Life sometimes takes ordinary people on extraordinary adventures. J. Mayo Williams had a career that brought him from Arkansas to an Ivy League education and to the battlefields of Europe. Along the war, Williams became not only one of the charter players for the NFL, he was also a music producer who helped give a platform to some of the most influential blues and jazz artists.
Jay Mayo Williams was born in Pine Bluff in September 1894. In 1901, Williams’s father was murdered. Distraught and with no place to turn, his mother moved him and his three brothers to live with her parents in Monmouth, Illinois, in the northwestern end of the state. As he grew up, he became a talented athlete playing on Monmouth High School’s championship team in 1910 and winning events in the state track championship in 1912.
After his graduation from high school, Williams earned a scholarship to the prestigious Brown University in Rhode Island. Few African-Americans had the opportunity to attend college at the time, much less an Ivy League university. In 1917, the United States entered World War I, and Williams left Brown to enlist in the army. He served in the infantry for two years. After his tour of duty, he returned to Brown to complete his education.
Williams continued to run track and play football in his final years at the university. In his senior year, he was named to the All-American team. He graduated in 1920.
He gained the attention of the Canton Bulldogs in Ohio. It was a professional team organized through the new American Professional Football Association. The APFA was a collection of small teams from throughout the Northeast and Midwest, many of which have long since ceased to exist. However, he soon ended up with a small Indiana team in the APFA, the Hammond Pros, where he played with two of his former Brown teammates. He played in Hammond for two seasons. When the APFA was reorganized as the National Football League in 1922, Williams was part one of the original players for the NFL’s first season.
He played with two other NFL teams in 1924 and 1925, including the Dayton Triangles and the Cleveland Bulldogs, both in Ohio.
Professional football was not very lucrative in the 1920s, and in 1924, Williams found outside work with Paramount Records, a subsidiary of a furniture company that also made record players. He was made a talent scout and producer for a branch the company called “race records,” marketed specifically to African-American audiences. Working out of an office in Chicago, Williams sought out the popular blues artists who were developing the genre and introducing it to audiences outside the South. His work led to some of the first popular recordings of blues artists, including now-legendary figures as Ma Rainey, often called the “Mother of the Blues,” Blind Lemon Jefferson, called the “Father of Texas Blues,” and Jelly Roll Morton, a blues pioneer and one of the earliest jazz artists.
Williams finished his NFL career with Hammond in 1926, and inspired by his success in music, started his own record company, the Chicago Record Company, in 1927. He was one of the few African-Americans at the time to own his own label.
The beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 derailed his plans. The sharp decline of disposable income for millions of Americans, coupled with the increasing popularity of radio through the 1920s, pointed to a looming disaster for the recording industry. Williams soon sold his business and found work as a football coach for Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
He returned to music in 1934 with Decca Records. He worked with several artists on composition and arrangements, even writing some songs himself. He worked with blues legend Mahalia Jackson and Roosevelt Sykes, a fellow Arkansan who was a pioneer with blues piano in the 1930s. He gained the nickname “Ink” as he convinced many artists to sign contracts with Decca, though many later accused Williams of coercing them into bad contract deals the did not understand.
In 1946, he branched out on his own again, operating record labels in both Chicago and New York City. He enjoyed a degree of success and made the first recordings of another blues legend, Muddy Waters.
He continued to work as a music executive and producer into the 1970s. The later years of his life were spent largely out of the spotlight. He died at a nursing home in Chicago on January 2, 1980, at the age of 85. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2004.