He’s amassed four World Series rings, an equal number of Golden Gloves and all-star designations, and is a probable shoo-in for The National Baseball Hall of Fame.
However, New York Yankees slugger Bernie Williams is pushing another kind of record these days.
Offering some tasteful and dexterous jazz licks on a blue acoustic guitar furnished with a Yankees logo, Williams recently launched his new Verve CD The Journey Within at Chicago’s House Of Blues.
Performing 45 minutes with such renowned session players as drummer Kenny Aronoff and bass player Lee Sklar, Williams wowed his audience with his compositional instinct and expert musicianship.
The consensus was unanimous: Bernie Williams the athlete could easily pursue a career as Bernie Williams the musician, should the San Juan native choose entertainment after a profession in pinstripes.
“He’s unbelievable,” says Loren Harriet, the producer of The Journey Within who discovered Williams’ talent after recruiting him for another project, 2000’s MLB baseball album Big League Rocks.
“This was a guy who was actually a musician before he became a baseball player. He went to music school and studied Bach and Mozart. Then all of a sudden he decided to play baseball, and here come The New York Yankees.”
Williams isn’t the first athlete to attempt a crossover, since the love affair between music and sports is as old as the game itself. But successful transitions – and marriages — between professions are extremely rare.
Harriet says a talent like Williams is an exception.
“I don’t think athletes realize how difficult it is,” Harriet explains. “It’s like a musician wanting to be a centerfielder for the Yankees. It’s one thing to be excited and want to play but it’s another thing to be actually able to do that. I think they underestimate the highest level that musicians play at.”
Still, Williams’ move isn’t unprecedented. In the ‘50s, another famous Williams, Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted, issued a Christmas release. San Francisco Giants home run king Willie Mays had a spoken cameo in the regional Treniers hit “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” a few years later. And would you believe Yankees great Mickey Mantle actually recorded a 1956 duet with Teresa Brewer called “I Love Mickey?”
But no one maintained a dual career better than singer Arthur Lee Maye. In addition to registering regional hits with the “5” Hearts, the Carmels and the Crowns, he maintained a .274 lifetime average with the Milwaukee Braves, Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Chicago White Sox as Lee Maye.
In 1969, Capitol Records issued Denny McClain In Las Vegas, and the Detroit Tigers pitching ace even performed his organ-inspired cocktail jazz on The Ed Sullivan Show before racketeering, extortion and drug possession convictions imprisoned him.
Today, former Chicago White Sox hurler and Cy Young winner Jack McDowell pumps up the volume as lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with rockers Stickfigure. Meanwhile, ex- San Diego Padre second baseman Tim Flannery has gone the bluegrass route for five albums.
Baseball isn’t alone in transforming athletes to music stars.
Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw once quarterbacked a Top 20 country hit with 1976’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but it was Mike Reid who scored the ultimate touchdown. After winning 1983’s Country Song Grammy for “A Stranger In My House,” writing hit songs for Ronnie Milsap and being named ASCAP Songwriter Of The Year in 1985, the former Cincinnati Bengals lineman scored his own country chart-topper “Walk On Faith” in 1990.
Boxing idol Muhammed Ali failed to pack a punch as Cassius Clay on his golden-throated Columbia album I Am The Greatest, while multi-world-title-holder Oscar de la Hoya knocked out a Grammy nomination for “Ven A Mi,” his Spanish cover of The Bee Gees’ “Run To Me.” And champion surfer Jack Johnson’s is successfully testing waters as a lo-fi multi-platinum-recording artist.
Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal mined gold in the hip-hop court with Brooklyn-based reverse rappers Fu-Schnickens on 1993’s “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock?)”and his own “(I Know I Got) Skillz” and platinum with Shaq Diesel. More recently, ex-Phoenix Suns Olympic gold medallist Wayman Tisdale dribbled out several jazz bass albums for Atlantic.
Even wrestling has body-slammed its way into the record business, with Stamford, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. fostering sales of nearly 10 million albums. And who can forget Classy Freddie Blassie’s novelty hit “Pencil Neck Geek” or NRBQ’s mid-‘80s mindblower with Captain Lou Albano, Lou And The Q?
It also works both ways. Guy Lombardo traditionally rang in the New Year with “Auld Lang Syne,” but he also chimed in 1946 as coveted Gold Cup speedboat champion. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich preferred the racket of rock to pro tennis, while Percy “Master P.” Miller tried to go from rapper to NBA Raptor.
Yet no athlete can claim Bernie Williams’ prize: a publishing contract with Paul McCartney’s MPL Communications.
“I saw Paul at the Staples Center before a concert, and he said, ‘I want to be involved. I think the demos are great,’” recalls producer Harriet, who has worked with the former Beatle in the past. “Bernie flipped out. Paul McCartney is his hero.”
With the Yankees racing towards another pennant, Williams is curtailing his music until the off-season, when he’ll perform shows in New York and Puerto Rico.
But brother Hiram Williams says the seed has been planted with The Journey Within.
“It is a validation of what he has done, and an idea of where he wants to go afterwards,” says Williams. “He’s getting such good reviews. If he accomplished this part-time, you wonder what he can accomplish full-time.”