William A. Anderson, a retired state Department of Education compliance officer and a talented musician who played with such musical legends as Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Little Richard, died Jan. 31 from complications of a stroke at his Randallstown home. He was 79.
William Armfield Anderson was born in Chicago, the son of William J. Anderson, a General Motors Electro-Motive Division locomotive welder, and Madessa Anderson, who later owned a Greenmount Avenue lampshade business.
After Dr. Anderson’s parents divorced, his mother married Isaac Snowden, who lived in Johnsville, Carroll County. He was raised there and in Chicago.
When he was a boy, he learned to play the piano, and later added the trombone and saxophone to his repertoire, and also became a singer. He later mastered the banjo, guitar, flute and several other instruments including the trumpet, bagpipes and accordion.
After he graduated in 1957 from the segregated Robert Moton High School in Westminster, his stepfather encouraged him to continue his musical studies at the Peabody Conservatory, where at the time he was one of handful of African American students.
At Moton he played saxophone with fellow students Billy Dixon, Buck Jackson, Bernard Bolger and Bill Horsey.
“We started playing gigs starting in 1956 for money. We’d go out and do stuff,” said Mr. Horsey, a Johnsville resident and the sole surviving member of the Five Bees. “We took our name from the guys whose first names all started with ‘B.’ ”
“We played nightclubs and, in 1957, we played the Apollo in New York City,” he said. “We played the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland back in segregated times. We played for the white kids.”
Other venues included the Club in Union Bridge, the Johnsville Community Center and the American Legion in Frederick. They even auditioned for “The Arthur Godfrey Show.”
“The Bees made their rounds at some of the most prestigious clubs and halls... Carrs Beach, Swallow Beach, Cole Field House, Dew Drop Inn in Virginia, when they played backup for such entertainers as Frankie and Lewis Lymon, Ben E. King, Platters and others,” wrote Joe Vaccarino in his book “Baltimore Sounds.”
“When a star like Ray Charles came through town, he hired local musicians to form his backing band, sending them practice materials in the mail two weeks before each gig. Anderson got the call from Ray Charles,” according to a profile of Mr. Anderson in Two Generations, a publication of the Baltimore County Department of Aging.
“He played with Charles at Johnny’s Sports Arena near Bel Air, and they remained friends until Charles’ death in 2014,” the profile stated. “Anderson also played behind James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jackie ‘Mr. Excitement’ Wilson, The Temptations, and gospel artist Jeff Majors.”
“Billy was good, he could play anything. In those early years, we backed up some who got famous later,” said Mr. Horsey, who played guitar. “He was very talented and a guy who liked to do things. He liked challenges and was very persistent. He would never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“Billy left us around 1961 when he founded Anderson’s All Star Band,” he said. By the mid-1960s, the remaining Five Bees band members stopped performing because of jobs and family obligations.
Dr. Anderson later recorded a single with keyboardist Freddy Rhuebottom & the Apollos on the Soul House label, according to Mr. Vaccarino of “Baltimore Sounds.”
In addition to his music career, Dr. Anderson worked more than 40 years for the Maryland State Department of Education as chief compliance officer, making sure school systems were in compliance with the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
While working for the department, he attended night school and obtained both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Antioch College, and his doctorate in 1980 from The Union Graduate School in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
In addition to his work, Dr. Anderson provided music therapy for the developmentally disabled at the old Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, and sign language for the hearing impaired. He also taught at the Maryland School for the Blind.
“He always had a passion for the underdog,” said a son, Jose Felipe Anderson of Randallstown.
He also taught graduate-level applied psychology courses at Coppin State University and served as liaison for retiree and disability affairs at the Maryland Classified Employees Association.
In addition to his son, he is survived by three other sons, William A. “Billy” Anderson Jr. of Milford Mill, Delmas Anderson of Silver Spring and David Anderson of Pennsylvania; and six grandchildren. Marriages to Consuello Escoe and Aquilla Aalaba ended in divorce.