The Austin native’s face is smooth and defined, nothing less than statuesque. Theatergoers from South Africa get a look at his almond eyes and high, dark-amber cheekbones and often ask if he’s South African. He can sing with a smile. A fan describes Kenny Williams’ voice as intoxicating, comparing it to “having a hot buttered rum.”
“I knew coming out of high school that singing was my focus; I’ve known that since I was five years old” says Williams, who was a student at Regan High School during the early eighties. “In the time that I grew up, on Sixth Street, you’d see Stevie Ray Vaughn, you’d be at Maggie Mae’s—Austin was full of jazz and blues, and you were surrounded by great music and great artistry. At 16 years old, I was out with my friends and seeing all this happening. I knew that was what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.”
Williams got his start at ZACH Theatre in the late 1980s. It was the “Zachary Scott Theater Center” then. He was studying voice at the University of Texas and performing in shows like ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE, FOREVER PLAID, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, GOSPEL AT COLONUS, and ROCKIN’ CHRISTMAS PARTY.
It was around that same time that Williams met Gary Powell, now a lifelong friend who is a senior lecturer at UT’s music school and who produced a 1989 Disney album that included two tracks by Williams. They met in 1987 when Williams auditioned for Ensemble 109, UT’s elite pop/jazz vocal group. Williams credits Powell with giving him his professional start and being consistent influence.
“While operatic vocal training generally does not cover gospel, jazz or R&B, Ensemble 109 did,” says Powell, who remembers Williams borrowing his clothes before big dates during college. “It was in this vocal group that Kenny found the musical home he was shopping for. He didn’t stop there. Over the next decade after college, Kenny continued to build his voice and stylistic repertoire to Broadway and beyond.”
Williams found his way to Broadway when visiting New York City in 1995.
“For me, I just fell in love with it, and it was so new, and I just fit. I just saw it, and I knew it,” he says. “I went to visit my best friend, and I’m crossing the street in a wave of people knocking me and pushing me, and I just knew—I don’t know how or why: This is going to be home one day.”
Following the inkling, Williams decided to audition during his vacation. Callbacks turned a weeklong trip into a month-long stay. During that time, Williams became a self-made expert in the art of audition.
“I would read books and research online. There was an online forum this guy had at the time where you could ask any questions about getting a start in New York City. The forum was part of a resource list in this book I was reading about how to be an actor,” Williams says. “I had respect for the process. I knew that auditioning was a skill in and of itself. I knew that as long as you’re getting call backs, that’s a good thing.”
After the New York visit, Williams returned to Austin only to leave on tour with GREASE! in 1997. In 1998, he began touring nationally with SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ, which led him back to New York City. By 2002, he’d landed a role singing DISNEY’S THE LION KING ensemble at the 1,600 seat Minskoff Theater on Broadway. He stayed with the show for the next eight and a half years.
Williams says people are surprised when he says he’s not a Theater Person, and he’ll humbly tell you he’s not quite sure how he made it from Austin to performing on Broadway. But his story reveals that the only thing more exceptional about him than his looks and sultry singing is his unwillingness to take No for an answer. For many, it may be one of life’s great hurdles to cultivate professional resilience and being game for the stage, but when aspiring thespians ask him for advice, Williams tells them that above all else, to be persistent.
You are going to be told, ‘No.’ You cannot question why you are being told, ‘No.’ You get up and walk out, and go to the next audition. Most people have to form relationship with you, and they may call you back over and over again to know how consistent you are.
In 2008, Williams began to realize it was time to move on from theater and return to his first love: singing solo. He debuted in New York as a solo artist that summer. He has since made appearances at Joe’s Pub, B.B. King’s, S.O.B’s, BAM Café and the legendary jazz club, Birdland.
“I was ready for a warmer, different quality of life than New York. When I got that sense that it was time to go, it surprised me.” Williams says. “I made note of it. And it happened about three times between 2008 and 2010. It was going to be Austin or L.A., but Austin won out because I have a great network of family and friends in Austin.”
Williams toured Europe and Asia before returning to Texas. As is to be expected from an Austin musician approaching the city from both sides of its transition in population and infrastructure since the eighties, he didn’t find things preserved in just the same condition as when he left.
“I had to take a moment and get to know the new Austin. A lot is similar, but a lot has changed. I miss some of the old venues we used to have. There’s still a lot of live music. We have Maggie Mae’s. We have The Elephant Room and the Saxon Pub. But the venues that are accessible to the masses are few and far between compared to what it used to be.”
Williams performed live music at ZACH Theatre the first week in February, and in March, he’ll star at ZACH in THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS, which is based on the Greek myth “Oedipus” and set in a contemporary African-American gospel church.
For the COLONUS performance, Williams can draw from his own spirituality. “Being an artist, life is not that consistent. And being able to fall back on my faith is very important to me, having that personal relationship with God. If there is any moment I am wavering, that is my foundation,” he says.
Presently, his focus remains not on the theatrical stage, but almost entirely upon singing as a solo performer. “It is in theater that I have blossomed as a performer on stage. From 1997 to now, every experience has taught me how to take an audience on a journey as Kenny,” he says.
Williams has a few concerts in mind and is working on an untitled album that he hopes to release this year. “Whether it takes me to a winning a Grammy or not, I am one of those people who would like to have the respect of my peers and be known in my industry,” he says. “I know that I can record my CDs and do concerts and tours without having to be signed by Sony, though I would love that!” he adds with a laugh.