Stokley Williams is the Grammy-nominated session musician who’s backed up some of the best in the business, including Elton John and Toni Braxton.
For more than 30 years he’s 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 — Introducing Stokley Williams?
"I’m trying to cast a wider net to capture those who don’t 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 Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)? Aren’t they well acquainted with Stokley’s 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 that’s one-fifth. With this, it’s just me from the bottom to the top."
Williams will bring his solo act to the stage as the headliner at Saturday’s 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 festival’s calendar also includes the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs’ 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 group’s 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 hasn’t broken up "just doing different things until it’s time to come back together."
"I needed a change of scenery," Williams said. "There’s other gifts I’d 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 Williams’s 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, that’s what (life) is all about," he said. "I’ll always talk about (love). I keep it there because that’s 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.
"That’s 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 didn’t 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 pair’s 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 you’re not in front doesn’t mean you’re not in an important role," he said.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Stokley Williams.
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]abay.com.
.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 Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The event, which runs from noon to 9 p.m., also will include local music acts, family-friendly activities, a children’s 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.