Williams’ fellow 2014 inductees are Mississippi hill country blues man R.L. Burnside and saxophonists Big Jay McNeely, Eddie Shaw and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
The late folklorist Harry Oster, a member of LSU’s English department faculty, made Williams’ first recordings at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1959. Williams was serving time for murder at the sprawling prison farm. He claimed the killing was in self-defense.
Williams played an unusually intense, even ominous style of blues unique unto himself. In the lyrics of one of his best-known songs, “Grown So Ugly,” the singer looks in the mirror and moans, “I got so ugly I don’t even know myself.”
Oster’s co-archivist, Richard Allen, described Williams as an unorthodox artist who would play in three modes at once. A slide guitarist, Williams ignored traditional meter and structure, improvised lyrics and accompaniment and picked rather than strummed his guitar.
Before he entered Angola in 1956, Williams performed for local gatherings, did farm, dairy and lumber yard work and various other jobs. Oster and other supporters helped get Williams paroled in 1959 on a work-release program.
Williams’ prison recordings appeared on the Louisiana Folklore Society record label. He couldn’t accept an invitation to perform at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, however, because the parole board refused to let him travel.
Williams received a full pardon from Gov. John McKeithen in 1964 and made his Newport debut that year. In the ’60s and ’70s, his recordings were released by various American and European labels, including Vanguard, Arhoolie, Bluesville and Folk Lyric. He toured Europe and appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the Berkeley Folk Music Festival.
Williams was among the topics of the 2001, music-centered Louisiana Corrections Symposium at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His manager, Dick Waterman, gave the event’s most moving presentation, detailing the circumstances of the barroom fight that led to the musician’s murder conviction.
“A guy came in, got very drunk at the bar, turned to Robert and started to curse him, ready to attack him,” Waterman recalled. “So Robert said, ‘I ain’t who you think I am, man. Move along. Let me be.’ ”
The angry bar patron pulled out a gun, Waterman continued. “Robert had an owl-head derringer. Robert said, ‘Leave me be, man. You’re making a mistake here.’ And, as Robert said later, ‘I give the man the first shot, and then I had to burn the man.’
“Certainly,” Waterman told the symposium audience, “the ultimate generosity in the world was giving the guy the first shot.”
Williams, Waterman added, “was the sweetest, kindest, most gentle man.”
Despite being an internationally known blues artist, Williams supplemented his music income by collecting and selling scrap iron. He died at 66 on Dec. 31, 1980, in Rosedale.