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Getting Into Music

This interview with Lamar Williams from Guitar Player, January 1980, that includes some biographical data on Lamar.

"Sea Level: Rock, Funk, and Blues from the South"
By Jim Schwartz
Guitar Player, January 1980

Bassist Lamar Williams, co-founder of Sea Level and former Allman Brother, is a soft-spoken individual who would prefer to allow his '77 Fender Precision to articulate his deep feelings about music. He has numerous LPs to his credit, but this fact hasn't deterred him from working even harder to write songs and fine-tune his rhythm chops, complementing Sea Level's blues, rock, and jazz feel.

Born on January 14, 1949, Lamar hails from Newton, Mississippi. From an early age he was immersed in music, courtesy of his father-who was a gospel singer in a group called the Deep South-and an uncle in Michigan who liked jazz. "What really got me into music," he recalls, "was a trip I made once to visit my uncle. He was a jazz head, and used to listen to just about everything. He had a little plastic flute, and I remember one day I picked it up and tried to play along with some records. After a while, I got to where I was doing it, and liking it."

A self taught musician, Williams remembers some of the problems he confronted when first attempting to master the bass. "I was the kid on the block who was always humming bass lines," he says. "I just like what the bass player was doing. Eventually, I got inspired enough from what I was hearing to actually try and play a bass guitar. The first thing I attempted to get down was the basic little pattern that most bass players know-a 12-bar blues change. I just did it by trial-and-error--didn't use any books or anything. But at first, I tried to do it all on one string. I soon found out that wasn't the way to go; I mean, it tires you out, you know. So after a while I started playing with my father's group and with some other small blues and R&B bands around town, and I learned that G is here, and C is there, and E b is here and also down here-things like that."

When Lamar was 14, he acquired a Kingston bass and began playing with the Deep South-sharing a small Fender amplifier with the group's guitar player. Musical influences other than gospel also began filtering into the young musician's ears, including Marvin Gaye, the Impressions, the Beatles, Paul Revere And The Raiders, and just about everything from Mowtown. "Ever since I was 13, I just wanted to be a musician," Lamar says. "I liked different types of music, and my goal was to be able to play whatever style of music I liked." Some of Lamar's favorite bassists include James Jamerson [GP , June '79], Monk Montgomery [Sept. '77], Richard Davis [June '78], and Stanley Clarke [July '75].

Between 1965 and 1967, Williams worked in a band called the Sounds Of Soul, which played regularly in clubs all along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. With this group he played his Kingston and a Japanese-made Panomatic bass. Then, in 1968, Lamar entered the army and landed a gig in a Special Forces band. "We would put together shows for guys in basic training, for N.C.O. [non-commissioned officer] clubs, and we'd do things around town, too," he says. "The interesting thing about all this was we did everything from ragtime to country and western music. I think it's important to have perspectives on different types of music and not let yourself get into a rut by playing only one style. I like to keep track of all of it."

After leaving the service in 1970, Williams went to Macon, Georgia, to visit his longtime friend, Jai Johanny Johnson. "Jaimoe and I go back about 15 years," Lamar says. "We went to high school together, and played in many of the early groups I was in before going into the army." A series of stints with local bands followed, and one day Lamar received a call from Jaimoe-who had by then joined the Allman Brothers Band. Johanson asked him if he wanted to audition as the group's new bassist. Lamar said yes, so in 1972 he teamed up with the Brothers and helped record three albums with them: Brothers & Sisters, Win, Lose, Or Draw, and the live double-LP Wipe The Windows, Check The Oil, Dollar Gas.

During his tenure with the Allman Brothers, Lamar became friends with keyboardest Chuck Leavell; and he, Leavell and Johanson put together a trio called We Three. By this time, Lamar was using an Alembic bass. "We used to play stuff in the dressing room to loosen up," he says, "and we also found ourselves playing songs-making songs. When the Brothers broke up in the late-'70s, we decided to give Sea Level a try."

Stretching Out

William's Alembic was stolen in 1977, and he replaced it with a new Fender Precision. While it's his main stage and studio bass now, he also has an early-'60s Hagstrom 8-string bass, an Ampeg electric upright, a late-'60s fretless Precision, a full-size German-made acoustic, and an early-'70s Gibson Grabber bass. "I like a variety of basses," he says. "I like Fender: The Precision sound is fat and round. And the Alembic sound is clean, really clean. Different axes have different characters. Take my 8-string--it has a tone I like to use on certain songs. So I plan on getting some more different basses, as well as another Alembic, just for experimenting with sound. While I've used the Hagstrom on occasion, I don't have any immediate plan for the others-either live or in the studio."

Williams runs his '77 Precision through an Advanced Audio Designs [1164 W. Second Ave., Eugene, OR 97402] preamp and a Crown 300 power amp, which drives a Northwest Sound Inc. [Box 3586, Portland, OR 97208] cabinet with two 15s and a Vega unit with two 12s. He explains: "The first is like a PA cabinet, for the bottom end. I like the presence of a lot of bottom-at least, onstage. I'm also trying out one of Jimmy Nall's [see accompanying story] cabinets. It has 10s in it, and those really blend the high end with the 15s' low end." The settings on his preamplifier are the following: first preamp volume 4, second preamp volume 3 1/2, master volume 3-3 1/2, bass 4, midrange 5, treble 5; the Crown amplifier is on full.

In the studio, Williams records on two channels: one is direct into the board, and the other is a miked amplifier. But he seldom includes the latter when mixing the final take. "I set up with a small rig-maybe a Fender amp-just for getting a perspective of what I'm doing," he says. "Most of the time we don't have to use the miked track. You can set up a big rig in the studio, but you're still going to get a stronger sound going direct. To me, the room's sound just doesn't come close in quality to the direct line's sound."

As far as effects are concerned, Lamar doesn't use them. "The music I've played really doesn't call for them," he says. "Eventually I'll get some to mess around with, but I'm not into phase shifters, flangers, and all of that stuff. The company I am doing an endorsement with, Advanced Audio Designs, is coming out with a digital delay unit, and I'm planning on doing some experimenting with it. That will probably be the first gadget I use."

Lamar strings his Precision with Rotosound round-wounds, and his pick choice is Herco Flex 50s. "When I was first interviewed in Guitar Player [July '77], I used picks made from plastic Clorox bottles," he says. "You see, I sweat a lot when I'm playing, and I don't like using a pick if I think it's going to slip out of my hand. So I found some Hercos that I liked: They had groves in them, and were about the same gauge of lightness as Clorox bottles." He employs a pick almost exclusively when playing, only rarely using his thumb for slapping and pulling.

While many bassists today are edging further out front as lead musicians, Williams is content with keeping a low profile: "During my Allman days, Chuck Leavell and I used to play a lot together-improving on chords that the other guys were laying down. But I'm the kind of bass player who likes to fill all the holes-keep it padded and just hold the bottom. But if there's a specific song that requires some flair, then I'll go for it, but I always like to keep the sound rounded."

Both the studio and the road hold a certain appeal for Lamar. "I like playing the road," he says, "meeting people and watching their reactions when they hear our music. It's a good feeling when you get a positive reaction from an audience. I also like recording. But you can go into a studio and lay down a great track, with all those little things to spice it up, and when you go on the road you'll often end up playing the song differently. That difference may be because of the inspiration people out there listening give you. I like the feeling: There's a great deal of energy the audience gives you that you build upon. But for me, the road and recording go hand in hand with being a musician."

Lamar Williams has been with Sea Level since its inception in 1976, and has noticed a growth and maturity in his fellow players and in himself: "Our first album Sea Level was four cats, and there was that four-piece-band energy that got settled somewhat when we added Davis Causey and Randall Bramblett and cut the second LP, Cats On The Coast. Both those cats contributed a lot to that album-and there were more songs and fewer instrumentals. The third album, On The Edge was a good one, similar to the second, but with more polish. Now our upcoming album Long Walk On A Short Pier is, I think, the LP. It really tells what Sea Level is all about.

-- Guitar Player January 1980

For more photos of Lamar click here.

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