At a blues jam at Dawson’s Bar & Grill in Tacoma on a recent warm July night, the pub is full of people, bass thumping, harmonica blowing, the whole place alive with movement, sound and light. Looking across the bar to where one could often count on seeing Larry Williams sitting back with his camera, the space is empty. In fact the rest of the bar is full, but that particular space is vacant. And then it really hits home.
If you were lucky enough to know him, you probably heard the morning of July 4, 2016, that our friend, Photographer Larry Williams, had passed the day before. He was at home, with his girlfriend and caregiver, Theresa Southwick, who was trying to keep him comfortable as long as possible. He had come back days before from another stay at the VA hospital. While he had lived with medical issues for years, a viral infection last February exacerbated those conditions, and he died from complications of congestive heart failure. He was 74.
Many had little idea there was anything wrong until an impromptu gathering arranged with the help of Ed Maloney at Seattle’s Highway 99, in late spring, when many artists and others in the blues community came together to honor him. Larry showed up with Theresa and a tank of oxygen, and clapped and smiled and cried at the outpouring of love. He kept shaking his head and covering his face with his hand. Theresa says he wept even at the memory of that night.
An intensely private and humble man, Larry didn’t often talk about himself. He had spent 22 years in the service: in the Navy and then the Coast Guard, and served in Vietnam during that war. But Theresa said he didn’t talk much about it, except that he served the country he loved, and was admired by his fellow countrymen, including many he had served under. Instead he would approach friends with open arms and enthusiasm, asking about how they were. Down to a person, everyone who was asked for their thoughts about Larry used the words, kind, gentle or sweet. He left an imprint of kindness, warmth and generosity that is not easily matched in today’s world.
Tom Jones of the Stacy Jones Band offered this: “Larry Williams was a great man and a true gentleman! He was a friend to the entire Jones family. Every time I saw him he would ask, “How’s Momma?” My son Jon-Paul Jones, in San Antonio, shared many conversations with him about photography. Larry was a big fan of my daughter Stacy Jones and me, and appreciated that we got to play music together. He had the same appreciation for fellow musicians Cody Rentas and his father Lee Rentas. He asked a favor of me one time: He explained how much he enjoyed the two family acts and asked if I could arrange for the four of us to perform together. I was able to make it happen and it was very special. But the best part was seeing the smile on Larry’s face. I will miss that smile! I love you my friend! Rest in Peace and I pray you are one of the ones there to greet me when I come!”
To someone who spent much of his life alone, family was very important to Larry. Indeed, he took care of his friends as if they were family. Born in the heart of where blues and jazz were also conceived, Larry did not live with his birth parents in New Orleans for more than the first few years of his life. He went to stay with relatives in Texas before landing in Monterey, CA where he was raised by his aunt and uncle. Theresa says she believes he found stability and acceptance there, as they were conservative religious people who did not drink or smoke, and hence, Larry never developed a taste for either. She says it made him uncomfortable, and the only time he ever had anything less than kind to say was when he thought someone was hurting themselves with behaviors like that. He would actively try to help them, drive them home, or offer other assistance. But he would be firm. “He would say, ‘You got to stop doing that,’” Theresa remembers. Because he so often frequented eating and drinking establishments in order to be around the music and people he loved, he probably had ample opportunity to observe folks at their best and at their worst. “He did everything modestly,” she says.
He would also share anything he had. He enjoyed good food, but never ate a lot. He would often share what was on his plate or offer to buy someone a meal. Or a ticket to a show. Or whatever struck him that he thought might bring someone happiness. Many of his friends mentioned unexpected gifts from Larry. Fellow photographers Michelle & Tim Burge shared this:
Photographers Paul Brown & Larry Williams at Safeway Waterfront Blues 2015
“At the Mineral Blues Festival, we sat with Larry at breakfast. He was eating an off-the-menu item; ham steak. Michelle commented that ham steak is Tim’s favorite. Larry then disappeared for a minute, and moments later, I too, have a ham steak. Larry disappears again, this time to pay for our breakfast.”
The couple describe him as the kindest and sweetest man they’ve ever known. “Many years ago, when Larry heard I was looking for a used transmission for our car, he immediately sprang into action. He began the search via his network and resources. While he wasn’t able to find a transmission, the point to my story is, he saw we were in need and didn’t hesitate to help,” says Tim Burge.
Writer and teacher Jane Henderson has spent years organizing for and supporting the blues community. She interviewed Larry about his photography for an issue of the WBS Bluesletter a few years ago. Now she remembers the man and friend to so many: “Somehow this quiet, unassuming man managed to impact the lives of so many people in the blues community in the relatively short time we knew him. Larry was a generous soul and happily donated his time, ideas and considerable talents to help wherever he saw a need. He helped a struggling mother finance a car, introduced musicians to other musicians, and taught me how to adjust my car’s side-view mirrors.”
Often, he was a shoulder to cry on or a buddy to laugh with. Writer and photographer Suzanne Swanson often travels down from BC to attend festivals, judge contests and support events. She says Larry Williams will be fondly remembered as a gentle man. “He sensed when I was stressed when someone had treated me shabbily. He provided a calming, sincere friendship. We shared support for one another and much laughter,” she says. “We are all suffering a great loss with his death.”
Another friend from across the border, photographer, promoter and founder of the Sunshine Coast Blues Society, David Mathews, contributed this: “True friends are hard to find but every so often you meet someone who is a truly good soul. Larry Williams was a good soul. One of the most giving, caring, kindest people I have ever had the honor to know and to call a friend. He will be sorely missed by many, I am certain.”
Perhaps his capacity for giving and his generous spirit was born of something deep within, because he was familiar with lack and loss. Besides losing touch with his birth parents, he had been in a war, witnessed devastation and lost friends. He had been married and divorced, helped raise three daughters, step-children and sometimes even their children. He had two back surgeries and upon discharge, nursed himself while recovering, not wanting to ask for help.
Larry was stoic and positive to the end. His friend Jeff Hayes, a Seattle-based drummer and promoter, says he visited him before he passed and that he expressed frustration that the doctors weren’t still trying to make him better. “He never gave up,” Jeff says. “He had a joy for life and living that never waned, even when death was just a few days away. I hope I can live my life the same way.”
A talented diesel mechanic who liked working with his hands, Larry gutted and built at least three motorhomes from the frame up. He also lived in one, on the streets, for several years, when, his girlfriend reports, the military mistakenly cut his retirement benefits because they thought he had been overpaid. He worked as a night watchman in wrecking yards to make ends meet before the mistake was discovered and he received back pay retroactively. He was tough, gentle, self-sufficient, proud, unassuming. He would very likely be embarrassed by the sentiments between these pages. Theresa says, “I don’t think he had a clue how much people cared about him.” He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. He was much more comfortable being a giver.
Theresa says when he learned she had an interest in photography, he gifted her with a camera. And for the last three years, they went everywhere together, shooting events and nature and weddings, with Larry sharing his years of expertise with her. She says he truly loved photographing weddings and it gave him a lot of joy, she thinks, just to share the occasion with them. Dani Shew knew him because she worked at Dawson’s, a regular music haunt for Larry. She says he was the photographer for her wedding to bandleader Billy Shew. She volunteered that Larry shot a lot of photography for Dawson’s owner, Kenny Bender, and that Larry’s work lined the walls of his office.
Billy Shew shared this: “I considered Larry to be my brother. He is a part of my music family. I met Larry while playing music at Dawson’s. It was always so nice to see Larry amongst the people taking pictures and smiling. Even now, as he has gone to the heavens, I still expect to look out and see him enjoying the music. He was a caring soul and a beautiful human being. I will miss him.” Theresa said many musicians appreciated his presence at their shows. “Son Jack, Jr. said a gig wasn’t a good gig until Larry walked in.”
One of the things heard over and over, was that Larry was well-known for observing his friends, taking great shots and then gifting them with the finished product. It was one of his favorite things to do.
Jewelry Artist Nancy Kinney (from Desert Night Designs) has this treasured memory: “I had watched him watching others from afar at many festivals. Knowing I was going to see him at Untapped, I brought him a guitar pick pendant with a camera on it. At the next festival he gifted me with a photo of myself, nicely done and framed to boot.”
Theresa vividly remembers the same incident. She said Larry was so touched by that act of thoughtfulness that he watched Nancy all day, took some photos, printed and framed one, and wrapped it and presented it to her. Theresa also remembers he handed over his camera and asked Theresa to capture a few photographs of them together so he could have a record of the moment. She said she would often help him wrap one of these and that he put a lot of effort into it. She says he was excited and happy to do this for people he cared about, and on that particular occasion, “He had a grin on his face the rest of the day.”
Even then, he always gave credit to his subjects and friends. He would say, “I only take pictures of what you give me.” Theresa said he wasn’t so much proud of being a photographer as when people liked the photographs he shot and gave. “That’s what really made him happy,” she said. He’d get that look on his face; that smile.”
His smile was infectious and genuine. Those on the receiving end felt adored and honored. Fellow photographer Stig Johannessen mentioned how much he will miss his wonderful smile and heart, and posted a photo of a smiling Larry in a fireworks shirt from an Independence Day celebration a few years back. “One of the kindest men I knew,” he says. Dave Mathews says he too will miss that ever present smile. “I’m sure you are lighting up the room wherever you may be.”
It was somehow graceful that Larry passed on the weekend he normally would have been photographing all the blues acts at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, surrounded by friends and the music he loved. There was an air of sadness this year around the nation’s birthday, and his absence was already palpable, even before the announcement. His presence was so expected that several of his friends mentioned they thought they caught a glimpse of him. And it was at that same festival three years ago that he met Theresa. She says they just clicked and within a few hours of spending time together, he fell asleep listening to the music, with his head resting on her hip.
The two were fond of traveling and adventuring together. Theresa shared that they had planned to tour and photograph the region’s waterfalls, but when Larry broke his leg this past year, they had to put that on hold. They would often travel by night to reach a new destination in time to photograph the sunrise. That is how they began the year, the first of January, up before the sun, cameras in hand.
Photographing nature was dear to Larry’s heart, and was his first photographic subject. He first picked up a camera in the late 60’s, either at the PX or a pawn shop (accounts differ slightly) and got a book to teach himself. Theresa says he took pictures while in Vietnam to keep himself sane. “He would take pictures of nature, of animals: goats, dogs, chickens,” she says, “to balance out the harshness of life there.” In Jane Henderson’s story, she says he never took photographs of the people there, out of respect.
Theresa says he loved going to the Winthrop Blues Festival because the river was right there and he could be there and hear the music. She said he loved to walk down there early in the morning before anyone else was awake, as he enjoyed open spaces and the quiet. He enjoyed his solitude as much as the crowds he photographed and found himself in. She says, “I’ve heard dozens of stories from people who tell me, ‘When I was down, Larry was there for me.’ We’d be at an event and he would tell me, ‘Just a minute; I have to go talk to someone. I have to say hello.’”
Cora Price, president and founder of the Fraser Valley Blues Society, says, “I loved Larry’s ability to make everyone feel like he was their best friend. He put you at ease and made you feel like you had a special place in this world.”
He was a deep thinker and felt things deeply as well. Men would describe him as a good friend and a man’s man, and many women felt adored, because he was quick with a compliment, and would shake his head and seem to marvel at some beauty that might be lost to the lady he was talking to. He really seemed to love women. Theresa says yes, both of those are true. “He loved people,” she says. “He really liked to see people happy. He liked to make people happy. That was maybe his favorite thing.” As much as Larry Williams loved photography and music and nature and travel, his first passion was people. He had an overwhelming capacity for love and friendship.
In her announcement on July 4, Theresa wrote these words:
“He touched everyone he came in contact with. He had a dignity and quietness about him that was misleading, because the man underneath questioned everything in life, had a passion that ran so deep that it was a wonder to sit back and behold in his captured images. He loved largely in every way and felt it was his duty to be the best to all things around him.”
Three years ago, in the June 2013 Bluesletter Jane Henderson wrote about northwest photographers in a series called “Behind the Lens.” Larry Williams was featured in a piece titled, “Looking For What Isn’t There.” It’s a short, powerful read, and you can find it online at “Scribd” at https://www.scribd.com/document/147051004/Bluesletter-June-2013 if you want to know more. In it, Larry says he waits for what isn’t necessarily apparent to the casual observer. He says he watches for the expression that reveals the truth of the moment, the emotional power of things. He tells her a story about photographing a snail, and upon developing the photograph in the darkroom, discovers the iridescent trail that was not visible before, but only after the fact.
That perhaps is Larry’s last gift to us. Larry may no longer be here. But if we can remain patient and kind, even during the dark times; if we look for what isn’t there, we may just find some of that sparkle; the proof of the journey, the treasure that is the trail. ###
Theresa Southwick, Neal Fallen, Amy Sassenberg & Larry Williams