But through it all, the larger-than-life singer, trombonist and bandleader has also had a severe case of the funk, one that gets stronger with each new release from his band Big Sam’s Funky Nation. In March, Williams and his bandmates released their latest album, Songs in the Key of Funk (Vol. 1). The title is a nod to Stevie Wonder, but that only hints at the depth of ’70s and ’80s funk influences contained within, from early Prince and Rick James to the Gap Band, George Clinton and Zapp.
And then there’s the brassy new single “PokeChop,” with its old-school hip-hop bassline straight out of the Sugar Hill Records playbook, the timeless call-and-response vocals, and the funkiest bounce-rap vibe this side of Big Freedia. Strange as it may seem, the accompanying video, with its tasteful twerking and wireless keytar, is actually the first official music video in the band’s 15-year history.
After all, being his own hype-man isn’t Williams’ idea of a good time. Being onstage is. Whether working sweaty clubs or open-air festivals, the band’s kinetic fusion of funk, jazz and rock really comes to life onstage, and has much the same effect on the crowds.
Meanwhile, Williams has continued to be an in-demand sideman, logging studio sessions with Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, Steve Earle and, most famously, on Alan Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s collaborative album, The River in Reverse.
On the eve of his band’s current tour, I spoke to Big Sam about the new album, the secret to blending bounce and second-line rhythms, returning to his hometown after Hurricane Katrina, and the guy who was really responsible for messing up Sam’s big scene in the HBO series, Treme.
Indy: You’ve always tapped into a variety of musical styles, even going back to when you were just starting out with the Stooges Brass Band. How would you say your sound has changed through the years?
Big Sam: You know, coming from New Orleans, people think of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — they think about brass bands in general — and they think of Preservation Hall Jazz. Then, when it comes to funk, they think about The Meters and the Neville Brothers, you know, Dr. John, that kind of thing. And being from New Orleans, born and raised, we still have that backbeat in us, in the grooves, and in the songs that we write. But it’s also different.
In what ways?
Well, with this album, I wanted to represent the band the way that we should have been represented all of these years. When you listen to it, you can hear a heavy Gap Band influence — or Morris Day & The Time — but then you’ll also hear those little hidden rhythms in the background that are more like the Neville Brothers, The Meters and Allen Toussaint. Some of the earlier albums were kind of like detours, but we still had some of these grooves within those albums.
We’re really a dance band, and Songs in the Key of Funk is really a dance album. You pop it in, and you want to shake something. It’s like when you come to our shows. You get sweaty. You’re not about to sit down and think you look cute just watching us. [Laughs.]
Speaking of shaking something, I understand that “PokeChop” is your first real music video. After having this band together for so many years, how can that be true?
Man, I just never thought about doing a video.
Are you camera shy? I can’t really see that being the case.
[Laughs.] Actually, I don’t really care for the camera. Even when I was doing Treme, I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll make a cameo.” So all of these years went by, and I’ve never done a video. And the social media people are saying I should talk more on camera, but that’s just not me, brother. So I don’t know how I feel about being on camera. But once we got out there to shoot the video, I had my horn in my hands and I’m like, “Oh, okay, let’s get it!”
So you had your prop.
I need my horn. If my horn is there, I’m good.
What was it like playing with Allen Toussaint in that Treme episode?
Well, we’d toured Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s The River in Reverse album for about two years. And then, at one point on the show, there’s that scene where Allen is calling me out, like I messed up one of the horn parts. I’m like, “Hey, you know that’s not me. Y’all know that’s Wendell over here playing those notes.”
Wendell Pierce actually plays trombone? I always thought he was just faking it.
Well, he doesn’t play, but he took lessons to try to look like he’s playing the whole time. So during the session, on that take, he really started trying to play the music. He’s like, “Hey, watch this, watch this!” And I’m going, “Man, what you doing? Leave that alone.” And then Allen caught it and was like, “Wait a minute. Um, something’s just not right here.”
So yeah, it was really fun. And Wendell’s whole image on that show was kind of copped behind my style. You know, back in the day, I was bigger than I am now, I always wore my Kangol hats, I used to wear blazers. So his image was after me.
It’s a cool image. So I know that, when Allen Toussaint passed away back in 2015, you and Trombone Shorty led his second line tribute. And he was really the most talented, well-dressed and polite artist I’ve ever encountered. I can’t imagine how emotionally powerful that must have been for you.
It was crazy, man, it was devastating. You know, we all love Allen, and by that point I had played with him for 12 years. It was just very emotional — it was hard for all of us. It was really sudden, too. And still to this day, it saddens all of us. He was like the nicest, most genuine person you would ever meet. And he’s a genius, man, he has all of these hits, and a lot of people never heard of him. That’s the crazy part. He’s also the only cat I’ve ever toured with where, every single night, I’d get chills just listening to him play.
Getting back to the new album, you use a talkbox on the track “Buzzin’.” Is that kind of an homage to [Zapp leader] Roger Troutman?
Of course, of course.
So I’m guessing that Zapp was a bigger influence on you than Joe Walsh or Peter Frampton.
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs.] Roger and Zapp, man, that whole group is just amazing. I love their vibe and their songs. I mean I’m sure you can hear it all over this album too, the claps and the grooves that we’re laying down. I just wanted people to know what we’re all about, so that they’ll just stop putting everybody from New Orleans in that one little box.
So if a schoolkid who’s just learning how to play were to ask how you take all these different rhythms — bounce, second-line, funk — and make them all work together, what would you say?
I’ll say this: It’s all related, and they’re all syncopated. With bounce, you have the hand claps going like non-stop, all eighth notes — or quarter notes, depending how you want to think of it. And then with second line, you got that back beat. And with funk, you just kind of cut that back a little bit. So all New Orleans music is related, it all goes back to African rhythms and things like that. You can mix in the Mardi Gras Indians, all of that, and make one big party.
Let’s talk about the city of New Orleans itself. I’ve read that the legislature still refuses to raise minimum wage above $7.25, that developers are rebranding the 7th Ward as “The New Marigny,” and that Charity Hospital never reopened after Katrina.
And yet you still have more great recording artists and session musicians than any other city in the world. What are the reasons for that?
It’s New Orleans, baby. I mean where else in the world can you get this type of food, this type of music, this type of culture? You know, where else can you literally walk out of a club onto the street with a drink in your hand and police not bother you? People love all that, and it attracts people to the city. Especially the food and music, man, our whole culture is one-of-a-kind. So people are willing to sacrifice those things in order to be here. But yeah, it sucks for a lot of locals, man, because, like you said, they won’t raise the minimum wage, the housing isn’t affordable at all anymore. I mean, prices have skyrocketed since Katrina. Every year it becomes more expensive, but people are willing to make whatever sacrifices they have to make, just to be here, because it’s New Orleans.
I understand that in the wake of the flood, you commuted back and forth between San Antonio and New Orleans every week to play gigs. What did you see when you got there?
It was like a ghost town. Like nothing was here, it was just empty, it smelled really bad, it smelled like death. And they had the National Guard, they had the military, you know, everybody was down here, the streets were lined with tanks and stuff. It looked like a third world country, man, and I was heartbroken, I said, man, I can’t believe this is my city.
And then, slowly but surely, it started coming back. But like you just said, some areas are still not up to par, there are still abandoned properties, and the insurance companies refuse to pay people their money so they can get their houses back. So, you know, I’d say we’re 87 percent back. But the culture, the way we live, the lifestyle, everything is still here.