Growing up, Ernest Williamson Jr. sat on the front pew of his father’s church watching the organist play soulful gospel music. That was the old Olive Baptist Church on Calhoun in Memphis, where Williamson dreamed that one day he might be able to play so effortlessly.
Williamson’s family moved from Memphis to Chicago in 1968 when he was in junior high because of his father’s relocation to another church. Memphis is where Williamson’s musical roots were formed, but Chicago is where they flourished. Because Williamson’s home was attached to the church in Chicago, he would sneak into the church to play the piano and organ. And he never stopped playing.
Williamson went to a high school that specialized in the arts, studied at The American Conservatory of Music, and earned a BA in English at Northern Illinois University, where he also studied piano and played the drums and saxophone.
“I have been blessed with the opportunities I’ve had to pursue what I love to do, and to do it with my family, not on the road,” Williamson said. Cordova (Memphis)-based Williamson has been one of the area’s top session piano players since 1980. He has had the opportunity to tour, perform or record with such artists as Santana, Chick Corea, Al Green, BB King, Albert Collins, Kirk Whalum, Isaac Hayes, and many others. He has also written music for EMI Music, Warner/Chapel Music Group and Polygram Music.
One of his most exciting accomplishments was winning a BMI Award for the international hit, “Come In Out of the Rain” in 1984 with his friend Nyko Lyros. Currently, Williamson plays with the band Memphis Soul Revue, which is the top regional show band in Memphis, and is the Musical Director for RAM Entertainment.
Williamson and his wife, Yolanda, have lived in Cordova for 15 years. The couple have been married for 29 years. “Yolanda is my rock,” Williamson said. “Had a few chances to go on the road to pursue life in the fast lane, but my family saved me.” Yolanda, an educator with the Memphis City Schools for more than 20 years, describes her husband as a “family-oriented person who is spiritually grounded and able to prioritize – and a guy who just happens to play music.”
“When I play I feel free – only other musicians or artists seem to understand,” he said. “We are a different kind of people.”