Excuse Dyana Williams for just one second.
She was talking about interviewing Motown founder Berry Gordy for a documentary she’s working on about Sound of Philadelphia architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But now her Apple Watch is buzzing. She needs to take this call.
It’s from Adil Bayyan, co-manager of Kool & the Gang, the storied funk and R&B group for whom Williams is about to throw a party at the Kimmel Center.
On Tuesday, Robert “Kool” Bell and his crew of “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” renown will be the 2019 recipients of the Marian Anderson Award, named for the Philadelphia classical and spiritual singer and civil rights icon.
As a self-described “ambassador for culture specific to African American people,” Williams works on many fronts.
Bayyan is keen to tell her that wherever the band goes, “everybody brings up how great the award is and how prestigious it is for them, especially when you look at the lineup of all of the people that have received it before.”
Recent winners include Gordy, Jon Bon Jovi, Patti LaBelle, James Earl Jones, Gamble and Huff, and Dionne Warwick.
“Well, it’s their turn,” Williams says of the Jersey City-born band, formed in 1964 as a jazz and soul group called the Jazziacs.
“They’re always doing for other people," she tells Bayyan, “and they deserve a greater light and shine.”
Giving light and shine is the business of Williams, newly 66. That goes back to the early 1970s when she started out as sultry-voiced deejay “Ebony Moonbeams,” first at City College in her native New York City and then in Washington. At an O’Jays concert there, she met Philadelphia International hitmaker Gamble — now her ex-husband, whom she calls “the most influential person in my life, other than my parents.”
Since the 1990s, helping younger acts get their shine on has been Williams’ music-industry niche through her work as a celebrity coach. Her A-list, hip-hop-generation client list has included Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Janelle Monae, Zach Brown, Pitbull, and Michael Vick.
On Nov. 18, Williams will be feted by Live Connections, the Philadelphia music education nonprofit, which will present her with the Connector Award at the World Cafe Live. It is given annually to an individual “who works to build bridges, create collaborations, and fuel innovation through the power of music," says the group’s founder, World Cafe Live owner Hal Real. "Dyana has a tremendous track record in the music business of doing all those things.”
Much of Williams’ work calls attention to black music history. Later on this bright November day, she’ll head out from her North Philly home — where Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden lithographs hang on the walls — to the Bala Cynwyd studios of Sound of Philadelphia radio station Classix 107.9-FM. She hosts the Afternoon Delight drive-time show, spinning vintage pop, R&B, and funk artists like Atlantic Starr, Whitney Houston, and the Time. The gig, which she began in July, returns her full time to the medium that brought her into the music business, when she had a home on the Philadelphia FM dial at WDAS in the 1980s.
Williams is on the board of the National Museum of African American Music, slated to open in Nashville in June. She’s a featured expert on the hit music-documentary TV series Unsung.
Cathy Hughes, founder of the D.C.-based Radio One (now known as Urban One), says Williams was primarily responsible for President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 declaration of June as Black Music Month. (Barack Obama changed the name to African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009.)
“She wrote the bill with members of Congress," says Hughes, "and made sure it stayed hot with them, and went all the way to the White House.”
“Dyana knows everybody,” says Gamble, who raised three children with Williams. “She will not give up. When something is needed to be done, call Dyana.”
Williams started celebrity coaching when producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis hired her to work with a vocal group called Solo in 1995.
(Not that everyone bought in: Kanye West told her, “I don’t need any help. I’ve got this,” when she was recruited to assist the young rapper-producer in 2004.)
Demand for Williams’ services has grown within the industry as artist development at understaffed record labels has become a lost art. The best-known historical parallel is Maxine Powell, who ran a finishing school for Motown artists in the 1960s.
“Maxine Powell, or Mrs. Powell, as she was known, did etiquette. How to sit, how to stand, how to hold a fork. I do more human etiquette. Connecting with another human being," Williams says.
“I had a client I was working with the other day. He’s 21, he’s a rapper. He’s from Philly. His name is Drew Boy. When I say green, green as a blade of grass. I was telling him about videotaping females that you might have sexual interactions with to protect yourself from accusations of rape. I’m talking to all my male and female clients about that, because in this #MeToo era, you’ve got to be careful. ... Before you have consensual sex, get it on record. .... Because you could derail your entire career, and life.”
Williams also works with Good Girl, the Philadelphia girl group signed to RCA who have proclaimed their desire to be “the American Spice Girls.”
Their media trainer’s reputation preceded her. “She’s the GOAT,” says Good Girl singer Megan Nicolle Thomaston, meaning Williams is the “greatest of all time.”
Bandmate JL Bunny says Williams takes a tough but nurturing approach, “like an aunt, or a cool mom. ... You know she cares about you as a woman, especially coming up in this male-dominated industry.”
Williams sometimes runs damage control for acts. “I have been called the Olivia Pope of the music industry,” she says, referring to the crisis manager played by Kerry Washington on the TV series Scandal.
Music makers who aren’t her clients also value her — for her deep connections and knowledge.
“Dyana is such an incredible force when it comes to Chic,” says Nile Rodgers, on the phone from New York. When he reunited with his now-deceased partner, Bernard Edwards, in the 1990s, “Dyana called up singer Sylver Logan Sharp and told her to pack her bags and go directly to our recording studio.”
Sharp got the job, though 50 others had auditioned. “Dyana is very aware of music, and what musicians go through. She followed my career from afar," Rodgers says. “She knew exactly what we needed.”
Kool & the Gang may not have the gravitas of Marian Anderson winners such as Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, and Wynton Marsalis. But, Gamble says, their music “spreads so much joy. Just that song ‘Celebration.’ Anytime people are celebrating on a mass scale, all around the world, they’re playing that song. That’s what music does. It brings people together.”
Rodgers is chuffed to be playing tribute to a band he dreamed of joining as a teenager. He’ll be flying in from London, where he’s creative adviser at Abbey Road Studios, working on the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new Cats movie.
“If you listen to the early Kool & the Gang records, they’re quite sophisticated,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says. ”It was only when J.T. came along” — singer James “J.T.” Taylor, no longer in the group — ”that they started to do stuff that was more pop. But the early stuff — ‘Summer Madness,’ ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?,’ ‘Hollywood Swinging’ — that’s the Kool & the Gang that I grew up with. Oh, and ‘Jungle Boogie,’ of course. That’s not your typical party record.”
In choosing the Anderson Award winner, Williams says, “The board submits a bunch of names, and then who can we get? We have our top picks, and then we go after them.”
Rodgers was Williams’ first call when Kool & the Gang were confirmed for the awards, which will be hosted by Tamron Hall. They are deserving honorees, Williams says, in part because “they do so much give-back that people are not even aware of.”
In 2009, Williams traveled with the group to Cuba and acted as their interpreter as they played to massive crowds. She saw how their mission meshes with her own.
“I’ve witnessed the work they do in the community, and not just the American community,” she says. “They are global ambassadors for our culture and our music.”
8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. $25-$1000. 215-893-1999. kimmelcenter.org