Mt. Airy's unsung singer also helped victims of abuse

by Len Lear
Posted 10/27/20

Paul Williams is definitely an “oldie but goodie.” Now a 77-year-old resident of East Mt. Airy, Paul grew up in North Philly and was a city champion marbles player. As a 1961 graduate of …

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Mt. Airy's unsung singer also helped victims of abuse

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Paul Williams is definitely an “oldie but goodie.” Now a 77-year-old resident of East Mt. Airy, Paul grew up in North Philly and was a city champion marbles player. As a 1961 graduate of Central High School (216th graduating class), Paul was a basketball star (6-foot-3) and standout broad jumper and high jumper on the track team, but Paul's first love was Doo-Wop music. Having a terrific tenor voice, he started a quartet, The Scholars, who would perform ay school events and assemblies.

(For those who may not be familiar with it, “Doo-Wop Music,” also called “Street Corner Harmony,” is a genre of rhythm and blues that was hugely popular in the 1950s and early '60s. It features vocal group harmony with a simple, repetitive beat and little instrumentation. Lyrics were simple, usually about teenage love. Most Doo-Wop groups were black — the Coasters, the Five Satins, the Clovers, the Drifters, the Flamingos, the Teenagers, etc. — but some of the biggest sellers were white — the Crests, Dion & the Belmonts, the Skyliners, the Duprees, etc.)

Williams, like countless other Doo-Wop lead singers, was hoping to have that one big hit that would get a record contract, a personal appearance on “American Bandstand,” a fan club and who knows what else. After high school, he went into the Air Force and wound up in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he formed a Doo-Wop quartet, the Hi Tones, that recorded Williams' composition, “What was the Cause of it All,” in 1961 at the well known Cosimo Recording Studios in New Orleans. Local music writer Jay Nachman, who calls the song “sublime,” wrote recently in Milestones, a monthly newspaper, that “the original record is treasured by music lovers of the genre with copies selling for $200.”

Since Williams was in the Air Force, though, he and the Hi Tones could not do any promotion or public appearances, so nothing of any significance happened to the record, although it did get some airplay. Williams, who graduated from Air Force Radar School in 1962, was sent to Spain, where he formed another group, The Matadors, that did perform in talent shows, and played on the Air Force basketball team in a European-wide league.

“Those years were wonderful,” said Williams. “I got to travel around Europe and Asia. The dollar went very far in Spain. I have a brother three years younger who wound up in Vietnam. I had an apartment in Madrid. In Biloxi, I had been told to stay out of certain parts of town where blacks were not welcome, but I had no racial problems in Europe. We did work at radar sites in Libya, Pakistan, Turkey and Italy.”

Williams cannot help but wonder what would have happened if “What was the Cause” had become a hit. “I guess I am a 'one-and-done,'” he said. “My favorite group, Pastel, was also formed in the Air Force (in Alaska). When I got out of the military and was back in Philly, I'd go to Rock 'n' Roll shows at the Uptown on Broad Street, the Liberty on Columbia Avenue and The Pearl on Ridge Avenue. I loved the Skyliners, the Dells, the Dubs and Lee Andrews & the Hearts, which had a tenor who was my hero ... Some Doo-Wop shows online are still playing 'What was the Cause.' 

“There are a lot of talented people out there, but getting along with the different personalities is the hard part. Two guys in the Hi Tones were twins. One of them wound up with the Videos and Shep and the Limelights. Another guy wound up with Carla Thomas on her big hit, 'Gee Whiz.' If I had stuck with the twins, maybe we could have made it. Who knows?”

After the Air Force, Williams became a photocopy repairman, then went to Temple on the GI Bill as a sociology major and graduated in 1966. (Tuition was $700 a year.) While at Temple, he was also was an assistant recreation leader at the Southwark Recreation Center in South Philly. “I studied harder at Central than I did at Temple. Getting into Central was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned good study habits there and how to take good notes.”

Williams worked with the city until 1970 and then with the Redevelopment Authority on urban renewal for four years. He then worked at Woodhaven, a mental health facility, from 1974 to '78, and then at the Youth Study Center with troubled teenagers until 1985.

From then until 20 years later, Williams was a social worker with the city's Department of Human Services, interviewing victims of abuse. “One 3-year-old girl had gonorrhea. One 16-year-old girl was having sex with her own father. Incest was a very big problem. A single mother would stay with a boyfriend, even if he had 'eyes' for her daughter, because he was providing money. I finally had to get out of there because I was unable to get these kids the help they needed. Children's Hospital was great, but they had a huge backlog of cases, and private contractors did not provide much help.”

Williams is active with Enon Tabernacle Church in East Mt. Airy. “I would love to form a gospel group,” he said, “but it's hard to get together with guys because of age and health problems.”

Williams, who is divorced, has a daughter, Elizabeth, 46, and one granddaughter.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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