Robert Hosea Williams was born in 1936 in tiny Princeton, Indiana. His father, Albert Williams, was far too ambitious to stay put in Princeton, a town best known as the early home of Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn empire. Albert Williams used his abilities in mathematics and mechanical engineering as a trump card against racial discrimination, finding work in a defense industry that had shaken off the dust of isolationism and was escalating toward a second world war. A brief furlough at a munitions factory outside of Cincinnati gave way to a salary and a pension with David Taylor Model Basin in Glen Echo, Maryland, where he would soon work on the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Robert’s family, now six strong, settled permanently in Silver Springs, Maryland in 1947.
When Robert Williams arrived in Maryland, he found himself in the midst of an African-American cultural renaissance at Paul C. Dunbar Prep in the Truxton Circle neighborhood of District of Columbia’s Northwest quadrant. Dunbar produced numerous black scholars and artists, and its active promotion of the arts made it a hotbed of doo-wop talent when Williams enrolled in 1949. Rather than join any one of these countless groups, Williams stepped into a facilitator’s role. He wrote a few songs and visited as many rehearsals as he could, toting his pawn shop–procured Ampex portable half-track recorder. He’d coach anybody who would listen, and soon half-a-dozen of the school’s vocal groups were working his ideas, arrangements, and original songs into their repertoire. The Velvetones—no relation to the Newark, New Jersey, group who recorded for Sonora and Coronet—became his main protégés, and he committed much of his time to finding them gigs and producing crude recordings.
Higher education took Robert back to the Midwest, where he matriculated at Miami University of Ohio in 1953. Demand for rhythm & blues bands on the Oxford, Ohio, campus possessed Williams to form his own, putting to use his self-taught songwriting and piano skills. What began as the Four Tones, with Williams’ roommate Harry Wilbert backing them on piano, soon morphed into the Bobby Williams Group, which blazed a profitable path through Oxford’s fraternity row. The band grew by the semester, but core members included Stokes Anderson from Cleveland, Harry Wilford from Dayton, and Carl Westmoreland from Cincinnati. Williams stumbled upon what became a distinctive stage prop: just before the group’s first performance, he gashed his head on a dormitory door and fashioned an impromptu turban (replete with a cheap trinket resembling a sapphire) to conceal the recently stitched wound. The audience interpreted it as his “look,” and Robert stuck with it.
Inevitably, Joey Raye—a minor local impresario—sniffed the group out for release on his tiny Echo Records imprint, based in nearby Cincinnati. Raye’s band the Hi-Fives had already backed rockabilly and country acts Marv Lockard and Phyllis Remer, respectively, on a pair of releases. Having taken note of Alan Freed’s activities across the state in Cleveland, Raye wanted a group that could capitalize on white teenagers’ fanatic interest in dancing to rhythm & blues artists. He renamed Williams’ group the Vanguards and cut a session, but Raye’s near-fatal heart attack suspended the release indefinitely. Williams attempted to improve upon his experience with Joey Raye later, on his own in the residence hall: he recorded different instruments and voices on each channel of the half-track and used the Collins Board at WMUR (Miami University Radio) as a makeshift mixer. The rough results were enough to whet his appetite. Back in D.C. over summer break, he approached Capital Transcriptions at 11th & G Streets, a local studio that would cut his amateur sessions to acetate. Robert talked his way into a seat at the lathe for a few turns, and came away with a rudimentary grasp of its methodology. Mechanical aptitude was in his blood, after all.
After five semesters, Robert hung up his RedHawk jacket and left Ohio for good, his schooling incomplete for the moment. The one remnant from his college days was a new nickname: José. His middle name, Hosea, had frequently been mistaken for the common Spanish forename and he embraced the misconception. His early Silver Spring sessions were conceived under the name Bobby José and the Aztecs, a nickname that stayed with him his entire recording career.
Returning to D.C. in 1956 without a diploma, Robert set up shop in his parents’ Silver Spring basement, where he tracked sessions for his brother A. D.’s group, the Fabulous Terrifics (FabTer Band for short) and the Tigers, a friend’s act. He sought employment in the field of his newfound hobby, eventually signing on at Ed Behery’s Capital Transcriptions. Built around the remains of a radio station studio, it was a state-of-the-art facility for the mid-’50s. After an eye injury, Behery was forced into a sabbatical, leaving a hole in Williams’ schedule and bank account. He found work at Ed Green’s Edgewood Studios on nearby K Street through childhood friend Bobby Lee until his draft number was called.
After two years in the line of fire as a cryptography and communications expert, the top military brass abbreviated Williams’ four-year tour abroad, allowing him to return home and resume his commitment there. The discipline and routine of military life segued nicely into government service of another kind—the post office. His early morning shifts left evenings open for studio work at Capital and Edgewood, with an occasional swing shift at Track Recorders on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. By the end of his USPS tenure, he was arguably the best engineer in the Beltway region, even if Ed Green was perhaps better known.
In 1966, Williams quit his parcel-pushing day job to fully commit to recording. When not working the mixing board or cutting lathe at Edgewood, Williams worked as an on-call technician for Westinghouse Broadcasting alongside the presidential press corps, committing watershed events to magnetic tape. In his basement, Williams tinkered with production for the Fabulous Terrifics, experimenting with individual tracks, adding and subtracting overdubs and retooling the sounds he had recorded. His methods were still very primitive and work-intensive, but through them he learned the ins and outs of a multi-track console. When one of Edgewood’s top clients moved to California, Ed Greene followed and put Williams in charge of the shop. It wasn’t long before Williams too went independent.
Incorporated in 1969, Tracks by Williams was Robert’s first attempt at branding his low-key style and sound. After a decade in the trenches of D.C.’s best studios, demand for his touch was high, and Williams chose his projects discerningly. Sessions with Van McCoy, Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul, Reasons Why (formerly Age Of Reason), Soul Searchers, and Harmon “Maskman” Bethea were all cut at his usual haunts. It wasn’t until 1971 that Williams found a studio he could call home: db Sound Studios in Silver Spring. db was born out of the ashes of Tri Con on 34th Street in Northwest D.C., the basement studio of Williams’ sometimes apprentice Jules Damian [pictured on the album cover], with financial backing by John Burr. db was small, just 22’ x 45’, and featured a basic 1” 16-track deck and an off-brand console. Located across the street from a Quality Inn at 8037 13th Street, the studio’s best-known attribute was its low price. By 1973, Williams would be brought in full-time to right db’s debt-heavy ship, but for the moment he remained a freelance producer.
In the fall of 1972, an Afrocentric septet from the Adams Morgan neighborhood booked an eight-hour block of time at db to record a live rehearsal. Williams happened to be onsite that day and was intrigued by what he heard. Led by the triumvirate of Nick “Nizam” Smith, Ted “Hakeem” Carpenter, and Billy “Qaadir” Sumler, Father’s Children were proponents of the progressive large ensemble soul movement popularized by Earth, Wind & Fire. The band’s management company, Fly Enterprises, had nothing to contribute to the production, so Williams stepped in and lent his expertise. An album would be cut over the course of late 1972 to mid-1973, but management bungled a label deal that would cover the costs, and the tapes remained on Williams’ shelf, waiting to be paid for. A kernel of Father’s Children’s optimism stayed with Williams. Inspired by their Pan-African philosophy, and encouraged by what he saw in local groups like Juju and Sons of Nature, Williams founded his own Red Black and Green Productions, its name a reflection on Marcus Garvey’s tri-colored flag.
During the lengthy period that Father’s Children dominated Williams’ studio focus, his R.B.G. Productions found the first group to hoist its flag, via noted Beltway producer, manager, and label impresario Joe Tate. A native of D.C., Tate had gone from green to brown playing sax for the Howard Theater’s house band throughout the ’60s, before taking on management duties for the Blendells and Calla Records’ the Fuzz (formerly the Passionettes) and founding the Dontee label. In 1972, he enlisted Williams to engineer a handful of tracks for the Soul Searchers’ We The People album for Sussex; later that year, he would return with the Summits. The group had been floundering since their 1970 debut on Dontee, and was more than happy to let Williams take the reins when Tate met with a serious health crisis. The result was half a dozen songs cut over the course of two years, with two singles issued on the highly local D.C. International concern.
Williams’ intent with Red Black and Green Productions was to place the songs with one of the many major recording companies that had employed him as an engineer. When the Summits failed to attract his intended parties, he settled on tiny D.C. International. Owner Stan Bethel was a glib but well-intentioned hustler who had made inroads into the music business as an independent promotions man with big-time clients. He had distribution, radio contacts, and start-up capital, but lacked the technical know-how and A&R acumen to produce masters. In that respect, D.C. International was a perfect stepping-stone to major labels lying in wait to swoop in when the Summits’ hit-making potential emerged.
While finishing his work with the Summits in 1973, Williams found himself wrapped up in the crowning work of his recording career: his engineering work on Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s seminal Winter In America LP. After sitting in on a few Father’s Children rehearsals, Jackson recommend that Scott-Heron let the group open for him in the summer of 1973. Their unissued album convinced Scott-Heron and Jackson that producer Robert José Williams was the man to commit their third collaboration to tape. They liked db’s intimate space, though it was barely big enough to fit their sprawling band. All nine of the album’s songs were recorded, engineered, and, for all intents and purposes, produced by Williams in October and November of 1973, but the album’s credits would give him only a cursory mention. Regardless, Winter In America bolstered Williams’ already platinum-plated reputation and launched the second half of his career under its own power.
During his all-consuming work on Winter In America, another group with undeniable talent approached Williams. He begged them off and requested they return in six months. Unbeknownst to Williams, his deferment of the Casuals had been a major gamble, one that would pay off when they returned to db half a year later. James Purdie, the group’s musical director, had been dead-set on working with Williams over any local competition. The Casuals came prepared with a catalog of original songs, and recording commenced early in 1974. “A Town Called Nowhere” and “Seems Like (The Love We Had Is Dead and Gone)” made it to cellulose first, both penned by Purdie and the Casuals’ natural captain, Skip Mahoaney. Stan Bethel was approached to issue the first single, “Your Funny Moods” b/w “Struggling Man,” which promptly exploded over the D.C. airwaves, quickly selling out pressing after pressing. What shocked The Casuals, however, was not their immediate success—for which they had paid dues in spades—but instead their billing on the label as Skip Mahoaney & the Casuals.
“The Casuals,” as a group name, sounded quaint and old fashioned in the era of grandiose band names like Earth, Wind & Fire, Slave, and New Birth—it was Williams’ executive decision that put lead vocalist Skip’s name up front. He’d meant no betrayal, but the group reacted badly to their second billing and drifted apart. Skip recruited a few new members and toured the East Coast in support of Your Funny Moods, a seven-song LP collecting all their Red Black and Green Productions yet completed. Although the LP sold well, the group defected for the larger, better distributed Abet Records, a soul-focused subsidiary of mid-major Nashboro, which was best known for gospel. Two factors led to the collapse of D.C. International. The first, of course, was the departure of their best selling act. However, Stan Bethel, veteran promotions man that he was, overspent wildly to appease radio jocks and A&R reps, emptying the D.C. International bank account with his largesse. When Bethel bailed for California in 1975, he left the rubble of D.C. International in his wake.
With a handful of new groups waiting in the wings, Williams lacked a launch pad; New Directions was his stopgap solution. It was Williams’ first time on the manufacturing side of the process; wanting to limit his exposure, he pressed up small runs that were distributed hand-to-hand and via one-stops. The first group to appear under the crudely drawn truck that made up the New Directions logo was East Coast Connection, a ten-piece stage band that counted a University of Maryland talent show win as their most recent peak. The prize was a block of studio time at Omega Studios in nearby Kensington, Maryland. The uninspired engineer on the session hit record and went to sleep, capturing underwhelming results. When East Coast Connection brought the live taping to Williams for salvaging, he promptly erased the tape and started from scratch. This second effort resulted in a crowd-pleasing live “cut-in” of recent hits interpolated with a tribute to the popular Summer in the Parks concert series. Its novelty appeal relegated it to minimal local airplay.
New Directions would have only one other artist in its stable, a quartet of high school girls who went through two name changes before landing on Promise. James Purdie first approached the group, hoping to bring them in to perform on live dates with the Casuals, but Promise’s loyalty to their backing band trumped their desire to go on the road. Purdie’s second offer was to bring them to R.B.G. With Williams’ focus trained on making albums, Promise immediately went into production with a full-length batch of songs. Instrumentation was handled by the Casuals’ backing band, who had strengthened their relationship with Williams even as the Casuals themselves pulled away. Williams’ high school chum Eddie Drennon helmed the string arrangements, part of a working partnership that would build and flourish over the coming years. Two 45s—“I’m Not Ready For Love” b/w “I Wonder (Am I Still On Your Mind)” and “Love On The Line” b/w “Open Up The Door”—would find their way into the marketplace, neither making a noticeable dent. In a 1975 letter to attorney Eric Kronfeld, Williams described his predicament: “As always, young female vocal groups are hard to break, and it may take two LPs to make an impact.” Promise wouldn’t get a first album, much less a second, and their eight-song debut was extinguished around the same time as New Directions was doused near the end of 1975.
Eddie Drennon was still hanging around, intermittently employed by Williams for his skills as an arranger on a plethora of db sessions. At the opening of the decade, Drennon had arranged a single for the Differences, and while the group and 45 faded, he kept tabs on their talented young leader Clifton Dyson. It was the sprawling “Don’t Worry About The Joneses” that was the impetus of Dyson and Williams’ first meeting, with Drennon hoping to place the song with the Casuals. With Your Funny Moods locked and the group with one foot out the door, Williams decided to give Dyson his own shot. Burned out on the singles game, Williams pushed straight ahead with an album’s worth of material, capturing seven songs over a handful of sessions. The self-titled album would be Robert José Williams’ most involved work, as he handled the production, engineering, publishing, liner notes (under the assumed name of Chico Palomino), and manufacturing via his Dimitri Music imprint. As such, he decided to put his name on the album’s front cover.
Between Dyson’s Faces, Promise, and East Coast Connection, 1975 had been R.B.G.’s creative zenith, and Williams wasn’t quite done yet. Huitt Cunningham was a high school acquaintance of Williams and Eddie Drennon. Having followed their regional successes, he approached Williams about his vocal harmony quartet the Exceptions. Their biggest selling point was that Mark Greene, lead vocalist on the Moments’ first two Stang singles, was currently a member. Prior to his work with the Moments, Greene had been with the Leaders, a short-lived group who cut two singles for the Stax subsidiary Volt. Two separate sessions in 1975 resulted in eight completed songs, with backing provided by original Casuals players Purdie, Ira Watson, and Alex Alexander, plus Eddie Drennon. The Sound of Philadelphia label courted the project, but internal problems at Philadelphia International, the label’s parent company, stymied a serious offer. Greene and company toured nationally behind other groups, but a label was never found to issue the completed works. As Williams was far too busy with major acts Hugh Masekela and the Soul Searchers to press up another run of demos, much less form a new label, the recordings sat on the shelf for a few years, before ending up in boxes stashed in Williams’ Severn, Maryland, home with the rest of Red Black and Green Productions’ achievements.
As the seventies drew on, Red Black and Green Productions simply petered out. The same big labels who failed to pick up on the talent R.B.G. was spoon-feeding them continued to overspend on his engineering talents. Williams had steady and lucrative work throughout the remainder of the decade. In February of 1980, Williams was offered a high-ranking position at Arbitron, radio’s answer to the Nielsen ratings authority. After decades on the unsteady rollercoaster of freelance talent, Williams got off and grabbed a pension to match his nice house in the Beltway suburbs. Red Black and Green Productions had never been much more than a letterhead and three initials scrawled on a few dozen magnetic tape boxes. Robert José Williams’ disappearance matched his shining moments; both went undetected.