METHUEN — Sweet Willie D sings, cooks and collects — elephants, no less.
He preaches and teaches, too.
On Labor Day, Sweet Willie (Willie Sherrer) will be doing all the above at two celebrations — Lawrence’s Bread and Roses Heritage Festival, organized to commemorate the famous labor strike of 1912, and his own festival in Newton, N.H., called Sharefest.
The 57-year-old Methuen man is ever ready to merge interests near and dear, creating something new from the things he knows.
A week ago he sat in his living room surrounded by elephants. They are a growing collection of paper, porcelain, brass and wood. Figures set on tables, trays and window sills. They are a mighty presence, not unlike Willie on stage.
Blues historian, photographer and performer Charles Sawyer says Willie captures audiences with his larger than life personality.
“He personalizes every performance with his great stories and his warmth that could melt an iceberg,” says Sawyer. “And he is a great blues singer.”
At Willie’s second-floor apartment, a flat screen television — the sound on low — flashed behind him. In the corner atop an open cage perched Jose, a female cockatiel who sometimes says she loves you when she wants something.
Sweet Willie talked music and his barbecue business and trivia. He told of two cornerstones in his life — church and his wife, Betty.
The topics rolled like a stone down a snowy hill, gathering size, taking shape — propelled by the speaker’s verve.
Religion and music
Sweet Willie was born into a big family in Vineland, N.J.
He started singing at 5 years old at Rev. James LaSure’s Truth Baptist Church where young Willie felt secure. The piano, the singing, the people and the words. It felt right.
He remembers hearing the hymn “There’s not a Friend like the Lowly Jesus.” Only young Willie heard the words as, “There’s not a friend like the long-legged Jesus.”
Willie’s connection to gospel music endures. He has sung in church choirs from youth to adulthood, through his years in the Air Force, stationed in Texas, until today at Calvary Baptist Church in Haverhill.
Betty and New England
More than 30 years ago Willie Sherrer met his wife, Betty, at a New Jersey psychiatric facility. He makes it point of emphasis to say they met as employees, not residents.
They became friends and, later, husband and wife. They would work as caretakers for mentally challenged people for 33 years, many of those years at Massachusetts facilities.
Twenty-one years ago, Betty — whose family is from Chelsea — brought Willie to live in New England.
He came kicking and screaming, agreeing to stay a year.
The year became decades and New England now is home.
Massachusetts is where Willie’s blues, soul and swing singing career sprouted.
Singing career takes root
Willie always sang at work, where he cared for mentally challenged people. Song made the time go by and the tones soothed residents’ minds.
Twenty years ago marks a turning point for Willie. It was then that he caved in to the prodding of a fellow worker at the Hogan Regional Center in Danvers, who convinced Willie to sing at an open mic at North Andover’s Little Richard Roadhouse.
Willie sang the two songs he knew, “Southbound” and “Bring it on Home.”
After he sang his set, a fellow named Brad Faucher asked him to sing with Brad’s bandmates in Malden, young kids who liked rhythm and blues. Willie said no thanks, convinced these clean-cut white kids knew little about the blues.
But Brad persisted, calling Willie day after day with the same plea to sing with the band.
Finally, to squash the pestering, Willie relented. He and Betty would drop in. Willie’s plan was stay to 15 minutes — so they could get on their way to what they really wanted to do, find a fishing hole and cast their lines into the water.
Turned out the clean cut kids could play, and Willie and Betty stayed, stowing their fishing rods for another day.
One of the musicians Willie would fall in with was drummer Greg Roberts. Greg has become Willie’s friend and little brother, keeping the beat to many a song set.
“If you can lay down a groove, then you are OK in Willie’s eyes,” says Greg. “He is my friend, mentor, and big brother.”
Ups and downs
Sweet Willie has come to see the world as a church.
Life has its ups and owns for everyone, he says.
“Tragedy and victory are like rain — it hits everybody,” he said.
Willie and Betty stumbled hard three years ago. They lost their jobs and, Willie’s father, daughter and oldest son died.
The couple was destitute and down, living in a family member’s basement.
Then one day they got up and determined to make a go of it.
They got help from friends and family, and the Veterans Administration. Willie applied to and was selected for a rigorous training program where he learned the ins and outs of running a food preparation business.
His belief system sustained him.
“The blues will take you as far as you can go,” he said. “When you can’t handle it, let God take care of it.”
Blues, barbecue and celebrations
Things have a way of evolving in Willie’s life.
He has cooked barbecue for people for 40 years.
But in the last year he has made a business, Sho Nuff!!! BBQ, of his pastime.
He caters parties, picnics and functions. Sometimes his package includes food and entertainment — barbecue and blues.
He makes his own barbecue sauce, dozens of flavors and will be serving barbecue at Sharefest, on a farm on Smith Corner in Newton, N.H., on Labor Day.
The festival grew out of a backyard barbecue gig on Hamlet Street in Lawrence on an afternoon about a decade ago.
Word spread that day like the sweet, smoky smell of grill-fired meats. Willie was turning out chicken and ribs on plates piled with fresh collard greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes.
“Before we knew it we had nine bands in the backyard,” said Sweet Willie.
They broke out the PA system and jammed. Musicians and singers included Shirley Lewis, Mr. Nick and Henley Douglas Jr.
The next year the party pulled in twice as many bands, among the guests Toni Lynn Washington, Nicole Nelson, Jessie Payo and daughter of the blues Shirley King — BB King’s daughter. Word was that BB King might even make the party, though in the end his schedule didn’t allow for the visit.
Bread and Roses
On Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 1, Sweet Willie D will shuttle between Newton and Lawrence and back to Newton.
He will be singing with the Howard Randall Band at Bread Roses, scheduled to take the Carmela Teoli Stage from 2:25 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Expect some Howling Wolf, Big Joe Turner and BB King at the Lawrence festival organized to remember the landmark labor strike of 1912.
Drummer Greg Roberts says the musicians are always ready to play some blues, some souls and some swing.
Willie always writes a set list but has yet to stick to the script.
The band is ready. They know Willie is going to change things up, improvising the numbers, keeping them in tune with the crowd and the feel. Willie is a showman, and a showman knows the audience.
Betty says Sweet Willie brings more than singing to the stage.
“He gives a bit of a story of where he came from and how he got into the blues,” she said.
For his part, Willie says he and the band will be ready for whatever the day brings.
“I tell people, ‘Tonight’s show is: whatever comes up comes out.’”
If you go
What: Bread and Roses Heritage Festival
Where: Lawrence, on Campagnone Common
When: Noon to 5 p.m. on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 1
More information: breadandrosesheritage.org