Sondra “Blinky” Williams may be simultaneously one of the most obscure soul singers of her era, and one of the most widely heard. â€œObscure,â€ because Motownâ€™s hit-seeking radar somehow missed the brilliance in the dozens of tracks they recorded on Williams and then buried in their vault. â€œWidely heard,â€ because Williams was heard by millions of television viewers each week as Jim Gilstrapâ€™s duet partner on the theme song to Good Times. The daughter of a baptist minister, Williams grew up singing, directing and playing piano in church choirs. She performed with AndraÃ© Crouch, Billy Preston and Edna Wright in the Cogic Singers, releasing several records on the Simpson and Exodus labels, but solo contracts pulled the group apart, with Williams recording an album for Atlantic.
Williams had previously crossed into secular music with a 1963 single (and a flip) under the nom de record â€œLindy Adams,â€ and a 1964 single for Vee Jay that backed the spiritual â€œHeâ€™s Got the Whole World in his Handsâ€ with â€œHeartaches.â€ She landed at Motown in 1968 under her high school nickname, Blinky, and debuted with the Ashford & Simpson-penned â€œI Wouldnâ€™t Change the Man He Is.â€ An album of duets with Edwin Starr followed in 1969, along with three more singlesÂ (one on Motown, and two on the labelâ€™s west coast imprint, Mowest), but despite opening for the Temptations and a spot in the Motortown Revue, the lack of a concerted promotional push left all of the releases to founder commercially.
Had this been the extent of Williamsâ€™ engagement with Motown, she might have been collected only by crate diggers, and remembered as a talent whose intersection with the label was artistically fruitful but commercially bare. What distinguishes Williams from other Motown shoulda-beens is the large number of finished, unreleased sides that were left in the vault alongside fascinating working tracks and live material. Motown rolled a lot of tape on someone they couldnâ€™t (or more likely just didnâ€™t) break, and the fervor of her fans (who mounted a now-successful â€œFree Blinky from the Vaultsâ€ campaign) reflects the riches that she recorded, rather than the limited sides that Motown actually released.
The two-disc set opens with Williamsâ€™ unreleased album Sunny & Warm, immediately provoking the question of what else Motown had going on that led them to leave this in the vault. To be fair to Motown, Williamsâ€™ album was slotted between Diana Rossâ€™ eponymous 1970 solo debut, and the Jackson 5â€™s Christmas album, so Motownâ€™s promotions staff was certainly busy. If itâ€™s any consolation to Williams, Jimmy and David Ruffinâ€™s I Am My Brotherâ€™s Keeper was in the same spot, though released on the subsidiary Soul label. Sunny & Warm opens with the single â€œI Wouldnâ€™t Change the Man He Isâ€ (which Williams can be seen performing on Chuck Johnsonâ€™s Soul Time USA), and features a new interpretation of Fontella Bassâ€™ â€œRescue Me,â€ produced by the songâ€™s co-writer, Raynard Miner. Clay McMurray produced the gratified â€œThis Man of Mineâ€ and the questioning â€œIs There a Place,â€ and Ashford and Simpsonâ€™s â€œHow Ya Gonna Keep Itâ€ (backed with a stunning, deep soul cover of Jimmy Webbâ€™s â€œThis Time Last Summerâ€) was slated to be the next single.
And thenâ€¦ nothing. No album, and no explanation. Williams kept plugging away, making a connection with Sammy Davis Jr., and touring with him while continuing to record for Motown. Disc one fleshes out the unreleased album with the singles Motown and Mowest released in 1972-73, live material (including a previously unreleased performance of â€œGod Bless the Childâ€) from the Motortown Revue, and several tracks from anthologies and soundtracks that include a studio take of â€œGod Bless the Childâ€ that was released on 1971â€™s Rock Gospel – The Key To The Kingdom, and a commanding performance of the early bluesÂ â€œTâ€™Ainâ€™t Nobodyâ€™s Bizness If I Doâ€ from Lady Sings the Blues.
The setâ€™s second disc includes twenty-two previously unreleased tracks recorded with a variety of Motown producers, including label material and covers. Among the latter is an original soul arrangement of Graham Gouldmanâ€™s â€œHeart Full of Soul,â€ and a thoughtful, extended cover of the Stylistics â€œPeople Make the World Go Round.â€ A few of the tracks are mastered with control room slates or musician count-ins, giving them the aura of work-in-process, but these are finished pieces that offer performances, arrangements and sound that are all up to Motownâ€™s standards. Why were they left in the vault? Perhaps Williamsâ€™ gospel roots were too soulful for the pop-leaning Motown, but more likely she was a victim of the sheer volume of material that the well-oiled Motown machine could produce. Motownâ€™s investment may not have yielded commercial returns, but the artistry of these sides is undeniable, and freed from the vault, theyâ€™re finally available for Williamsâ€™ longtime devotees to enjoy. [Â©2019 Hyperbolium]