Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing music legend Maurice Williams, who will be honored Thursday night with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce. Below is the 10-plus-minute interview, YouTube clips of Williams’ hits and the story that appeared in Tuesday’s Herald.
SANFORD — Maurice Williams isn’t a household name like some of the other musicians from the late 50s, early 60s.
But his music?
Instantly recognizable. His biggest hits were classic love stories that became staples in the early days of rock ‘n roll. And just when you thought Maurice Williams was going to fade away from the airwaves, a little 80s movie called “Dirty Dancing” revived his biggest hit and his career.
A native of South Carolina and current resident of Charlotte, the 70-year-old Williams will be honored Thursday at the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce and CCCC Small Business Banquet, set to begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. Williams will receive the event’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” which has been given to NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Richard Petty and country music icon Charlie Daniels — both native to North Carolina — over the past two years.
Williams, who says his biggest thrill has been receiving the state of South Carolina’s highest honor for residents a few years back, said he was “amazed, floored and blessed” when he heard Sanford wanted to honor him this year. After hearing who the two previous winners were, Williams said he was humbled.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Wow, that’s great company,’” Williams said over the phone from his Charlotte home last week.
AN EARLY START
Williams was born in Lancaster, S.C., in 1940, and learned at an early age he had a good ear for music. He learned the piano from his older sister before he turned 10, according to one published bio, he was hosting jam sessions for friends before becoming a teenager. The church allowed Williams to fine tune his abilities, but instead of going the gospel path — as his sister did — he chose rock ‘n roll.
“I think rock is similar to gospel,” Williams said. “Rock, rhythm and blues … I was raised on the big bands and Johnny Mathis growing up. (Rock music) was just natural for me. Writing songs came easily to me.”
As a teenager, he and some friends formed a group, The Royal Charms, which made a name for itself playing school events and winning local talent shows.
In that first year, Williams wrote two songs that would end up defining his musical career.
“Stay” and “Little Darling.”
“Stay” would be released by Williams and another group, The Zodiacs, in 1960 and would reach No. 1 on the charts, becoming the shortest No. 1 hit in American rock music history (a record it holds to this day with a 1 minute, 53-second run time). “Little Darling,” released a few years earlier with The Gladiolas (The Royal Charms but with a different name because Nashville producers thought the first name was too common) would go on to become a hit for another 60s doo-wop group, The Diamonds, and would later be covered by legends like Elvis Presley, The Monkees and Frankie Valli.
“I wrote ‘Stay’ in like four or five minutes,” Williams recalled, “and then threw it in the trash can. I went ahead and put it on tape, and one day I was playing songs for the little sister of my girlfriend, and she didn’t like much of it except ‘Stay.’ She said she liked the song with the high part in it.”
That “song with the high part” included the falsetto line, “Ohhhh won’t you stayyy … just a little bit longer.” The song “stayed” atop the charts an entire summer and made Williams and The Zodiacs stars — putting them in front of national TV audiences.
“To this day,” Williams told another publication recently, “When I hear Henry Gaston wait the high part, I still get chills.”
“Stay” was about a girlfriend who had a curfew, and Williams urged her to break curfew so they could continue doing the things innocent teens in love do.
“Little Darling” was about the same girl … and another … and Williams’ inner-battle as he longed for both of them.
“I was wrong-a, to love two .. a-ooh, a-ooh, a-ooh, a-hoo,” he sings … and he laughs today when recalling those stories.
“When I write songs, it’s like giving birth,” Williams said. “And today, my babies are still going. And it’s still wonderful.”
When “Dirty Dancing” became a mega-hit in 1987, the movie’s soundtrack — which contained several love songs from Williams’ era — became a mega-hit, too.
The soundtrack spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts and went multi-platinum, selling 42 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. It even re-entered the charts in Ireland in 2007.
“It brought us a young audience we didn’t have,” Williams said. “I’ll never forget performing it around that time, and a little girl — about 15 — said, ‘Mr. Williams, can I give you a hug … I want to hug the man who shook hands with Patrick Swayze.’
“I had to tell her, ‘Well, I never actually met Patrick Swayze,’ but she didn’t care,” he said. “That album brought back a lot of oldies and made them popular again.”
Williams’ career hasn’t slowed since, as he can regularly be found performing at beach shows and other oldies-themed concerts. And while he’s not expected to perform Thursday night during the banquet, Williams said if he’s asked, he’d love to sing a hit or two.
He said he still listens to new music these days, but mostly country … though he did say the most recent rap artist he liked was M.C. Hammer, more than 20 years ago.
“I was raised on Hank Williams,” he said. “I’ll always love country.”
He’ll be releasing a new album with new songs and refurbished versions of his hits in the near future as well.
As for being considered a Carolina legend, Williams said he’s had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world, but he never considered leaving his home.
“I’m not too far from my family, and the Zodiacs were from Charlotte … the Gladiolas from Lancaster,” he said. “There’s really no place like home.”