United Kingdom (May 13, 2020)—Ending a career in live music production that stretched back over 50 years, Roy Williams died April 29, 2020. Over the course of his life, Williams worked in a variety of roles—artist manager, booking agent, tour manager, club promoter and more—but found his greatest success as the longtime front-of-house engineer for Robert Plant, his friend since they were teenagers. While he worked with top artists and mixed legendary shows, including Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion, Williams was reserved and humble about his efforts, reminding Pro Sound News readers in 2005, “You’re only as good as your last gig.”
Born in Sedgley in West Midlands of England, Roy Williams fell in love with music listening to early rock n’ roll and R&B on Armed Forces Network radio with his mother. After studying mechanical engineering at Dudley College of Technology, he became a draftsman, working a 40-hour week Monday through Thursday at Seko Designs, then hitting the road with bands he managed for the weekend.
When the draftsman work dried up, he became involved in launching JB’s, a midlands club that was a regional ‘must-play’ venue throughout the 1980s. There, Williams learned sound engineering out of necessity, working with 12-channel mixers and the like as the venue brought in then-rising acts including UB40 and Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
During this time, he also began working as a booking agent, which led to his working with his friend Plant for the first time. Williams quietly booked and tour managed a string of secret shows for Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin, retro-rock and roll project The Honeydrippers, with the unknown group opening for Dr. Feelgood at universities and surprising gobsmacked audiences.
Williams’ first efforts in live mixing outside of the club, however, were a trial by fire—in 1987, blues act Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack asked him to cover a few upcoming shows, and while the first was a warm-up gig, it was followed by a three-night stand opening for Eric Clapton at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The shows went well enough that blues legend Robert Cray saw the group and immediately booked it to play his wedding—a stamp of approval for all involved.
Williams began mixing Plant during the singer’s early 2000s Strange Sensation era, and while the experimental album didn’t click with the public, it got Williams behind the FOH desk for Plant—a spot he kept for the rest of his career. In the years that followed, highlights on Williams’ resume included Plant’s Raising Sand tour with Allison Krauss, which won a 2009 TEC Award for Tour Sound Production; the 2010-11 Band of Joy tour with Patti Griffin; and the December 10, 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion show at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert held at London’s O2 Arena, co-mixed with another FOH legend, “Big Mick” Hughes.
Williams was twice nominated for a TEC Award in 2009 and 2011, and for a Parnelli Award. He last toured with former Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift, but had been ill in recent years. Over the course of his career, times and music tastes changed, and in many ways, Williams felt, the music world did as well, as he noted to Pro Sound News in 2005: “It’s ‘The Industry’ now, in big, bold letters, whereas early on, it was a little bit of fun. The sound side of it has improved vastly, but as an industry, the big picture, there just aren’t as many pirates out there as there used to be. The pirates have all been gobbled up. I preferred it when there were a few more pirates about—made it more interesting!”
Upon Williams’ passing, Plant tweeted a tribute to his old friend, referring back to their Honeydrippers days nearly 40 years ago as he wrote, “It is heartbreaking to lose Roy who has spent so much of his professional and personal life in my company from mid-teens onwards. Most importantly, he gave me support and encouragement as I attempted to get back into the game after the dreadful and sad passing of John B” [Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s drummer].
Whether he was mixing local acts in a regional club or Plant in a massive amphitheater, Roy Williams brought time-honed insight to what made the music work, aiming for a feel and a vibe in the room, accenting whatever was working best in the moment. As he advised Pro Sound News readers in 2005, “Try to absorb as much music as you can of all sorts; use your ears. Listen to and absorb as much music as you can, but use your ears at the end of the day.”