One pillar of the modern Memphis music scene was not a musician at all. Nat. D. Williams played no instrument, but he played a major role in ushering many rising talents into the musical world. He was host of the Palace Theater’s famed Beale Street Amateur Night and director of Booker T. Washington High School’s talent show, as well as a nationally syndicated journalist, and the first African-American disc jockey in Memphis.
Nathaniel Dowd Williams was known far and wide as, simply, “Nat. D.” He was born right on Memphis’s famed Beale Street and he often proclaimed, “I’m a Beale Streeter by birth, rearing and inclination.” It was the “inclination” that gave him the career. Raised by his grandmother who decried the “loose” atmosphere of Beale, Nat was nonetheless drawn to the thoroughfare that was one of the city’s few refuges from racism and harassment, a place where blacks were the majority population and their culture could blossom. One of his most repeated refrains—on the radio, in print and in theater—was a line made famous by W. C. Handy in his “Beale Street Blues”: “I’d rather be there than any place I know!”
Watch Deanie Parker, Rufus Thomas, James Alexander onNat D. Williams and a 1958 TV Interview with Walter Smith
Nat didn’t stray far from there. After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Nashville at schools for African-Americans, he returned to Memphis and in 1930 took a teaching job at Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis. There, he brought history and social studies to life, but he also brought life to the school’s extracurricular program: he edited the school paper, trained the pep squad, and assisted with senior speeches. He taught there for more than four decades, and could brag about the number of his students who went on to serve in the state legislature. One, Judge Benjamin Hooks, became national chairman of the NAACP. The Memphis Board of Education did not provide equal monies for their black schools, so fundraising was a vital component at Booker T. High School. Williams transformed the school’s talent show, a modest money-maker known as the Booker T. Washington Ballet, into a star-studded production that outgrew the high school and had to move to the Ellis Auditorium downtown; some years it ran for three nights. Under his direction, the program shifted from the more formal ballet (though it always retained that name) to include popular entertainment like song, comedy and tap routines. The show increased not only the school’s coffers but also its enrollment, with students transferring to Booker T. for the opportunity to participate in the Ballet. Nat’s goals were more than just fundraising. Memphis’s African-American high schools had been three-year programs, and he helped solidify a fourth year, allowing students a smoother transition to, and more incentive for, college studies.
Beyond the academic world, Nat was also the longtime host of the Palace Theater’s famed Amateur Night on Beale Street. He helped make stars of former student Rufus Thomas (who soon became his co-host), B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and many others who would soon find fame on Memphis’s record labels—including Sun, Hi and Stax Records. Between 1938 and 1960, nearly all the major talent that came out of Memphis was introduced, nurtured, and supported by Nat D. at the Palace.
In 1948, when the new WDIA radio station was about to go under—there seemed no need for a sixth radio station playing formats similar to the city’s other five stations—its owners seized upon the idea of appealing to the city’s African-American listeners (In the Mississippi Delta, Helena’s KFFA had been building a black audience since 1941). WDIA’s daring act of desperation led to decades of inspiration. Nat D., a voluble public figure in the black community, was selected as the first disc jockey; he often recalled that first broadcast of “Tan Town Jamboree” when the white engineer signaled to him that the microphone was open—and Nat’s mind went suddenly blank. He let out a belly laugh to relieve the tension, and that laugh became Nat’s signature. Memphis responded strongly—both for and against the sound of blackness on the radio. But Nat and WDIA were undeterred, with Nat soon broadcasting in the morning and afternoon. WDIA hired other hosts, and by the summer of 1949 it became the first station in the United States with an entire cast of black disc jockeys.
In 1951, Nat was selected by the newly-established African-American newspaper in Memphis, the Tri-State Defender, as their first city editor. He’d been a journalist since writing for the Memphis World, an African-American paper, in 1931; he began contributing to the Chicago Defender in 1937. He established himself as a syndicated columnist with “Down On Beale” in 1931; it ran for fifteen years, then resumed for another decade after a hiatus. Others columns followed: “Dark Shadows” began a twenty-year run in 1951 (using the alias D' Natural), and “A Point of View” began in 1966. These columns appeared in papers serving black communities in cities small and large, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Memphis. One of his “Down on Beale” columns was read into the Congressional Record on June 1st, 1955; the column touted Lt. George Lee, a Beale Street businessman, as setting an example for integration through brains, character, and ability. Nat’s rhetorical style was folksy and humorous, even as he analyzed complex and disturbing topics. An avid reader who continued his education throughout his life, Nat D. always presented himself as a simple homespun thinker—and he was able always to reach a wide variety of readers.
Writer, educator, emcee, impresario, devoted husband and father—distinguished careers for many, but Nat D. Williams amassed all of these contributions into one lifetime. Possessed of extraordinary intellect, talent and energy, he transcended and transformed the racist confines that defined African American life. Nat D. Williams was a true Renaissance man, a powerful force, and a lasting voice for Memphis.