Big Joe Williams (born Joseph Lee Williams, October 16, 1903 - December 17, 1982) was an American delta blues musician and songwriter.Born in Crawford, Mississippi, Williams as a youth began wandering across the United States busking and playing stores, bars, alleys and work camps. In the early 1920s he worked in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930 for the Okeh label.
In 1934 he was in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met record producer Lester Melrose who signed him to a recording contract with Bluebird Records in 1935. He stayed with Bluebird for ten years, recording such blues hits as "Baby, Please Don't Go" (1935) and "Crawlin' King Snake" (1941), both songs later covered by many other performers. He also recorded with other blues singers, including Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Nighthawk and Peetie Wheatstraw.
Williams remained a noted blues artist in the 1950s and 1960s, with his guitar style and vocals becoming popular with folk-blues fans. He recorded for the Trumpet, Delmark, Prestige and Vocalion labels, among others. He became a regular on the concert and coffeehouse circuits, touring Europe and Japan in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and performing at major U.S. festivals.Wiiliams' guitar playing is decidedly in the Delta Blues style, and yet is unique. He played driving rhythm and virtuosic lead lines simultaneously and sang over it all. He played with picks both on his thumb and index finger, plus his guitar was very heavily modified. Williams added a rudimentary electric pick-up, whose wires coiled all over the top of his guitar. He also added three extra strings, creating unison pairs for the first, second and fourth strings. During the 1920s and 1930s, Big Joe had gradually added these extra strings in order to keep other guitar players from being able to play his guitar. Williams was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame on October 4, 1992.
He died December 17, 1982 in Macon, Mississippi. Williams was buried in a private cemetery outside Crawford near the Lowndes County line. His headstone was primarily paid for by friends and partially funded by a collection taken up among musicians at Clifford Antone's nightclub in Austin, Texas, organized by California music writer Dan Forte, and erected through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund on October 9, 1994. Harmonica virtuoso and one time touring companion of Williams, Charlie Musselwhite, delivered the eulogy at the unveiling. Williams' headstone epitaph, composed by Forte, proclaims him "King of the 9 String Guitar."
Remaining funds raised for Williams' memorial were donated by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to the Delta Blues Museum in order to purchase the last 9-string guitar from Williams' family. However, it was recently discovered that the guitar purchased by the Museum is actually a 12-string guitar that Williams used in his later days. The last 9-string (a Fifties Kay cutaway converted to Williams' 9-string specifications) is missing at this time. Williams' previous 9-string (converted from a 1944 Gibson L-7) is in the possession of Williams' 'road agent' and fellow traveler, Blewett Thomas.
One of Williams' 9-string guitars can be found under the counter of the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, which is owned by Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records.