James Williamson (born October 29, 1949) is an American guitarist, songwriter, record producer and electronics engineer who is best known for his contributions to the proto-punk rock band The Stooges.
After graduating from high school in 1969, Williamson travelled to New York to keep in touch with The Stooges, who were recording their debut album with former Velvet Underground multi-instrumentalist John Cale.
By late 1970, Williamson joined The Stooges as a second guitarist. He performed his first gig with the band on December 5, 1970. The band were by then struggling with drug problems and a lack of commercial success; despite the injection of Williamson’s considerable talent and enthusiasm, The Stooges couldn’t overcome their difficulties; according to Williamson, “I got hepatitis and moved back to Detroit and basically the band completely dissolved.” Many of the demo recordings made during this period were belatedly issued as vinyl singles or EPs, including the proto-punk tracks “I Got A Right” and “Gimme Some Skin”.
In 1972, David Bowie offered Iggy Pop a chance to record in London; he promptly enlisted James Williamson as a collaborator for the project. Having failed to find other suitable musicians during an intensive search, they eventually invited the Asheton brothers to join them and reformed The Stooges, with the elder Asheton reluctantly moving from guitar to bass. Although he joined the reunion, the musician would harbor a longstanding animus toward James Williamson for several decades. In a 1997 interview with Perfect Sound Forever, he reflected upon his relationship with Williamson at length, alleging that “James was into bad stuff. He wasn’t into junk at that time but he fell right in line with THE EVIL PROGRAM. He was supposed to be a helper for me but he totally usurped my position and eventually, kicked me out from playing guitar.”
Despite these tensions, Williamson co-wrote all the songs with Pop and played all the guitar parts on the ensuing album, Raw Power (1973). He played louder and raunchier than almost anybody at the time, with a jagged high-energy approach. According to Williamson, “I was a very emotional guitar player, so I always played that way. That’s how we felt, so that was what it sounded like.” Asheton was less sanguine, noting that “James always loved Keith Richards and he even emulated him in his personal style and appearance. [Pop] finally got his Jagger-Richards. So he and Iggy were the songwriters. They wouldn’t let me do nothing even though I would come up with pieces. Jim would actually almost go for something. Little suggestions I made for the tunes, little twists. Not that I did any major structural changes. But I did do pieces to enhance and I was never recognized for it or even a f**in’ ‘thank you.'”
Nevertheless, James Williamson’s explosive and aggressive guitar playing on Raw Power has often been cited as a major influence on the emerging punk scene in the mid-seventies. Seminal indie pop guitarist Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) has also lauded Williamson’s abilities: “I’m his biggest fan. He has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy. He’s both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.”
Beginning in February 1973 with the addition of a pianist (briefly minimalist composer/former Prime Movers keyboardist Bob Sheff and then multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston), The Stooges undertook a highly inchoate tour with little support from Columbia Records, which would soon drop the group following the release of Raw Power (which still managed to peak at #52 in Billboard, a new height for the group) in May. According to Kevin L. Jones, “The kind of touring they did was not what you would imagine today, with big buses, fancy stage lighting and expensive equipment. Iggy and the Stooges toured like an invasive species, showing up at whatever venue would have them, scrambling for gear to play through and sucking up the drugs around them like walking Hoovers. Those days are remembered with stories full of blood from random projectiles being thrown at them and even a moment when Elton John jumped onstage wearing a gorilla costume, scaring the living daylights out of Iggy Pop.” Williamson was briefly dismissed due to criticism from the band’s management (likely related to his turbulent romantic relationship with Cyrinda Foxe, a friend of manager Leee Black Childers); guitarist Tornado Turner replaced him for a single gig (on June 15, 1973 at the Aragon Ballroom) before he was permitted to return.
Following the sudden death of Ron Asheton in 2009, Williamson rejoined The Stooges, who had toured regularly after the Fun House-era lineup reunited in 2003. This resulted in the release of the “Ready to Die” album.