People who know the blues know Ernie Williams.
The longtime Capital Region showman has been playing guitar since he was 13, just a kid living in Virginia during the 1930s. Williams always knew music was in his future — he began the career in earnest during the mid-1940s, when he arrived in Harlem and began looking for audiences.
During the 1950s, Williams was on stage during amateur nights at the famous Apollo Theater. He opened his guitar case and raised his voice at juke joints around the city.
Williams has been a fixture in the Albany area since the 1970s, when he began playing dates at local bars and hosting blues jams whenever he could find time away from day jobs. He kept playing and was rewarded with a boom of interest in his music during the early 1990s.
He’s played the House of Blues in Boston and been on stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago. Festivals and recording studios have also been part of the ride — Williams has released six compact discs.
But for all his local fame behind the microphone, Williams is just as comfortable behind a fishing pole, behind a tiller and behind a barbecue grill. The 83-year-old singer and Cohoes resident, who will play at The Inn at Saratoga on Friday and at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday as part of the city’s celebration of the Travers Stakes, talked about his life away from the limelight — a conversation he spiced with hearty laughter.
Q: What do you do in your spare time, Ernie?
A: I’ll tell you what I love to do. I love to garden, plant vegetables, work around the house, mow the lawn. And I love to fish. I get so much peace of mind sitting on a little bank, a creek bank, fishing. If I don’t catch nothing, it’s fine. If I do, it’s fine, too. I really love that, just throw a line in the water. And any kind of fishing . . . I have done some fly fishing in the past, but there’s a lot of work in fly fishing. You’ve got to continuously work at it, reel it in, reel it out.
Q: What kind of vegetables do you grow in your garden?
A: You got a pencil? I grow corn, cabbage, potatoes — white potatoes — candied yams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, collard greens, turnip greens, cucumbers, watermelons, beets, squash, red peppers, sweet peppers, cauliflower and eggplant. It’s pretty good big. I got a big old tiller here that I run through, it takes me about 25, 30 minutes to run through the place, and the dirt’s just flying. It’s like RRRRRRRRRRRRR.
Q: How’s the harvest looking?
A: My peppers, onions and potatoes, watermelon and cucumbers, they are doing great. My Big Boy tomatoes, they ain’t doing too good. Too much water. My cherry tomatoes seem to be doing pretty good.
Q: Where do you find the time for these hobbies?
A: Step by step, know what I mean? Step by step. A few hours in the garden, you get tired, you sit down. Then, for my music, I make sure I give myself plenty of time to get over and do what I’ve got to do. The main thing with me, I stay pretty busy and I don’t drink no alcohol. I keep my brains in my body. I don’t say I’m a Christian, now . . . I’m a Christian kind of fella.
Q: I understand you also like watching the race horses on occasion.
A: Every once in a while I put a couple dollars on one or two. I don’t make it no serious thing because, man, they can take your house and home and everything else you got. I’ll pick some funny names, and I like the jockeys. Like Edgar Prado, he’s good, and John Velazquez, he’s good. But you can’t bet on them all the time.
Q: You must love playing Saratoga this time of year.
A: I love it to death — love it, love it, love it. It’s nice, I’m thankful for the work. You have the chance to meet everybody up there.
Q: Barbecuing is another one of your talents. Can you share any secrets?
A: I’ll tell you my secret, and I ain’t supposed to tell you this, but this is the way I do my ribs. I take my ribs and put them in a pot and cook them until they’re almost done. Then I throw them on the grill, they’re almost cooked already, I throw them on the grill and I get that crisp brown all the way around. I make my own barbecue sauce, with onions, ketchup, hot sauces, spices, a little bit of sugar and a little salt. Then I go to the store and buy me a couple beers, Budweiser beers, they’ve got yeast in them and I get my sauce all stirred up, I pour a little bit of beer in there and it foams up a little bit, I let it simmer.
Q: Fishing, gardening, cooking — any other interests?
A: I love to see my grandchildren. Taj Burnett — like Taj Mahal — he’s not even 3 yet and boy, we have a ball. He tries to tell me everything, tries to show me everything. You know, he has a little guitar that he plays. And a harmonica, too. I’ve got a little granddaughter, too; she’s not 3 months old yet. I give her the baby talk, how’s my little sugar-sugar, pudding-pudding. She’s just laughing and smiling.
Q: You’re out late nights on stage. When do you start your days?
A: I’m up every morning at 5 a.m. If I’m in at midnight, I’m up at 5, if I’m in at 3 or 4, I’m still up at 5, that’s the way I’m programmed. I don’t worry about nothing too much. I do what I can and what I can’t do, I don’t worry about it. I’m outside. I can’t sit in the house and look at the TV, I can’t do that, that ain’t for me. I have to be outside, whether it’s winter, fall. I have to be outside shoveling snow or planting a garden. I just can’t sit inside no house.
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Categories: Life and Arts