Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal Music 2001 – Gus Williams
Arrernte man Gus Williams has arguably done more for Aboriginal music, and country music in particular, than any other blackfulla in the Territory.
Born in Alice Springs in the late 1930s, Gus moved to Hermannsburg as a teenager to live with his grandfather after his parents died. It was there that he began to show a precocious talent for music, joining the renowned Hermannsburg choir and eventually becoming its lead singer.
When his great-cousin Albert Namatjira, and others, brought gramophones to the community, Gus was introduced to a style of music that suited him better than gospel – country. While the Lutherans who ran the mission were initially opposed to the idea of their charges indulging in godless chord structures, attitudes gradually softened in the ’60s as lines of travel and communication opened up and more tourists passed through the area.
Gus toured with the choir in 1967, singing a selection of country tunes at Adelaide Town Hall that were laid down on a memorial album. He also sang on Campfire Concert, a souvenir album for tourists put out by the Sundowner Safari Tour Company and recorded around a campfire in Palm Valley.
Throughout the mid to late ’70s, Gus was touring remote communities with Herbie Laughton and playing with his sons in the Warrabri Country Bluegrass Band. After attending a number of Aboriginal country music festivals on the west coast, he organised the first Northern Territory Aboriginal Country Music Festival in Alice Springs. The festival later moved to Warrabri.
With his band Black Ebony, Gus finally realised his dream of playing in Tamworth in 1991 and has performed there every year since. He has recorded a total of five albums: Storm in my Heart (1989); I’m Not Trying to Forget (1991); Straight from the Heart (1992); My Kind of Heaven (1993); and Through the Years (1994).
“When we started off we just sang with one guitar, then we started in our own small way getting electric guitars and all that,” said Gus in Buried Country (Pluto Press). “The foundation is there for us now. Music followers are waiting to hear good music which can be provided by Indigenous musicians.”
As a musician, bandleader and organiser, Gus Williams’ example is without equal in the Territory. Awarded an Order of Australia in 1983 for his community outreach work, he is a much-respected member of the Hermannsburg community in which he grew up and continues to live.