- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
Tomar Williams doesn’t sing the rafter-rattling shack shakers and heart-searing serenades that fill his catalog: He inhabits them.
On funky numbers like “Heart Attack” and “Do You Feel It,” he moves across the stage fluidly, coaxing the crowd into motion with a toe-tapping, shoe-shimmying shuffle and a wide open smile. On the gut-twisting slow burners, he reaches inside and goes deep. This is no flash-in-the-pan romance. Williams belts out melodies with a time-weathered heart so open and raw, so earnest and real, it ignites a beacon of hope for the broken. In a summer marked by disaster and devastation, songs like “Day-By-Day” and “No One Is Alone” are a healing salve for aching souls.
Williams, the 49-year-old frontman of Tomar and the FCs, is Austin’s new king of rock ’n’ soul.
He carries the same mission as the bygone elders of soul, artists like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. “I want to share a story that I ultimately believe will help someone in life or in a situation,” he says. “Authentic truth” is at the root of his music. “It’s not like I’m falsifying.”
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Though his current project is only 2 years old, Williams is a seasoned veteran, with decades of real music experience. Over 30 years ago he parlayed a carefully crafted Michael Jackson impression into a teen gig fronting a family R&B/pop band that played classic Austin haunts such as Steamboat, Antone’s and Liberty Lunch. In the ‘90s, he played keys in numerous Austin projects, most notably the avant jazz powerhouse, Hot Buttered Rhythm. Then, in the early aughts, the Williams family, a stealthy musical dynasty, stood in the shadows and helped reshape the sound of Texas rap through the Carnival Beats production house.
Music runs through Williams’ bloodline. His mother, a native of Luling, was part of a family gospel group. Every Sunday morning they would work the radio circuit, traveling around to sing at different gospel stations. His father, a tenor sax player, joined the band shortly after he met her.
The seven Williams children grew up surrounded by music. They listened to R&B, gospel and soul, and their father insisted on placing jazz fundamentals at the foundation of their musical education. Williams started playing drums at 10, but he had dreams of being a lead singer, so his father persuaded him to transition to bass. Within a few years, Williams, his three brothers and two of his sisters had formed the family band.
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The Williams siblings were not playing around. Never mind the sweltering summer heat, when they were out of school, they put in 12-hour sessions in the garage developing an act called Sixx AM. It was the ‘80s, and Williams was a huge fan of Michael Jackson. He won talent competitions with his take on the pop superstar, complete with Jheri curl hair and extravagant pleather jackets.
“I used to study that guy,” he says. “I wore my mom and dad’s VCR out with the stop and pause.”
He learned every move, inadvertently giving himself a master class in the art of pop showmanship. Sixx AM adopted the stage principles of the Jackson 5. The Williams siblings taught themselves how to break out choreographed dance moves without losing a beat.
The hard work paid off. By the time Williams was 16, the band landed a gig at Antone’s opening for local blues hero W.C. Clark.
In retrospect, Williams recognizes the profound ways his siblings’ early obsession with music shaped their lives.
“Music kept my brothers and I out of trouble and out of jail or even out of a pine box,” he says. “I’m being real, because I have friends who went off the deep end … that are no longer with us, because they went left and we went right.”
Through the ‘90s, Williams made a name for himself as a keyboard player, but as the turn of the millennium rolled around, his younger brother, Salih, who was closely tracking a Houston rap scene that was steadily building heat, started making beats.
“At one point he was like why don’t you come over here and try your hand at doing some hip-hop,” Williams says.
Jay-Z featured Houston heavies UGK on “Big Pimpin’” in 1999, but for the most part the slowed and chopped sound of Texas rap was off the national radar. His brother had developed his own spin on the Houston sound, and Williams tried to emulate it with his own production. “We were sort of playing off this certain sound and everyone thought it was like a sort of circus full of bouncing and carnival, circus sounds,” he says.
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With that vibe in mind, they formed a production company called Carnival Beats. The first record they cut, “Barre Baby” for Big Moe, dropped in 2000 and it was a regional hit. They went on to produce nine cuts, including “Purple Stuff” on Moe’s 2002 full-length “Purple World.” Other Houston rappers started calling. They linked up with Swisha House and suddenly, Carnival Beats was at Ground Zero as the Houston sound blew up.
From his vantage point in Austin, Williams knew the Swisha House tracks would be big in Texas, but he wasn’t prepared for the national breakout. In 2002, Salih Williams got the underground buzzing when he landed another regional hit, this time for Houston rapper Mike Jones, a little track called “Still Tippin.’”
During that period of his life, Tomar Williams ran a cleaning company to make ends meet. One of his contracts was at the Acura dealership on the motor mile in South Austin. To keep himself company while he worked, he would turn the big screen TV in the lounge area onto “MTV Uncut.” Late one night in 2004, he was at the dealership cleaning floors. At first, he thought someone was pranking him when he heard the “Still Tippin’” beat come on, but when he walked over to the lounge there was Mike Jones on MTV.
He called his brothers. “Fellas, I think this is going to be big,” he said.
The track spread like wildfire and soon the Williams brothers were an in-demand production team. Within a year Carnival Beats was signed to a writing contract by Universal Music Group. They went on to log hits with Paul Wall (“Sittin’ Sideways,”), Pimp C. (“Pourin’ Up”) and Chingo Bling (“Like This and Like That”).
Though they were big players on the Houston scene, they deliberately maintained a low public profile. “My brothers and I, we would get asked to go shoot the videos and we would not show up,” Williams says.
“I have a wife, and at that time my daughter was 7 years old,” he says. “All my brothers have daughters. We were looking at it like, if we get in those videos … they’re forever. You’re on a set with a bunch of half-dressed women. That don’t look good.”
Williams says one of the highlights of his career as a hip-hop beatmaker was when the Carnival Beats team got the call from Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mom. The late rapper’s crew flew out to record a posthumous track at a studio tucked in the back of a record store the Williams’ family ran in Luling.
The engineer brought a suitcase full of hard drives loaded with unreleased Tupac rhymes. They spanned a wide swath of the rapper’s career, beginning when he was still a teenager. Listening to them in chronological order, Williams could hear his evolution as a rapper. They listened to more than 100 tracks. “When you walked into the studio and heard Tupac rapping with no music … oh my God, I almost get goosebumps talking about it because it felt like he was in the room,” Williams says.
The track they recorded was “What’s Next” on the “‘Pac’s Life” album that came out in 2006.
They continued the writing contract with Universal, but, in time, they backed away from the Houston rap scene.
“With those guys in Houston, the togetherness that they had, when it started to fall apart — too many fights, beefs, we realized we’re not from there,” Williams says. “We’re from Austin. We don’t do that here. This is a music city … music is too important to us to actually be put into that. Honestly, we kind of just gracefully bowed out and decided to go another direction.”
In 2012, the Williams’ brothers pivoted back to soul, producing the local artist Latasha Lee and performing in her backing band the Black Ties. When that group disbanded in 2015, Williams’ wife Flora encouraged him to step out of the shadows and retake his position as a front man.
“We’ve been together 26 years. She knows me inside and out. She is an incredible woman,” he says. “She kept saying I think it’s time for you to get back out there and do you.”
As it happened, Nikolas Bouklas, the horn player from the Black Ties, was getting a group together. “He kept telling me, ‘Tomar. I got these guys, they looking for a singer. Why don’t you just come by and check it out and if it don’t work, just go the other the way.’”
They gave him a tape of old school soul covers they had been learning, songs that were in the same vein as the original music he was working on. He learned the songs and joined the group for a rehearsal at the Music Lab.
“We slammed song after song,” he says.
When they opened the door at the end of the session, a group of people were standing in the hall listening. “I knew it right then and there,” he says. “When you excite musicians … I’ve been in this city too long … I knew the rest was going to be history.”
Over the past 10 years, as enthusiasm around vinyl has rescued floundering music stores, retro soul has experienced a resurgence with a new generation of young listeners. There’s a hunger for that classic sound. “Once they get a little taste of it … they understand where all this Bruno Mars and this Usher and this stuff is coming from,” Williams says.
In the same way the Daptones record label repackaged vintage soul with late career breakouts like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Williams hopes to build a movement around Texas blues and soul. He’s producing the next record for young blues upstarts, the Peterson Brothers, and has begun linking them with the FCs on bills.
“Kind of like what those guys used to do back in the day … Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, they would just go out on the road together, like a one-two punch. And it was no competition because each had their own sound,” he says.
They also had real skills. Quality is key.
“If you just write good music people will gravitate to it regardless,” Williams says. “One thing about a hit, you can keep a hit down. It’s going to find a way. It’s like water. Water will find a way. You just keep putting good content out there and just being good.”
But he knows the music industry is fickle. “Always remember, your time is your time so when it comes, you better be ready,” he says.
Tomar Williams’ time is now.