Wash on a new spin cycle
Meet legendary music producer and song writer Willy Washington – Knoziz Recordings’ co-creative kingpin and par excellence craftsman of house, writes Andy Stevens
Here’s a quick test for you. It won’t take long, fret not. Well, it’s no great shakes test-wise: let’s call is more a labour of musical love.
Look again at every great record label. Then train your gaze once more on each of the finest music genres. You don’t need to strain your eyes or wreck your head that much, if at all, to clock a common thread.
The best labels which play their pivotal – and successful – part in music’s pageantry as free-thinking, creatively whip-smart, cute and astute cradles for artists’ output and oeuvre each boast particularly prized inspirational wellsprings at their heart.
You know: those stand-out characters who elicit sage nods in hushed tones from the cognoscenti, in recognition that these are indeed the chaps and chapettes in the know and on the money. And record-wise, whose releases are consistently sit-up-and-listen events, steeped deep to their core with the hallmark of quality.
Remember your test at the top of the page? We’re not going to force you to strain your synapses any further. We’re nice like that. Your man Willy Washington is the correct answer to the quiz.
Hear that heart-juddering, metronomic thump of a driving force coupled with a creative source? You do? You’re getting good at this, aren’t you?
That’s the sound of scorching new label Knoziz Recordings’ own inspiration-sensation in the shape of the self-same Mr Washington: famed house producer, vocal producer and song writing legend, bringing his floor-filling, deliciously danceable, global hit-making pedigree right to the heart of the party.
Willy has rocked up right now as the dynamic co-founder of Knoziz alongside creative partner and great friend Adam Graham, who’ve teamed up together on this thrilling new musical mission for our times.
As well as the UK and mainland Europe, for a good couple of decades Willy’s top-notch house/dance production and writing rep as the-man-who-can with the magic studio touch was zoned in on the beating heart of the US east coast scene, after the great late ‘80s/early ‘90s house music migration from sweet home Chicago into the Big Apple and its satellite cities’ booming bosom of energy, reimagining and invigoration.
Willy says: “Over the years I have written hundreds of songs. I have been writing and producing for about 20 years. In that time I have created, written and produced lots of acapellas for and by incredible singers.
“It’s all about finding the right way to bring that to the public and to get the music out there.”
These days Willy has permanently base-camped for new and creative musical projects in that other wickedly wunderbar world dance capital, Berlin. Willy says he prefers the summers in the city – you’re not wrong there, don’t we all? – when the unrelentingly gobsmacking German capital becomes majorly, incorrigibly ‘unglaublich’ – ‘incredible,’ says Willy.
Here’s a guy who’s smashed, mashed, fashioned and forged down the years a massive club and studio reputation as the king of the killer top-lines, epic acapellas, explosive builds and breaks, soulful song craft, foot-to-the-floor fills and get-you-right-in-the-guts house groove-gasms.
Now here’s a new thing: with Knoziz going full steam and stream ahead, Willy is still fully primed and brimming with the same high-octane levels of creative pizzazz, after decades bestriding house’s twin pinnacles of studios and song writing.
With Willy, where does this come from – and where is it going to? Rewind those soulful spools right back to one of Willy’s earliest ambitions as an eager-beaver young NYC dance scenester, after experiencing life-changingly joyous eureka moments of musical freedoms in illustrious temples of the house groove, such as New York’s Paradise Garage.
Influenced by the likes of house music top guns including the legendary Tony Humphries from Newark NJ’s pivotal Club Zanzibar and New Jersey deep house guru Kerri Chandler, huge inspired dreams then thundered thick and fast for Willy after this uber-club Damascene. He vowed to stake his claim and thwack his unique stamp of sound on the sleepless city’s sundry house studio desks. Willy ’fessed enthusiastically a while ago of once wanting to make his mark as a version of the ‘Q’ which stands for musical Quality worldwide: he dreamed of becoming the “Quincy Jones of dance music,” he said to one reporter.
Back to the present, with all those house hits behind and ahead of him, Willy reflects. “I have so many different influences,” he told us. “I come from a gospel background, and my dad was a big jazz guy.
“All of that stuff is in what I do. My intention in music is to make music that touches people. When I write something, and when they hear one of my songs, I want them to feel something deep: be that happy, sad, joyful.
“For me that’s the craft of making a record.”
In making music that’s at once culture barrier-blasting and emotionally rich, the creative and production processes behind the tunes pique Willy’s penchants in some ways more than others, though.
“When making a record what I really, really love is writing,” enthuses Willy. “I love that writing ‘thing’; that’s what’s close to me.”
Here’s the way it pans out: the house song-happening gospel, Willy-style. “I start getting melodies and hooks. I love that process; it’s really great. The tedious part is what words are going to go where, and all that stuff.”
And let’s kick on by throwing around and name-tagging a serious smattering of his distinctive writing and production numbers here.
For one thing, Willy has a genius, alchemic knack of first identifying and then divining untapped vocal majesty from his singing muses and collaborators. His song craft is signified by depth within its emotional orbit. He squeezes out the superlative qualities from his chosen singers: with heart and soul always as the key, the soulfulness underpinning each track’s rigorously refined central locking system.
Willy is the man behind not just a vast but totally nailed-on, well-thumbed musical catalogue of perennial dance floor classics. Tunes that are always written and produced with sensational vocalists at the helm, with that Willy Washington quality song craft schtick right out there, front and centre.
“I just love working with singers: producing vocals, arranging vocals,” says Willy. “Getting singers to try different ideas; getting singers to try things they wouldn’t normally do.
“I’ve had the great pleasure to work with people who love to sing, who aren’t necessarily professional singers. That has happened a lot to me in my craft.
“There was Caroline (Johnson) who I did a lot of records with. Gary (Adams) is another guy I work with, and then Helen (Webster) on Living It Up by Adam and me (under the artist name Berlon) is in the same vein.”
Among the many vigorous dance vignettes indelibly stamped with Willy’s writing and production credits, think of such all-time house favourites and classics as Joi Cardwell’s Trouble and You Got To Pray, Jazmina’s Rescue Me (Y Don’t U) and It Ain’t Easy, Losing Control featuring Sha-Sha, Paula Ralph on Ain’t No Runnin’ Away and Mood 2 Swing’s Can’t Get Away.
Gary Adams’ soaringly anthemic Can You See My Light?, a recent release on Knoziz, is another of Willy’s bang-on-form club cuts, which hits more house top-spots than you can shake a stick at, or indeed anything else of your choosing.
Can You See My Light? Let there be light. Or Fiat Lux as those Roman bods would have put it. Charisma, aura, charm, other worldliness, that indefinable je ne sais quoi, call it what you will…Willy tracks back and tells us what first pulled his song “…Light”out of the ethereal and into the motivation station.
“I remember having a conversation with my friend Supreme about people’s auras and the light that they give off,” explains Willy. “That stuck in my head. I’d got a Warren Clark track from my publishers and I just kept thinking “can’t you see my light?” – meaning my aura, or the light that I give off.
“I laid that down and the melodies for the verses. Gary came over and changed the verses’ melodies, and then wrote lyrics for the verses.
“We changed the hook to Can You See My Light?, laid that down, and thought it was pretty cool. Then we just multi-tracked all the vocals – and we were done.”
Willy has been hugely, well, instrumental and vocal as his new co-owned Knoziz welcome supercharged house sensation Jazmina to the label’s ever-growing musical menage.
Jazmina and Willy go way, way back – and then way, way back a little bit more. With a voice that honey-drips mellifluous tonality and mines arrestingly deep-felt soulful seams, Jazmina is one of Willy’s major league musical muses.
You heard this here first, too, you lucky people: Jazmina’s latest deliciously down-tempo In Our Time EP is a genre-crossing bossa nova-folk classic in the making, available right now here on Knoziz through a selection of streams.
This essential five-track release is also reviewed here for your perusing pleasure.
Willy is stoked by his continuing creative connection with Jazmina and recalls: “The great thing about Jazmina is she just works with you; I love her voice and her flexibility. She will try anything, and that is how we got that really unique-sounding record on tracks such as Rescue Me (Y Don’t U).”
“The essence of me as a songwriter and producer.” That’s what Willy fondly thinks of Runnin’ Back featuring Caroline Johnson.
“This song will always be my favourite song by my great friend and muse Caroline. Classy, sexy, moody pretty and deep. It features Dave Warren on keys and John Ciafone doing the programming.”
Willy waxes large about the seriously successful recording session which delivered Belezamusica’s stratospheric U Got Me Spinning – complete with its joyous, hands-in-the-air horn stabs and all.
“I wrote this song with Jill Jones for Tom Bruce, for a session he had with Darryl D’Bonneau, Carol Sylvan and Michelle Weeks,” says Willy. “Tom got me to come and produce and arrange the vocals with the singers.”
“Years later, Julian Bendel from Bah Samba got a hold of the acapella. He did a mix of the song that was released under the name Belezamusica on Seamus Haji’s Soul Love label.”
A roof-lifting dance floor sensation came in the shape of Ain’t No Runnin’ Away by Willy with Paula Ralph, which was the first of his six consecutive singles for the UK’s Estereo label.
Willy takes hold of the tale. “I was working a lot with keyboard player James Preston at the time. He came back with the song, played all the music and sang it. I loved his voice on the song. We mixed the song but couldn’t find a label that was interested in it.
A few years later, James introduced me to Paula Ralph and I started working with her. I needed a great song for her, and a friend suggested I try her on Ain’t No Runnin’ Away. I did and it was pretty cool. Paula brought a different vibe and feel to the song.
“A couple more years passed until Ben Johnson from Dance Trax heard it and signed it to the label. Once it was signed, I had Jon Kevin Jones come in and lay down the guitars, and Paula redo her vocals.
“Ben sent it to Danny Jones at Estereo, who loved it and suggested getting Frankie Feliciano to remix it. And that’s how that song came about.”
Just Another Daydream, produced by Tom Noble featuring Alice Russell of Bah Samba, is another Willy classic, co-written with Chip Landry.
“I was doing work for the guys at Laws of Motion Records in London. They said they had a producer Tom Noble, who was working on an album and needed a few songs. We got this track, and this is what followed.
“I had just worked with Alice Russell on a Bah Samba release. So when they mentioned Alice, I said I knew her and gave her a ring. On this song, Chip does the background vocals in his classic vein.”
Willy’s Trouble, showcasing the vocals of Joi Cardwell, became the biggest-selling record ever on Eight Ball Records. Meanwhile Willy and Joi’s You Got to Pray rightfully secured Eight Ball their publishing deal with BMG.
Will explains: “The birth of Trouble was organic. It just clicked. I got James Preston to put down the keys, Joi recorded vocals and I just laid down the song. I came up with the little background Trouble part – and the song was done in an hour.
“I’d never worked with a singer like Joi before. She always knew what she was going to do vocally. She would work out the song at home, and just come in and sing it down.”
You will find Knoziz Recordings’ latest fine releases here.