He tried to make it in Vegas, but really, Rockford has always been home for this entertainer, whom you might recognize for his appearance on local stages and at area supper clubs.
Where were times when singer Mike Williamson considered packing up and leaving Rockford for the chance to make it big in a larger market.
He did move to Las Vegas for a summer, only to return home. “I gave it a shot, but it didn’t work out,” he says.
But Williamson is more than OK with that. He’s become a popular fixture in the local music scene, making a living by singing pop, jazz and Broadway standards in supper clubs and for private parties and special events.
“I like singing the old songs, from Neil Diamond to Barry Manilow,” says Williamson, who lists Frank Sinatra, Steve Lawrence and Mel Torme among his musical influences. “Music has changed a lot. There aren’t a lot of melodies in today’s music. Pop radio is just in-your-face. They’re belting out songs and bending notes any which way they can.”
Williamson’s resume is packed with appearances at venues across the area. He’s played Cliffbreakers, Clock Tower Resort and all three Rockford country clubs. He’s performed for local events like Festa Italiana, the Evergreen Ball and the Cherry Valley Fourth of July celebration. He’s sung at the State Department Auditorium in Washington, D.C., Drury Lane in Oakbrook, Ill., and the Casino Queen in St. Louis.
Early in his career, Williamson juggled a full-time job in retail while singing five nights a week. But the workload became too much, he says, so he chose singing as the sole means of financially supporting himself. “I never wanted to be a millionaire, and it’s worked out,” he says, smiling. “I’ve always liked the music and the people I play with. It’s been a joy.”
Williamson has produced 13 albums over three decades, including two originals. He teamed up with Bruce Warden, a local musician and keyboardist, on his latest effort, “Now You’re Here,” which earned Williamson “Composer of the Year” at this year’s Rockford Area Musical Industry (RAMI) awards. The plaque hangs on the wall of his meticulously kept home office, where he arranges music and records it on his computer. This room is also where Williamson keeps other RAMI honors, such as “Hall of Fame,” and “Lifetime Achievement” awards, autographed photos of Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Paul Anka, and a number of other mementos he’s collected over the years.
Dorothy Paige-Turner, a performing artist and educator, met Williamson when she moved to Rockford in the 1970s. “Mike is very eclectic,” she says. “He covers a variety of genres, but his forte is covering Sinatra and others. He’s always trying to stretch and find something new. He’s good at what he does.”
Williamson grew up in Albert Lea, Minn. He and his family moved often for his father’s work – Lee Williamson worked for a metal finishing equipment company. They came to Rockford during Williamson’s senior year of high school, which he finished at West High School. “That was tough,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone.”
After graduation, Williamson moved on to Rock Valley College, where he worked as a student photographer. That’s where he caught the bug, he says, for the entertainment industry. “Any time a performer came to town, I went out to take photos and do interviews for the school newspaper,” he says. “I met Tiny Tim and Rosemary Clooney and others. I was hooked.”
At RVC, Williamson began his singing career when he joined a local band called The Proud Americans, a folksy patriotic group that needed a baritone. Despite having no experience, Williamson was up for the challenge. “When I first started I had an upset stomach every night,” he says. “I still get pumped before every show. But I can turn that nervousness into energy, which gives me an edge when I’m on stage.”
Through The Proud Americans, Williamson got to know a more well-known group, The Lettermen, a Grammy-nominated pop music vocal trio that came to Rockford to perform at RVC. Williamson and The Lettermen immediately hit it off. “We became friends, and I even made guest appearances with them,” he says. “They have always been an inspiration to me.” When The Proud Americans disbanded, Williamson joined a jazz quartet called the Brent Valentine Trio.
In the 1980s, Williamson made his debut as a lounge singer at the Butterfly Club, a popular supper club in Beloit, with the Ron Pederson Trio, who performed five nights a week. Eventually Williamson moved on to other gigs, but returned to the Butterfly Club with the late keyboard legend Julian DeLuna. Working a lounge has always felt comfortable to Williamson. “I’ve never looked at it as a negative,” he says. “I’ve always thought of being a lounge singer as a noble profession.”
These days, Williamson and his band – pianist Bob Rub and drummer Bob DeVita – as well as guest musicians Rick Burns and David Painter, perform at the Butterfly Club every Saturday night and the first three Friday nights of every month.
Williamson is a hit with the crowd, whether he’s singing show tunes or belting out songs of Neil Diamond. He recruits guests to the stage to sing, invites song requests, and ventures out into the audience to sing for couples celebrating a wedding anniversary. “The crowd is very receptive to what we do,” he says. “We have an opportunity to build a loyal audience in that lounge. It’s nice to have a home.”
In addition to his steady work at the Butterfly Club, Williamson books packages such as day-trip bus tours that draw crowds from the Chicago suburbs and southern Wisconsin to Rockford. Williamson performs as part of their visit to local attractions such as Tinker Swiss Cottage, Historic Auto Attractions and The Angel Museum.
Williamson also tapes a weekly radio show, “Mike Williamson and Friends,” from home, that airs on WTPB 99.3 FM at various times, every day of the week. It’s a chance to showcase local entertainers such as Jodi Beach, Harlan Jefferson, Paige-Turner and his own music. Williamson also serves as the webmaster for the station’s website.
“He cements our ties with local musicians, which is important to our station,” says Murray Hanson, station manager. “He’s very well connected.”
And very generous. For 16 years, Williamson organized a variety show called “Magic Monday,” held at the Rockford MetroCentre to benefit the American Cancer Society. It was tireless but important work for Williamson, who lost his mother, Sally, to cancer in 1968.
“Mike’s a wonderful person to know,” says Hanson. “He’s professional, modest, very community-oriented, and always talking positively about other people. I love that in a person.”
After 40 years of singing, Williamson has no plans of hanging up his microphone. He’s still having too much fun.
“I’m in the entertainment business, I can’t afford to retire,” he jokes. “Besides, I like a challenge.”
And he still puts on one heck of a show.
“Mike has a real connection with his audience,” says Paige-Turner. “He’s all about the people he sings for, and the smiles he puts on their faces. What he does is special.”