If you’ve spent any time in the arts district of NoDa chances are you’re familiar with Woody Williams, aka The Funky Geezer. He’s a popular performer at Charlotte venues, combining his “geezer schtick” with beyond-solid musical chops. His shows are part comedy and part music. In Creative Loafing’s Best of Charlotte 2014 he was readers’ pick for “Best Local Performing Artist.” People have made documentaries about him.
In other words, he’s not a well-kept secret. I sat down with him at Smelly Cat Coffeehouse to get to know him a little better.
How he became The Funky Geezer
“I was putting up videos and songs on Youtube under the name of Geezer Dookie. I was just going to be Old Fart. But Old Fart was taken so I said ‘what’s the next worst thing? Geezer Dookie.’ I was up there for a year or two as Geezer Dookie. And some guy somewhere said ‘You are a funky old geezer.’ I said ‘I like that!’”
How the rest of the world learned about Woody
In early 2014 Woody made it past several rounds of auditions for “America’s Got Talent” and was selected to perform in front of the studio audience and celebrity judges Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Nick Cannon. That means he was ranked in the top 300 of 25,000 performers. Although he was eventually eliminated from the show (by people who obviously don’t appreciate true talent the way that Charlotte does) he had a blast.
“Howie Mandel said ‘You’re not really an old guy, you’re just a young guy that looks bad.’ Four or five thousand people out there were laughing. So I said ‘you come up here, young man, and I’ll race you around this arena and I will beat you.’ And so they egged him on so much he tore off his mic and ran up there. We had a footrace and I beat him. Howard Stern gave me a standing O. Nick Cannon said ‘Let’s start a band. We’ll call it Nick Plus One.’ So he signed my shirt: Nick Plus One.”
Why he’s important to NoDa and Charlotte
Woody is a walking encyclopedia of Charlotte, and especially NoDa, history. He’s lived in the area for over 60 years and has seen what he calls a “rollercoaster ride” in NoDa.
“I worked at Neighborhood Theatre back in the 60’s, when it was the Astor Theater. I was the projectionist. It was an old porno. Way back I worked at the mill back there before it closed. $8 a day, a dollar an hour. They called us lintheads. Lint everywhere. I worked there as a teenager. I knew I didn’t want to work in a mill my whole life. This (what’s now called NoDa) was our hangout. It was the closest sort of development on the outside of Charlotte. So we’d come here because they had a theater and a drugstore.
“It turned into a drug district in the 80’s. They cleaned that out and turned it into more of an arts district. A lot of artisans came in and started doing gallery stuff and selling their wares and arts and crafts. Sort of changed the whole atmosphere of it. Very eclectic.”
NoDa is again on the cusp of change. The light rail is coming through, bringing with it tons of development, especially large apartment buildings. Opinions among NoDa residents, visitors and business owners are mixed. Woody’s worried that the development will push out the artists and the music venues. We both hope he’s wrong.
His work history also includes drawing editorial cartoons, painting houses, fertilizing and much more. “I debeaked turkeys at a turkey farm. Terrible job. Cut the top beak off cause they’ll peck each other. You have to take clippers, stick your finger down their throat, clip it off. It was terrible.”
What’s important to Woody
After Woody appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” his popularity in Charlotte exploded. His Facebook following blew up. 5,000 is the maximum number of friends Facebook lets you have, so if you’re not already Facebook friends with him you can only follow him, not friend him (on Facebook, that is.) He told me he’d get rid of a couple politicians to make room for me though, so you never know.
So he decided to use that celebrity status to do something important. He’s helped the homeless for a long time, bringing guys things they needed: food, blankets, clothes. Even as we sat down to talk he had two hot drinks in his hand. He took one out to his car, where a homeless friend was resting to keep warm from the bitter cold.
He posts about specific needs on Facebook, and his Facebook friends and followers step up, bringing him canned goods, kerosene, camping gear and much more, which he brings directly to the people in the homeless camp.
“Sure they’ve got issues, but that’s not my place to judge. It’s my place just to try to help. I’m not gonna try to get involved in their politics, or judge them or talk down to them or preach to them. I’m just gonna help. And that’s all it is.”
He believes that people can rise above their circumstances.
“He might be a late bloomer. Like I was. The Funky Geezer didn’t launch until I was an old geezer.”
He paints imaginative “space paintings,” which he posts on Facebook. His friends and followers buy them and he uses the money to help his homeless friends.
Even better, he’s teaching the homeless guys to paint, and he’s selling their paintings for them, so that they can have a measure of self-sufficiency.
“I went out to the homeless camp and trained them to do it. So they’d paint it and I would take a picture and put it up on Facebook, sell it, and they’d make enough for a hotel room, or food or whatever. So instead of just going out and panhandling they could make these paintings and sell their artwork. Larry’s illiterate. Can’t read or write. He’s got a terrible stutter and he’s walleyed. But he watched what I did and he starting painting his own. That was a huge reward for me. Instead of calling him Larry the Homeless Guy, now he’s Larry the Artist. He’s proud of himself. It gives him hope. And now he can train others there in the camp and who are passing through and it’s almost like a subculture of craft. They’ll learn and teach themselves.”
Woody isn’t suggesting that you seek out a homeless camp yourself if you want to help, because it can be dangerous. Some organizations that can use help are Housing First, Urban Ministry Center, and Charlotte Family Housing.
“They’re giving me all this celebrity crap, so let’s do something good with it. That’s bigger than me. That’s bigger than music. Being a humanitarian. That gives me all the wealth in the world.”