by David Cole
To print this bio', position mouse anywhere on the text, right click then "print".
Viola Wills is a versatile international recording artiste. When she was eight years old she won a singing contest that was sponsored by the Federation of Baptist Churches and after many elimination contests she won a scholarship to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. Deciding against taking singing lessons, Viola took piano lessons from Earl Vorhees, a renowned musical teacher.
The 'In Crowd'
Viola's interest in classical waned after seeing that her friends were into rhythm & blues but having a classical voice put her outside the 'in crowd' with whom she had a burning desire to be accepted. This desire led to an early marriage and six children by the age of 21. After this disastrous marriage and feeling like a failure as a mother, as her children became teenagers she decided to return to her musical roots and make a career of singing.
The White connection
Her cousin, Esther Ray Potts, needed an extra backing singer to work for the then unknown Barry White, and although she had never been into the studio before it would prove to be a place where she felt at home.. Barry took an instant interest in Viola's sweet melodic tones and tried to commercialize her soft delivery with several songs that would later spawn her first local hit single "Lost Without The Love Of My Guy". Years later Viola recalled that Barry used the introduction to this song on his famous version of Love Unlimited's "I Found A Love". Viola's own song failed to make the mainstream.
After a time Viola realized that Barry had found new interests and that her short-lived recording career was over but not before she learned that she had songwriting skills.
Determined to get into the recording industry Viola became single-minded in her efforts to record a hit record and take her and her family out of the poverty they were accustomed to. Her children would later recall that these were the years when they 'lost' their mother. Viola was relentlessly chasing her goals to get a hit record. Anytime there was a chance to be on records Viola was there. She recorded "You've Got My Blessings" and "The First Time" for BEM soul records but nothing came of them.
She had no clue, no close associates and noone to help her understand the music business until she met James Gadsen of Watts 103rd St. Band. James taught Viola to hear musical tones and voicings that were played on the radio. She would write songs day and night, trying to block out the reality of the poverty her children and herself were going through. She even wrote a song for James and was able to open her own publishing company. With James, Viola would write "If You Got The Will" and "Sweetback" and both numbers would find their way on to record and eventually get Viola on Don Cornelius' Soul Train where she would meet stars like Bill Withers and Al Green. Viola felt that she was on her way with this TV show but success still eluded her.
The Cocker connection
Through a friend of Gadsen's, Viola was introduced to Gloria Jones, a Motown writer who was also a backing singer for Joe Cocker. Gloria talked Viola into going on tour with Cocker - a possibility that should have been out of the question as Viola still had children at home to take care of - and Gloria told Viola she would have the opportunity to do her own album if someone spotted her. Viola had written so many songs at this point that she felt sure someone would want to hear them, so arrangements were made with family and friends to take care of the children and Viola became a part of the Cocker entourage.
Throughout the worldwide tour, whenever possible, Viola would be seen with pen and paper in hand writing her songs. During any breaks where there was a piano Viola would try them out. This would eventually lead the band to pick up their own insturments and join in the grooves Viola had written. At the end of the tour, much to everyone's surprise, Viola was chosen to have her own album recorded.
Gloria Jones, Virginia Ayres and Beverly Gardner were the backing vocals for Viola and her first album "Soft Centers" included all of the songs that she had written. Viola recalls sitting at the piano and, without having any real knowledge of the music that was supposed to go with the lyrics she had created, somehow managed to get it passable and onto vinyl. Having had no real extensive studio practice, the vocals were shaky and many of the song lyrics had not been finished but having the use of the Cocker musicians covered up a lot of mistakes.
"Soft Centers" did not sell many copies, mainly because of the attitudes toward black artistes and albums back in the early 70s. It was OK for a black artiste to have a single record released, even as a top ten record, but the industry was not ready to support a black album, so Viola's music was subsequently laid to rest after no real attempts were made to market the product. All was not lost because during this release - where Viola would be held over with her performances before the very sophisticated audiences of Ronnie Scott's jazz venue - she would meet her core following the gay crowd, who would inform her that she had a cult following.
Viola never understood her appeal to the gay crowd but they certainly adopted her and basically became a mainstay in her life. Even though she did not personally live their complete lifestyle she loved to party with them. It was perhaps a mutual admiration society.
In between getting record deals Viola recorded an album with Yves Dessca of Paris. This time she recorded a hit, "Don't Stop The Train", but she would not be credited with it for many years after its initial release although many Viola fans knew her voice and bought it for this reason. The song went top 20 in the UK charts. The next time Viola would have a record released ("Gonna Get Along Without You Now") it would be the gay crowd that would help Viola cross over into the mainstream top 10 of English society.
Viola went on to do Top Of The Pops, the most mainstream TV show in Britain and many other local TV shows in England and throughout Europe. As a result Viola finally became a household name in Europe.
Meantime, in America disco was going out of the marketplace and underground. This frustrated Viola because she really just wanted to sing her own original music that she believed were hits if someone just gave her a chance, and she was very vocal about it to the producers, the press and just about anyone who would listen. She missed the entire mainstream in her own country but was one of the biggest disco stars of her era having had "If You Could Read My Mind", "Stormy Weather" and "Upon The Roof", successively in the charts. It seemed that every classic song that Viola covered would chart in some parts of the world. "Both Sides Now" charted in the english club cicuit and "Love Pains" that was a club hit in various venues although never released as a single.
It would be several years after her last hit "Stormy Weather" before her singing career would start up again. Then, finally, Viola had her first chart hit with her own original song "Dare To Dream" - but it was in England and noone ever promoted Viola's original music. "Somebody's Eyes" was a hit in many of the clubs, especially on the streets of New York at the end of the evening when it was time for sleaze music. However it was never released as a single when disco was still the craze. By the time it was released - once again without promotion -it just slipped away unnoticed.
In fact Viola did not get a chance to record any more of her own songs during this period as she was too busy trying to follow the string of hit records that resulted in her first dance album. Her live gigs took her all over the world and this time it was her own tour and not someone else's. However,at the end of the disco era Viola found herself bankrupted, cold and husband-less. She decided to go back to school and get a degree in music therapy and become more of the people that she wanted to sell records to - the mainstream - but after receiving nearly 100 credits she decided to take the plunge one more time and returned to England with a vengeance.
In the space of two years Viola has brought the attention of the media back into her life. She has completed two dance singles and one album with her new band Jazzspel and is also touring on the dance club circuit all over Europe.
Ms Wills loves to write and is continuously re-inventing herself leaning towards the younger generation and their new trends. She loves to workout in her spare time and finds time to dance, tennis, golf, swim and hang out with her boyfriend when he's around. Mostly however, Vi is at her computer putting all her future plans into motion. Her present venture, Jazzspel, has received rave notices in the press, her live shows induce three or four encores, the youngsters are in awe of her in the dance clubs and she is still preparing for her theater piece where she can work with children of all ethnicities in her "Stepping Out With Ms V" show, which - as everything - is still work in progress at this time. Will Viola return to the States to be a Music Therapist ?
As Vi herself says "Who knows? With me anything can happen as long as I'm not bored".