With a smile and a friendly wave, the eccentric 72-year-old man greets his 2.7 million followers. A longtime staple of the Charlotte music scene, the man they call Funky Geezer has become the subject of a newfound fame by way of an app often associated with folks just a fraction of his age: TikTok.
In his short videos, he sometimes shares a nugget of information about the song or guitar he’s about to play, like the time he garnered 23.5 million views for naming his new Telecaster Butterscotch. More often, the guitarist and keyboardist jumps right into the tune, firing off a soulful rendition of The Animals’ 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun,” or grooving on a keyboard while he belts out a bluesy version of The Doors’ “Love Me Two Times.”
Still other times, he introduces an original composition. On the shuffling “Nite Nite,” he sings in a grainy croon: “May you have such pleasant dreams/of cake/ and good ice cream/nite nite”
@funkygeezershowHappy Fingers Butter Scotch Guitar ##original ##music ##song ##guitar ##telecaster♬ original sound – FunkyGeezerShow
Born Woody Wilson, the Funky Geezer is as surprised about his newfound TikTok fame as anyone else. Even to admirers, his success seems astonishing.
It’s not that music fans are blind to Wilson’s considerable talent. The places he’s graced with his nimble blues-based guitar and wicked sense of humor reads like a list of every notable Queen City music venue, past and present: Snug Harbor, JackBeagles, The Chop Shop, The Rabbit Hole, Petra’s, Common Market, Amos’ Southend and The Evening Muse, which he fondly calls his “mothership.”
No one in the know thinks Williams’ popularity is due solely to social media either. Long before there was a TikTok, Williams went viral with a wicked takedown of a transphobic former governor entitled “Governor Pat McCrory is the Groin Police.” The catchy ditty includes the immortal couplet:
“Since your nose is in my business, you know/ could you give me a little wipe? Down there?”
Nor is Funky Geezer’s kind yet quirky on-camera demeanor a revelation. The NoDa native is widely acknowledged as the real deal, reaching out to his homeless neighbors to make sure they have shoes, shelter, sleeping bags and more. He’s also taught his dazzling brand of spray paint, dubbed “space art,” to economically strapped children and members of homeless encampments.
Most local folks are not even flabbergasted that Williams’ fame as Funky Geezer has gone beyond Charlotte on TikTok. He’s gone national before, scoring a spotlight on season nine of NBC-TV’s variety show America’s Got Talent in 2014.
No, the reason that Williams’ TikTok success seems so astounding is that TikTok’s market hegemony is still relatively new, and Funky Geezer is so … old.
That perception, Williams thinks, is the point.
“I’m doing things old people shouldn’t do; I’m dancing with a walker,” says Williams. “It juxtaposes. It’s a quandary, and I think that’s what catches [people] off guard.” A corollary to that theory is the fact that Funky Geezer is the embodiment of embracing your passions, no matter how old you are.
From television to TikTok
America was introduced to Funky Geezer on the season nine premiere of America’s Got Talent in 2014. Wearing a garish American flag leather jacket, playing lightning fast runs on a portable keyboard and beating celebrity judge Howie Mandel in a foot race around the arena, Williams made an indelible impression.
Williams remembers driving up to Greensboro months before the broadcast to attend the first round of auditions. It was snowing heavily and the roads were icy, but Williams made the trek up I-85. He made the cut at the live audition in Greensboro and eventually attended two more. After that, Williams was told that someone would be in touch. Several weeks passed.
He was helping out at a homeless camp when he got the phone call telling him to come to New York.
“I went there and had a ball for three days,” Williams says about his national TV debut. “It took [judges] Howard Stern, Mel B and Howie Mandel to eliminate me.”
In the years since the show, Funky Geezer has played the Charlotte Comedy Zone, opening for comedians like Tom Green, and performed regularly with the now-defunct local web series Crazy Late with Johnny Millwater.
In November 2020 Williams heard that Donald Trump hated TikTok, a China-owned social media app, and was doing everything in his power to block it.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see what the hell he hates,’” Williams says.
Williams downloaded the app and liked what he saw. He was taken with the short skits which he calls hilarious and contagious. After joining the platform, Williams had to come up with something to post. His solution was simple, but it struck a chord.
The short video of Williams dancing with his walker while “Savage Thing” by Jason Derulo played on the radio garnered 9.7 million views in just three days. Faced with the prospect of follow-up videos, Williams broke out his guitars and started playing songs.
Nowadays, Williams plays a mix of his original songs and a growing list of covers culled from requests in his TikTok comments. He breaks up the string of guitar and keyboards accompanied songs with an occasional space art tutorial or an old live performance video spiced up with animated bats and butterflies.
“I’m not on [TikTok] for a career,” Williams maintains. “All my stuff is free downloads online, and it always has been.”
It’s clear Williams is playing for the joy of performing, and for the chance to encourage people to tap into their creativity. With his recent song “Nite Nite,” he’s playing a traditional lullaby, gently lulling people to sleep and easing them into a night of peaceful dreams.
“Right now, the world needs to heal,” he says
While Williams plays some crazy comedy songs, he says he stays away from the political humor displayed in “Governor Pat McCrory is the Groin Police.”
“I prefer to cheer other people up by singing a song, or telling a joke,” Williams offers. “There’s a lot of sinister old people out there and I’m not going to be one of them.”
Pre-NoDa North Charlotte & patching up World War II
Williams was introduced to music at an early age. His truck-driving father took the family to a teamster hall Christmas party when he was 5 years old. There, Williams witnessed a set by Arthur Smith and His Crackerjacks. Guitarist and band leader Smith was a former South Carolina textile worker who scored a hit when his song “Feudin’ Banjos” was recorded by bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. The tune became an even bigger hit when it was revived in the popular 1972 film Deliverance as “Dueling Banjos,” but Williams’ mind that night was not on banjos.
“I fell in love with the guitar right then and there,” he says. When Williams turned 6, his mother bought him his first guitar.
“I never stopped playing,” he offers. “For 30 years I promised myself to practice every day, and for 30 years I did that.”
Williams finally broke his guitar strumming streak when he took some time off to learn to play keyboards. While still in high school, he went to work at the Highland Park Mill No. 3 — now an apartment complex that backs up Heist Brewery and Benny Pennello’s — for $8 a day. It was not a good fit.
“I got to looking at those old timers in there with brown lung,” he remembers. Byssinosis, or brown lung disease, is caused by inhaling unprocessed cotton particles. It’s the cancerous bane of mill workers. Williams was determined not to end up like his coworkers, so he went to work at the nearby Astor Theatre as a projectionist.
The Astor, now known as Neighborhood Theatre, opened in 1948 with a screening of the Gary Cooper vehicle The Plainsman. By the time Williams joined the staff, the theater was screening slightly seedier fare — X-rated romps like Her Bikini Never Got Wet and Adam and Six Eves.
Williams, who had been drawing, doodling and tracing letters since he was 5, moved on to hand-painting signs for Bumgarner Sign Co. He also landed a job at Central Ford Trucks on North Graham Street and I-85, working in the parts department.
All this time, he continued to play guitar in bands around town. By the time he turned 18, he hit his stride as guitarist for a band called Fragmentary Blues. Then all the band members got drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. Williams went into the army, as his father had in World War II. Because Williams had worked for Central Ford Trucks, he was shipped to Germany as a tank mechanic. Once overseas, Williams convinced his superiors that he was better qualified to paint signs than tinker with Patton tanks.
Williams says he painted murals and mess halls all over Germany in an attempt to sooth the ill will seething between the German mayors and the American military. He painted over bullet holes, still visible from the 1940s, and made them look like flowers.
“I got to thinking, my father and his crew put these bullet holes here, so here I was coming in, patching up World War II,” Williams muses.
From armored car to art instructor
Despite his lighthearted manner now, Williams was left psychically scarred by his time in the military. Discharged in 1970, he headed to the North Carolina mountains and dropped out. During his sabbatical Williams renounced drugs and fell in love with nature. Although he held a job, he otherwise lived as a hermit. He wrote a code of ethics for himself and continued to write songs and make art.
After cleansing his spirt through his mountain sojourn, Williams came back to Charlotte. While working day jobs — first as an armored car driver for Wells Fargo for 10 years then with a graphics company creating signage for clients like NASCAR — Williams continued to play music and write songs for other musicians. He did jingles for radio stations and businesses, as well.
“I even did one for Herbal Essence, and they sent me cases of shampoo,” he muses. For years he worked essentially as a home studio musician. “[Then] I burst out at age 60 and became Funky Geezer,” Williams says.
It wasn’t quite that simple. Williams wanted to use a stage name for the music he uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, but his first choice, Old Fart, was already taken. He figured the next step in incontinence and general decrepitude was Geezer Dookie. He went with that name for a few years. Then, in the comments section for one of Williams videos, a viewer wrote, “You sure are a funky old geezer.” Williams liked the sound of that and his new moniker was born.
He started playing live shows, opening for better known acts, and winning over audiences with his engaging tunes, dazzling musicianship and his warm yet surreal sense of humor.
Concurrently, Williams had turned his attention to his less fortunate neighbors. He remembered his darkest days in the mountains, when he was having issues with the army and abusing drugs.
“I know where the homeless people come from,” Williams says. “Once you fall through the net and hit the bottom, you’re roaming around and scrounging what you can.”
Long before he became Funky Geezer, Williams had befriended many of his homeless neighbors. He learned about the issues that many people face in that situation. He brought people food, sleeping bags, shoes and hygiene items. He went to the camps and lent a hand where it was needed.
“There were quite a few camps in those days,” Williams says. “The police kept chasing people out.”
In addition to making music and writing songs, Williams also taught himself to make fantastic drawings of planets, star fields and supernovae with spray paint. Once he had mastered the technique, he began teaching it to young adults in the neighborhood and sharing it with some of his friends struggling with homelessness.
“I taught Larry Simpson,” Williams says. “He couldn’t even write. But he learned how to use spray paint.”
Simpson was illiterate, but he started to make art and was soon proud to call himself a painter. Sadly, shortly after finally getting into housing, receiving medical care and obtaining Social Security payments, Simpson died from lung cancer just before Christmas 2020.
“Everybody can be an artist,” says Williams, who often posts spray paint tutorials on Tik Tok. “The spirit to create is in everybody.”
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