If you don’t know Philip Williams, you must not live in Bay St. Louis. That’s because just about everybody in town knows Mr. Williams. Gospel singer. Fisherman. Chef. He has been dishing out barbeque in the Bay for three decades.
He belts out gospel in his baritone voice at St. Rose on Sunday and rhythm and blues at the Hundred Men Hall. And he’s the go-to man if you want to find out where the fish are biting.
by Pat Saik
Williams enjoys fishing alone. “I like to go by myself,” Phil muses. “I can do what I do when I want to do it.”
Phil loves fishing for flounder or speckled trout, “specks” as he calls them. “I like game fish, anything I can boast about,” he deadpans.
Catching more than he and his family need, Williams likes to clean his catch, freeze it, and have it to give away all year, especially to the older ladies from church.
He confesses that on his last fishing expedition he thought it might be a good idea to begin sharing his outings with someone who would enjoy the adventure too. Nonetheless, whoever shares his boat has got to stay quiet. “When I’m fishing, I am not a talker. And don’t bring a radio. Just look. Up and down. Listen to the ‘bump, de bump’ of the boat. Just enjoy yourself.”
Besides knowing where the fish are biting, Philip Williams knows Bay St. Louis. He was born and grew up on Sycamore Street; when he returned to Bay St. Louis after years away, in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Washington, D.C., he chose a place on Sycamore Street.
During those years he lived away from his birthplace, Williams trained in computer programming. He put that expertise “on the back burner” when he was recruited, during the Nixon administration, to help manage the campaign of Walter E. Washington. In 1967, Mr. Washington, an African-American, was appointed by Lyndon Johnson to serve as the District of Columbia's first mayor, a position he continued to hold during the Nixon administration until 1974. Following his venture into DC politics, Williams continued to live in the nation’s capitol, becoming engaged in the business of managing real estate.
It wasn’t long, though, that the call to return home became too insistent to resist. Williams’ computer training and expertise landed him a job with a business located in the massive NASA operations at Stennis Space Center, and Phil moved back to Bay St. Louis.
When his employer at Stennis closed-up shop, Philip Williams decided it was time to start his own business—the business of barbeque.
Philip knew what it took to be an entrepreneur, having watched Ms. Ophelia, his father’s mother, in action. Ms. Ophelia, who lived on Sycamore Street, had a restaurant called Ophelia’s and a bar room called The Onion. She was known to all in town to be a good cake maker and cook. She invested in real estate, eventually owning ten homes.
Ms. Ophelia provided room and board to many of the African-Americans temporarily in town to build a new highway that would replace old US Highway 90, known then and now as Old Spanish Trail.
“She provided lunch, clean sheets and bootleg liquor, and gave credit at her barroom,” Williams recalls. Lodgers were quite satisfied with a lunch of red beans and rice topped with three oysters and served with French bread. “At the end of the week, you had to pay. If you didn’t, she called the sheriff, Phil Price.” Having softened him up in the past with regular gifts of greens and a good cake, “she was in good shape with the law.” Sheriff Price lost no time in convincing recalcitrant boarders to pay what they owed to Ms. Ophelia.
“She was a pistol ‘til the day she died,” Williams proudly recalls.
Creating perfect barbeque is apparently a Williams family legacy - Williams says it's something that his family was renown for even before his birth. Over the years Williams has offered his barbeque at various locations in Bay St. Louis. His loyal longtime customers just follow. At present, Williams and Beverly, his wife of 30 years, are operating a take-out barbeque business at the corner of Washington Street and Old Spanish Trail. It’s impossible to pass by Williams’ Pit Barbeque without the aroma of roasted pork teasing the senses. Generous portions and moderate prices bring customers from far and wide. With sides like dirty rice or sweet potatoes along with plates of ribs or chicken, no one goes away disappointed. If you wish to have a party catered, Philip and Beverly can handle that, too.
Williams presently has plans to build a modest cafe so that his patrons can sit down and enjoy a meal on premises if they wish. Meanwhile, the popular take-out operation is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm.
In addition to his fame as a southern cook who knows how to boil a pot, Philip “Smooth” Williams, is known in this community for his singing, from gospel to blues to rhythm and blues. His rich baritone, with tenor range, also croons love songs and dance tunes from back in the day. Sometimes he just breaks out in song. He does a haunting rendition of Blue Moon
His 26-man Gospel Ensemble will be singing Easter Sunday at 9 am at St. Rose de Lima. Phil also performs as the Phil Williams Gospel Blues Band and The Relative Unknowns, composed of a keyboard, bass guitar and backup singer. As Williams describes it, “it’s an all-American rhythm blues rock band.” Willams also plays with The House Katz at 100 Men Hall. Soon he plans to be doing gigs at The Mockingbird, a local hot spot for coffee and homegrown art and entertainment.
“My uncle had a quartet gospel group and he encouraged me to sing,” Philip recalls. “I needed to learn to harmonize—that’s what took skill. I was only seven or eight years old at the time.”
Turning 68 this next birthday, Philip is still singing for the sheer enjoyment of it. “When you play music together, you just feel about as good as you can feel.”