Ruth Mobley Dabney Williams was an old-school supper-club songstress, a throwback to the ’40s and ’50s, equally at home in front of a big band or a smooth jazz trio, wearing an evening gown and caressing the lyrics as if she understood everything about love and heartache.
She sang from her youthful a cappella days with the Skyliters through a long professional clubs-and-pubs career to her frequent performances in her later years at the Scottish Rite House, a senior citizens residence in Philadelphia, where she died in her apartment from cancer on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at age 92.
“She could sing up until a week before she passed,” said her son, Albert Sr., 74. “My stepfather, Linton Williams, who was married to her for 40 years, used to say, ‘When you open the refrigerator door and the light goes on, she would start performing.’ She loved singing for people. And she was good.”
Mrs. Williams performed with famous jazz musicians including tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes and sang in the city’s legendary jazz clubs, including Pep’s Musical Bar, but she did not consider herself a jazz singer, Dabney said. “She told me one time, ‘I’m not a jazz singer, because I can’t scat.’ But she could sing, you know what I mean? She sounded like Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington.”
Dabney said he and his wife, Gwendolyn, bought Mrs. Williams a karaoke machine about 10 years ago. “Up until just before she passed,” he said, “she would put that karaoke machine on and sing My Funny Valentine, That Old Black Magic. The Nearness of You — that was one of her favorite songs. Another was Never Grow Old. I have a CD that the music therapist made of her singing. I just haven’t played it yet. I’m not ready to hear it yet.”
Despite being raised by a mom who spent years performing in Philly and on the road, Dabney, who worked for the Philadelphia Water Department and had no interest in show business, said her greatest gift to him had nothing to do with singing.
“She was about love,” Dabney said. “You know what I mean? Treat people like you want to be treated. Don’t be building grudges and resentments and stuff because life is too short for that. All she taught me was love.”
Dabney said his mother’s death was especially poignant for him during the holiday season because the family always celebrated together.
“I miss her, but I’m not caught up in a lot of grief because there’s no regrets, no saying, ‘I should’ve done that,’” he said. “No, I don’t have those regrets. She was always there for me, and when she got sick, I was there for her. I made sure she was comfortable and well taken care of. So, I have peace and serenity with her passing.”
In addition to her singing career, Mrs. Williams was a longtime treasurer of the Philadelphia Clef Club and spent 25 years as campaign treasurer for State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas.
“She was my angel,” Thomas said. “At the Scottish Rite House, she helped maintain an active resident advisory council, and she was always available to sing. She’d put on her red shoes and her red dress and perform. She didn’t get a lot of fanfare, but she dedicated her life to making life better for others. We lost a real bright light. You could not spend any time around Ruth and be sad.”
In addition to her son, she is survived by three grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; one great-great-grandchild; two sisters; and her companion, William Sawyer.
Services were Saturday, Nov. 25.