He has his eye on your soul, for sure. But the energetic front man on stage shredding the Flying V guitar is not trying to lead you to the devil with his rock ‘n’ roll. Actually, when you see him these days he’ll be playing his Gibson SG “because my Flying V is kind of awkward if I want to play it in back of my head and all,” says 67-year-old James Williams of the Electrifying Crown Seekers. “They really go for that!” adds Williams, who will do anything within his musical powers to bring you to Christ.
The Crown Seekers’ stomping garage-rock gospel, layered with gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, physically moves those in the pews. Your reaction at Jazz Fest to his band might well be, “My God, they kick ass!” Williams desires a different result: “It is about trying to get people saved,” he says. “I want them to tell me, ‘I heard your music and I went to y’all’s church and now I’m a Christian.’ And that happens quite often.”
Originally from Liberty, Mississippi and trained in Jimmy Reed-style blues guitar, James Williams is now the only original member of the 47-year-old Crown Seekers, currently backed by members of his large musical family and their community. Two of Williams’ sons, 19 years apart, have played drums for the Crown Seekers. “My father used to run me out of the house when I was trying to play the guitar,” remembers Williams. “When I got good? He used to brag on me so much and bring his friends around to hear me play. So when both of my sons started banging on pots, I got ‘em drums, I never ran my kids out. I always defended them and their noise. And they got good!” 44-year-old Bret Williams left the band years ago to become a breakdancer, handing over duties to now 25-year-old Keith Williams. When Keith can’t make the service, his 15-year-old nephew Lee Murphy, Jr. mans the Crown Seekers’ kit.
Gospel quartets are rare, James Williams explains. “Most gospel groups have so many members because not everyone who plays an instrument can sing,” he says. “We all play and harmonize,
so we don’t need more than the four.” When asked why the Crown Seekers can be seen performing with up to nine people in its quartet, Williams laughs. “Somebody always wants to join our group. They always trying to get in. And I been trying to get more younger people in the group in case anything happens to me.”
As detailed in the upcoming documentary film By and By: NOLA Gospel at the Crossroads by Joe Compton and Matthew Bowden, New Orleans gospel quartets are recently even rarer, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. “There were 45 groups before, and now there are only 12 to 15,” says Compton, an ex-civil servant and NPR music reviewer.
“There aren’t many gospel groups of any kind in New Orleans anymore,” James Williams says. “The Crown Seekers came back fast after Katrina because we live in Marrero on the West Bank, which didn’t get a lot of damage. But also, gospel’s just not as popular as before Katrina for some reason. The scene is not what it used to be.”
One of the dramatic arcs of By and By involves Keith Williams’ reluctance to lead the family band once his father passes. “I love playing drums in this band, but I have to be obedient to God,” says Keith, who delivers his own ministry solo in Monroe, Louisiana. “That’s what God told me to do. I write my own music, I play instruments. If it was up to me though, I’d just sing, but in the end I have to be obedient to God.”
For all his flashy fretwork, James Williams claims that “the trick, in the end, is to figure out how to be humble and still create a sound that will get to the people.” Though behind a Gibson rather than a pulpit, Williams refuses to use his musical gift for financial gain. He recently retired after several decades at BellSouth, and the rest of the Seekers all have day jobs. They toured France in 1990 but can far more often be heard at St. Lucy’s church fair, playing for charity.
“We don’t play in clubs, but if they wanted gospel we would do it there! We will play anywhere they need the gospel,” promises Williams. “We can sing high, we can sing low, we can sing in between. We can sing country western—we do it all, so that wherever we go, from the nursing homes to the Jazz Fest, we’ll be able to do whatever is needed.”
The Electrifying Crown Seekers play Jazz Fest on Friday, April 27 at 11:15 a.m. in the Gospel Tent.