“Practice and stay on top of your craft. There’s always another drummer out there that can take your spot. There’s always somebody that’s hungrier than you are. If you’re going to do it, try and be at the top, as far at the top as you can. It’s all about making the artist happy. A lot of people miss that.”
For this month’s On The Side, Smoothviews takes you to California’s capital city, where we catch up with drummer Omari Williams. Omari first came to our attention when we saw him playing with sax man Boney James. You could not help but notice this talented drummer doing his thing.
Omari Williams is a product of Huntsville, Alabama. He began playing at a very young age, around 3 or 4, “Picking up drumsticks and beating on everything.” Like many of the other drummers we’ve interviewed for On The Side, he began playing in the church. “Most musicians these days start in the church. The church gives you the fundamentals.” From playing in the church, Omari went on to play in school, in the jazz band, concert band and most notably, in the marching band. “Down south it’s about the marching band. That’s what it’s all about.” In school he studied and learned under his band teacher, Reginald Jackson, who became a major influence in his life. “He was pretty much the root of all the musicians, a whole bunch of other good players from the south,” including Kelvin Wooten and Norris Jones two musicians who also influenced Omari in his formative years. Kelvin Wooten is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with Mary J. Blige, among others, and Norris Jones plays guitar with D’Angelo. “He showed me the ropes of making music.” There were also other mentors and influences that helped shape his musical life, including Eddie Alford known as Spanky. Spanky was D’Angelo’s first guitar player. “There are a lot of very, very good players down South. They taught me. They taught me down, they taught me up, and they got me into shape, where I need to be. I was the young guy they had to whip into shape.”
At 17 years old Omari had a decision to make. Should he walk across the stage and get his diploma or should he accept his first professional drumming gig in London? Both were happening around the same time. Omari had always wanted to play professionally, so the decision came easy for him. His first professional gig was with American Idol second season winner Ruben Studdard. “We attended the same school. He would sing in a lot of the gospel groups that I played for around town. He’d always tell me, ‘Man, when I make it big, I’m going to call you.’ Next thing you know, he won American Idol, and he called me. We hadn’t talked in years before that. He said, ‘Are you ready to go to work?’ so I went to London and did a little tour with him, and then I did the U.S. tour. It was a lot of fun.”
Boney James is his main gig, but in addition to Boney and Ruben he’s played with Anthony Hamilton, Rick Braun, Jonathan Butler and he just returned from the Smooth Jazz Cruise where he played with a host of smooth jazz’s finest musicians. In addition to playing drums, Omari plays a little bass and can sing background when called upon. He is learning the keyboard so he can start making and producing his own music, as well as music for other artists. “I don’t know what the future holds but it’s definitely in the production side. I’d like to work a little bit more on the production end versus the performing end.” Omari has recently laid some tracks for bass player Smitty Smith’s next project and continues to work on learning new skills and keeping his original ones fresh and polished.
Like other musicians, he would have loved to play with the late Michael Jackson. “He was such a perfectionist. I would have loved that gig.” Omari would also welcome a chance to play with Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, or Garth Brooks. “If given an opportunity I would do a gig with Garth Brooks. I love playing straight ahead country music and soft rock music. I did a lot of gigs like that back home and in Nashville.” That one surprised me, but Omari broke it down. “It gives you the opportunity to stretch out a little bit, to work your mind a little bit. Everything is a little bit looser so you have to lock into something on that gig. They play things differently. It would definitely be a challenge and I like challenges, always.”
Life comes full circle and now Omari finds himself playing mentor for the next group of musicians coming up. “I teach these guys the way that I know, the way I was taught. I find myself fussing when I’m trying to explain something. I find myself whipping a lot of people into shape. (Laugh) I tell them to practice, stay humble, and definitely learn as much as you can. You can never stop learning. Always seek knowledge.”
Look for Omari Williams on tour with Boney James and on the California music scene.