There are musicians with regular weekly gigs, and then, there is Bob Williams. He’s played at the Charleston Grill Sunday nights since 1996. That’s right; for 25 years, Williams has played his classical guitar at Charleston Grill on Sunday nights. For 20 of those years, he’s been accompanied by his son Michael on violin.
“It started with me playing at the Palmetto Cafe years ago, when I first moved here,” Bob Williams said. “I was playing for a seafood buffet that they had on weekends. They were making a change at the Grill on Sunday nights and the manager heard me and said, ‘Let’s get Bob over here.’ So I moved from the Palmetto over to the Grill.”
When he first started playing, Bob did jazz standards, playing solo and slowly building a loyal following with his tasteful-but-tasty style.
“At that time, the Sunday nights were laid-back and certainly not the large crowds we have today,” he said. “It was known as the easier, slower night, so me playing solo fit. And of course, I played the style that the Grill was known for, playing jazz standards and nice restaurant background music. It fit very well in there.”
After five years or so, Williams decided to bring his son Michael, then in the 10th grade, onstage to sit in for a night. At least, that was the original plan.
“He played pretty good, and I thought it would be kind of nice,” Williams said. “I brought him in one night on violin, and everybody started clapping and the manager said, ‘Bring that kid back in here!’ I didn’t expect that. I thought it would be kind of a nice thing to do one night, and he’s been there with me [for] 20 years.”
These days, though, you’re just as likely to hear the Bob Williams Duo play a Red Hot Chili Peppers song as you are a classic Sinatra tune.
“Well, things have changed in 25 years, right?” Bob said. “Back when I started, this was in the days of what I call ‘basic restaurant jazz’ being played in the area, and the Charleston Grill certainly had been known for legendary quality jazz music down through the years. Then we started incorporating some of the popular songs and songs that a lot of the people at the Grill grew up with.”
Once they started playing both standards and hits, the floodgates opened for the duo — at the Charleston Grill and around town.
“Before long the staff would come up and say, ‘Hey, here’s a list, I want you to try to learn some of these.’ So we started shifting to a mix of renditions of popular songs. We’re on classical instruments, so it comes up very refined. Then brides and wedding planners started coming to us from all over the place saying, ‘I want you guys to play because I want some contemporary songs.’ ”
Over 25 years and more than a thousand gigs, you meet a lot of people. But there are a few folks that stand out to Williams.
“We’ve got a couple from Asheville who come in regularly,” he said. “I’ll immediately go into a song or two that they like, and they feel very special coming into the Grill knowing, ‘Hey, they’re already playing my song up there.’ So it becomes a special night for certain people.”
Then there are faces that are familiar to millions.
“I was speaking to one of the customers, and one of the staff came up and said, ‘I just want to tell you that Bill Murray and Paul Shaffer just came in,’ ” Williams said. “They were seated at the back wall, and I said, ‘This should be good.’ I told Michael, ‘Let’s set up and do a few of our standards and then we’re gonna go into some contemporary pieces.’ And after a couple of songs, I said, ‘OK, let’s do ‘Snow’ and ‘Rosanna.’’ Which is the Chili Peppers and a Toto song.”
The reaction from Shaffer and Murray was immediate.
“Paul Shaffer turns around and starts looking,” Williams said. “So then a staff person came up and said, ‘Bill Murray wants you to come over and have dinner with them.’ So we took a break and went over there and sat down with Bill Murray and Paul Shaffer.”
So, it’s no wonder that even after 25 years, the word “retirement” isn’t in Williams’ vocabulary.
“I’ve been playing since the ’60s,” he said. “I saw (classical guitarist Andres) Segovia play at 92 years old at the Gaillard Auditorium years ago, so I see myself continuing. The music is always changing. I’m never bored with it; I’m always developing new arrangements. It stays fresh, so I don’t see stopping.”