Stokley Williams is the Grammy-nominated session musician whoís backed up some of the best in the business, including Elton John and Toni Braxton.
For more than 30 years heís played frontman for the Minneapolis-based R&B band Mint Condition, a five-man outfit that has released nine albums, scored several Top 10 hits, and toured with The Purple One himself, Prince.
By all appearances, Williams is a well-known industry vet. So when coming up with a title for his first solo project, he chose ó Introducing Stokley Williams?
"Iím trying to cast a wider net to capture those who donít know me," he said.
Okay, cool. But what about those who have been rocking with Mint Condition since it first jumped on the scene with the jam Breakiní My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)? Arenít they well acquainted with Stokleyís distinctive piercing voice?
"For the people who know me, they know me with a group of guys I grew up with," he said in a recent telephone interview. "But thatís one-fifth. With this, itís just me from the bottom to the top."
Williams will bring his solo act to the stage as the headliner at Saturdayís Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Music Fest at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The concert represents just one of multiple events taking place between Jan. 11 and Jan. 20. Jazz guitarist Norman Brown will follow Williams on Sunday at Curtis Hixon.
The festivalís calendar also includes the Tampa Organization of Black Affairsí annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Breakfast on Monday and the annual MLK Parade on Monday (Jan. 15), a University of South Florida appearance by legendary actor and civil rights leader Harry Belafonte on Jan. 16 and the Heritage Gala on Jan. 18 with jazz trumpeter Tom Brown.
While Williams promises to share his latest efforts, Mint Condition fans need not fear. He promises to sing several of the groupís biggest hits including U Send Me Swinging, Nothing Left To Say, and What Kind of Man Would I Be?
And for those who are wondering: no, the band hasnít broken up "just doing different things until itís time to come back together."
"I needed a change of scenery," Williams said. "Thereís other gifts Iíd like to use."
Such as executive producer and arranger on his latest project, which features guest appearances by British singer Estelle and production by Ivan Barrias and Carvin Haggins, the dynamic duo behind Williamsís R&B peers Musiq Soulchild, Jazmine Sullivan, and Jill Scott.
Through cuts like Level and Organic, the 14-song album explores love and relationships, themes that never get old, Williams said.
"When it comes down to it, thatís what (life) is all about," he said. "Iíll always talk about (love). I keep it there because thatís where humans are at."
Songs that examine matters of the heart were catalog staples for crooners that Williams said influenced him, like Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross.
But Williams cautions against grouping him in with those luminaries.
"Thatís for (fans and critics) to decide," he said. "They left a great legacy of music."
That includes fellow Minnesotan Prince, whom Mint Condition got the chance to open for during his Welcome 2 America tour.
The band developed a special bond with Prince, "an amazing dude" who "loved Mint" and "was very generous with us."
For one show, Prince had a unique concept.
"He wanted Mint coming on after Larry Graham but he didnít want the music to stop and he wanted us to use all of his instruments," Williams said. "It sounded like the craziest thing, but he made it happen."
Williams has built his career on that Minneapolis creativity and ingenuity created by Prince and nurtured by super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
It was through the latter two that Williams came into steady session work at the pairís Flyte Time Productions, where they also put him in charge of managing the percussion section.
Playing drums behind some of the biggest names in music is where Williams said he learned his biggest lesson in the business.
"Just because youíre not in front doesnít mean youíre not in an important role," he said.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Stokley Williams.
Contact Kenya Woodard at hill[email protected]
.IF YOU GO
Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Music Fest
Stokley Williams of Mint Condition, with opening act The Raydio Show featuring Arnell Carmichael, performs Saturday (Jan. 13) at the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Music Fest at Tampaís Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The event, which runs from noon to 9 p.m., also will include local music acts, family-friendly activities, a childrenís village, free health screenings, food vendors and more. It continues on Sunday with jazz guitarist Norman Brown headlining. Individual ticket prices start at $10. The Music Fest is just one of many events associated with the 10-day heritage festival. For a complete listing, visit tampablackheritage.com/music.