ripped them apart, really. It pulled the whole mast down and I was in the crow's nest, and then there I was, floundering in some greasy sea," says Williams.
He and Vaughan shared a "spiritual connection" according to Williams. The two men would have long conversations after Vaughan's shows only to look up and find that they were the only two people left in the building.
His second suicide attempt (after one in 1971) occurred in 2002, followed a family disturbance. The attempt was probably also brought on by the guilt and sadness he felt over Vaughan's death years before.
"I woke up and I was rock bottom, and just thought, 'I can't take this,' " Williams says of that fateful day in 2002. "I didn't have any weapons. I swore that if I ever tried to kill myself (again) I'd blow my brains out — but I didn't have (a gun). But what I did have was tens of thousands of milligrams of very powerful medication. When they found me — I'm telling you, I should have never been found — there was no reason. I shut the phones off, I was in the place by myself, I put a sign on my bedroom door that said, 'Do not enter; call the authorities.' I was planning on being dead. I went out to the kitchen and got a gallon of water, I wrote a five-page goodbye note. I started taking handfuls of pills, I went through every bottle that I had. Just one drug alone that I had — I took seventy five to ninety thousand milligrams — that shut my kidneys down. I really wanted to die. I wasn't playing around."
Luckily, someone was watching over Williams that day, because after he passed out, he woke up (with an understandably god-awful stomach pain) and instinctively went to the bathroom to vomit. It was in the bathroom that he received two calls (in his quest to die, he had forgotten to unplug the phone in the bathroom) from family members that came to his home and had him rushed to the hospital, where he had a six-day stay.
To meet Williams these days, you'd know that he's seen some hard times, but not to that depth. With his massive forearms, close-cropped facial hair and white crew cut, he resembles Santa Claus ... if Santa was a tattooed drill instructor instead of a red-suited toy maker. Williams has persevered.
In the last couple of years, that perseverance led Williams to get himself and his Blues/Soul band, The Legendary SoulShakers!!! out and playing again.
"In the 1980s, I had all but left music behind when Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed," Williams says. "(Recently) I felt compelled to go back into performing. It was a bit of 'taking up the mantle' that Stevie had left behind. I never felt I could reach the countless millions he had reached or would continue to reach even after his death, but I felt I could do my part."
He comes by his stage name honestly, as "Rev. Rose" has been an ordained minister since 1975. The band's name comes from the soul — literally.
"I am a Soul singer. 'Soul shaking' meant something to me as in an experience with God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit," Williams says. "Music to me has always, not bordered on, but has been a religious experience. It flows through my veins."
"He puts his heart and soul into every note he plays and sings," concurs his friend, Jon Sheperd, currently head of 2nd Story Presents, which has booked Williams and his band on local shows. "He has close ties to the absolute legends of the Blues world, and it's no wonder. You can't help but love him. His true beauty, however, is that he never flaunts those 'connections.' "
Another side of Williams' true beauty also lies in his ability to sing from the depths of his soul about all the joy and sadness he has experienced throughout his life. His voice is the sound of a man that is able to keep the demons that were chasing him at bay, at least for the moment. And hopefully forever.
THE REVEREND BILLY ROSE! AND THE LEGENDARY SOULSHAKERS!!! play the Main Stage of the Cincy Blues Fest at Sawyer Point on July 30 at 5:30 p.m. To view Williams' photography and find more about his music, visit www.wawilliams.com.