Gerry Williams knows balance. As leader of local funk sensations SoFluid, he digs down hard into the groove, pressing soul to rhythm and then back again, with that sort of unshakable abandon that makes everybody feel like they're part of something bigger ... and louder. As a prominent vocal coach for the ubiquitous TransCon enterprise, former home base to the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, he's honed the vocal persuasions of pop pretty boys and prettier girls into a marketable polish that's currently threatening to take over the world -- one million teen-agers at a time.
Such duality comes naturally for Williams, whose colorful history of musical involvement has landed him all over the song map -- from banging on pots and pans with his family to playing drums in the high-school all-state band, from teaching gospel choirs and barbershop quartets to harmonizing the well-groomed pop of LFO and Mandy Moore. It's that interplay of discipline and rhythmic release that's allowed Williams to stay clear of the trappings of the bipolar music industry, and stay true to his own vision.
"The thing is to keep good morale. That's the way I was raised. Nothing was given to me; I always worked," he says. "My mother's a vocalist. My dad's a vocalist. They would wake me up on Saturday morning and say, 'Let's dance, let's sing.' They taught me to truly perform from the heart."
Williams' involvement with the local live-music scene grew out of the throbbing physicality and community spirit of Sapphire's then-experimental but now-influential "Phat-n-Jazzy" nights. Collaborating with DJ BMF and the rest of the Eighth Dimension crew made for a melting pot of soul and groove, and introduced Williams to the other celebrants of the city's rhythm collective, including movers and shakers such as Kow and Umöja. The sort of free-form, funk-is-its-own-reward approach of the Tuesday-night staple set the tone for SoFluid's pumped-out funk and gained the group a reputation as a luminous but undiscovered gem.
Meanwhile, the TransCon component grew directly out of Williams' private vocal coaching business. Among his 500 or so clients were the future members of TransCon crooners C Note. They personally referred him to TransCon head honcho Lou Pearlman, who now regularly calls on Williams to coach such heavy-hitters as LFO ("Summer Girls," "Girl on TV" ) and Longwood-based teeny-bopper Mandy Moore ("Candy").
These days, SoFluid is Williams' No. 1 priority.
"I think of SoFluid as sort of a cross between the S.O.S. Band and The Revolution," explains Williams. "I love all styles of music, especially just raw-dog soulful, with influences of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Barry White and, especially, Prince. Prince is the only artist to me that explodes, y'know, goes crazy -- and has a reason to."
The fast-evolving eight-piece, which joins Williams (keyboards, vocals), Errol Windham (guitar and vocals), Carl Ross (bass), Chris Valentino (drums), Nathan Ross (backing keyboards), Asann Brooks (rapper) and back-up singing sisters Sherisse and Kristine Hawkins, grew from the former funk outfit Earthtone. SoFluid has become a local favorite in all of its various sizes, sometimes shrinking to a trio and other times including as many musicians as the stage will allow. It all makes for a spontaneous combustion of craft and feeling, reminiscent more of a time when Earth Wind & Fire and the Commodores pushed the limits of high-powered presentation than to the controlled R&B fluff of today's pop crop.
The band, however, has never been an easy one to track. Despite critical success and popular acclaim, SoFluid has always seemed sort of a back-burner project, linking sometimes two, sometimes eight (or more) people into what comes off as a one-off celebration of groove. Additionally, Williams' collaborations with dance vocalist Sam Mollison and producer/DJ Michael Donaldson (a.k.a. Q-Burns Abstract Message) made his presence on the scene seem fortuitously incidental -- a little touch of quality turning up where you least expect it.
Last month, Williams was able to join his two worlds for a successful philanthropic endeavor, the Child Watch Benefit Concert at Hard Rock Live, that found SoFluid sharing the stage with up-and-comers and established vocal acts alike -- all students of Williams. Six bands, three hours, 1,600 eager listeners in attendance, all orchestrated without a hitch by Williams, the result was a glaring testimony to his power and his influence.
"They felt like they really wanted to do something for me," he says. "The bands promoted me and backed me up. Seeing bands do that, come help me out, that says a lot." And, he boasts, "Halfway through, SoFluid came out to take everybody's head away."
One has to wonder, though, how Williams' involvement with the industry is going to affect his own success when SoFluid shops its forthcoming EP later this year. Will he be able to transcend the petty pressuring of style-over-substance exploitation? Can you still want commercial success when you've already seen all of the drudgery it entails? No problem.
"I'm like anti-industry," explains Williams, meaning more that he is the opposite of it, rather than opposed to it. "There's nothing wrong with doing this; you're stupid for not getting involved. You just have to go out there and do something, too. Go out there and help the people."
"Bandwagon," a key track on the band's demo, reportedly tackles the subject of "people who get caught up in the industry." It would seem to be an odd topic coming from someone so closely tied to TransCon, a company already twice sued (by Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync) for its corporate cruelty. But it's that very juxtaposition of art and commerce that makes Williams' situation so unique. Plus the understanding that there is always more learning and living to do.
"There are so many different things in music," says Williams. "I mean, you look at `locally based improvisational jazz legend` Sam Rivers, he's 70-something years old, and he's still practicing and he's still learning. You look at that, that's enough to push you."
Gerry Williams performs as part of the AfroBeat collective (members of Kow and Umöja), 11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 5, at Barbarella; $5; 839-0457.