NoDa’s Funky Geezer kicks off new season of ‘America’s Got Talent’

Nearly every afternoon, Woody Williams drives to the Smelly Cat Coffeehouse, gets a cup of coffee and takes his daily walk around the neighborhood.

The entire North Davidson neighborhood knows Williams in his custom-painted shirts, driver’s cap, and custom wood-paneled car. They know him as the Funky Geezer, a local musician who has lived a few minutes from the heart of NoDa for most of the past 60 years.

Tuesday, America will know the Funky Geezer, too. He’ll be the old man wearing the leather bicentennial American flag jacket, toodling around with the tricked-out walker, playing the world’s fastest keyboard, and racing celebrity judge Howie Mandel on Tuesday night’s season premiere of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

Even if he doesn’t win, the trip to the auditions at New Jersey Performing Arts Center this winter was an adventure. He received a standing ovation from celebrity judge Howard Stern, started a theoretical band called Nick Plus 1 with host Nick Cannon, and danced with Newark Mayor Luis Quintana’s wife at a private party.

Williams hadn’t flown since he was in the Army more than 40 years ago: “We flew into a thunderstorm in Atlanta, and I swore I’d never fly again,” he says, taking a drag off a Pall Mall outside the Smelly Cat. He changed his mind after acing a preliminary audition in Greensboro – and ended up taking a trip that required him to travel through nasty winter weather. (“If I died, they could put on my headstone that I died on the way to ‘America’s Got Talent,’ ” he says, jokingly.)

NoDa rallied around Williams to make the trip possible, raising a few thousand dollars for local musician DJ Rankin to accompany Williams and help lug his 80-pound keyboard. Numerous people also signed the shirt Williams wears on the show. That way, he could take the whole neighborhood with him, he says.

A lifetime in NoDa

Williams has been part of the neighborhood since long before anyone thought to tag it NoDa. At age 18 – around 1968 or 1969, he estimates – he ran the projector at the old Astor Theater (now Neighborhood Theater), which showed adult films.

“I was afraid to go downstairs with all those dirty old men,” he jokes. He made $1.35 an hour working at nearby Highland Park Mill before getting drafted. A friend snuck his guitar into the barracks during boot camp, and Williams later had it shipped to Germany, where he was stationed. He was never without music for long.

Later, in Charlotte, he worked as a graphic artist, painting signs for clients like NASCAR and drawing editorial cartoons for magazines. He lived in the mountains, where he came up with “a code of ethics” and renounced drugs. He worked for Ford, Wells Fargo, and a graphics company he retired from 15 years ago.

Throughout that time, he was always doing something creative. He carries a folder of the Photoshopped images he posts daily on Facebook and – in stark contrast – intricately detailed pencil-drawn portraits of neighborhood residents. He talks of turning his back room into an art studio.

“Art made me what I am today. Custom shirts, the Woody car – everything is a canvas to me,” he says, quietly. “If I could paint on the sky I would.”

‘An unpredictable firecracker’

He’s played in several bands over the decades and did a long-running solo electronic project called Jimy Jamz before taking on the Funky Geezer persona.

“I had to wait on Funky Geezer to get here,” says Williams, who began posting Geezer songs on YouTube five years ago. “You can’t do Funky Geezer when you’re young.”

Williams says people guess he’s anywhere from 60 to 90 (he won’t divulge his age), but many of his songs have some age on them as well. He unearthed several from old cassette recordings he’d made 40 years ago. His songs range from funny and mildly risqué (“Grandma’s Feelin’ Frisky”) to poignant. He began sharing his songs at Monday Open Mic Night at Evening Muse; Joe Kuhlmann, who owns the venue, calls him “a true Charlotte treasure.”

“Woody brings an enthusiasm and honest lust for life and music that I would expect from many half his age, but almost never see,” says Kuhlman. “He’s an unpredictable firecracker … you almost don’t realize how talented he is.”

Part of that talent is his comedic timing, which he’s lent to Charlotte late-night talk show “Crazy Late with Johnny Millwater.”

“One of the elements of ‘Crazy Late’ was a character spotlight where many of our actors had to create characters,” says Debbie Millwater. “Woody showed up as himself. He would write his own pieces and, coupled with his authentic nature, he delivered endearing performances every time. My favorite was ‘Longevity Tips with the Funky Geezer.’ ”

Helping a homeless camp

Williams has a serious side, too: He has been working with a camp of elderly homeless people near his home for 12 years, delivering food, clothes, camping gear, sleeping bags and kerosene and giving them haircuts.

“They used to help me around the house, and I’d pay them a bit. So I found out some of their camps,” he says. “They’re all over 60. One died last year of liver cancer. One is in hospice now. … Two of the girls got hit by a train. It’s rough. I’m just helping one camp so they’re not dying out there in the woods.”

So if Williams happened to win “America’s Got Talent,” you get the feeling he wouldn’t just spend his prize money on polishing and marketing his forthcoming album.

But win or lose (and now he’s being silly again), Williams is going to milk his time on the show for all it’s worth.

“The best thing I see about it is I beat Howie Mandel in that foot race. I should get my shoes ready and call them Air Geezers,” he deadpans. “Or I’ll do a walker workout video for people in rest homes.”