The world needs more bar characters.

Marlon Arrington Williams, with his trademark flowing gray whiskers, owlish Windsor glasses, and easygoing gap-toothed grin, was an habitué at a handful of bars in Durham’s downtown district.

Williams often sat at the end of bar counters, sipping from a glass of his favorite beer or whiskey while reading or watching the soap operas he loved. The more polished spots like Kingfisher, Unscripted, and the Pour House weren’t his scene. He preferred rustic, dark-paneled rooms with dim lighting and a pub-like ambience served up at the Accordion Club, Bull McCabe’s, 106 Main, Bull City Burger and Brewery, and the James Joyce.

It seems almost prescient now: on a warm, sunny early Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Williams, a normally reserved and quiet man, was the body electric while holding court at the dive bar Accordion.

Grinning like he had gotten away with something, which we will soon see he had, Williams stood in the middle of the bar with his right arm draped around a bartender while singing Journey’s 1983 hit “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” Shoot, he even did a little soft-shoe dance and played the air guitar.

Someday love will find you

Break those chains that bind you

One night will remind you

How we touched and went our separate ways.

The next night, on November 22, Williams returned to Accordion. It was just after nine p.m. when he collapsed and died while talking to a bartender.

He was 62.

“Isn’t that crazy, that he would sing that song?,” says Juliette Cash, an Accordion bartender who was working the Monday when Williams sang one last take of “Separate Ways.”

Before arriving for his ultimate last round at Accordion, Williams had stopped by the James Joyce on Main Street for dinner around seven.

“He and a friend split a sandwich,” Pete Bolduc, who was working behind the James Joyce bar that night, told the INDY. “He went to the Accordion for a nightcap.”

Bolduc could only shake his head thinking about the trauma endured by Accordion workers who saw what happened to Williams.

“I have a bad night if there’s a fight or someone throws up,” he says. “It’s hard to process. It’s just so unreal to see someone at night in relative perfect health, then wake up the next morning and they’re gone.”

Williams’s cause of death has not officially been made public.

The day after Williams died, Accordion was closed.

“We never close. But we closed for that one,” one of the Accordion bartenders told the INDY.

Accordion workers weren’t the only ones shaken by Williams’s death. A goodly number of bartenders and barflies alike in the downtown district were shocked and saddened by the news of Williams’s passing.

My friend and fellow journalist Eric Tullis currently bartends at Unscripted but poured many a draft for Williams while working at the old Whiskey and Criterion bars. He texted me the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

“Marlon had a heart attack last night at the Accordion,” Tullis’s text read.

I called him immediately.

“How is he?” I asked.

“He’s dead,” Tullis answered.

Over at 106 Main, there’s an empty chair where Williams used to sit near the end of the bar. Three bouquets of flowers in glass vases sit atop the section of bar where he would be, hunched over a drink and a newspaper. Several glass-encased burning candles are on one side of the flowers. Two empty shot glasses and an unopened orange-and-gray can of Williams’s favorite beer, Belle’s Two Hearted Ale, sit on the other.

There’s a small, gold-plated plaque about the size of a business card on the counter. It reads “Forever Corporate, Marlon A. Williams: The Academy Thanks You.”

Alise Leslie, a bartender at 106 Main, says Williams was known as “Corporate” because he was one of the bar’s first customers when it opened several years ago.

“We would say, ‘Talk to Corporate,’” Leslie explains about how the staff humorously dealt with minor issues if Williams was seated at the bar. “It was one of those 106 inside jokes.”

The 106 Main staff also put out a yellow legal pad with “Thoughts of Marlon” scrawled across the top for bar patrons to sign. As of Monday, more than 35 people had written tributes.

“I will miss your laugh,” someone wrote. “Your witness and strength, you sexy motherfucker. Rest in Peace.”

“What will NFL Sundays at 106 be like without you now? Miss you already.”

“Marlon, you were kind. You spoke to me like I was a person and not a stereotype.”

Marlon Arrington Williams was born in 1960. He was a descendant of one of Cary’s most prominent and pioneering families of overachievers dating back to the antebellum South.

Williams’s great-great-grandfather, Alfred Arrington, was the son of an enslaver on a plantation in Warren County. He was freed before the Civil War and came to Cary during the late 1860s. Alfred and his son, Arch Arrington, were large landowners in north central Cary, according to the Friends of Page Walker website.

The website notes that Williams’s grandfather Arch Arrington Jr. organized an effort to build a new school for Black children in 1937 after the Cary Colored School near the present day Cary Elementary School burned down. Williams’s uncle Goelet Arrington donated land to the Wake County Public School System for the school. It went on to become Kingswood Elementary School.

Williams’s family could not be reached for comment, and the INDY found scant information about his father. Williams was the only child of Ella Arrington Williams-Vinson, a Wake County public elementary school teacher and author of Both Sides of the Tracks, two volumes chronicling Cary’s racial history. She taught for more than three decades and died in 2013.

After graduating from high school, Williams earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Notre Dame in 1982, an official with the school’s registrar’s office told the INDY. Williams earned a law degree from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, according to the website

Williams hadn’t lost a case in nearly 20 years. But that’s because he hadn’t represented anyone in nearly 20 years, according to the California and North Carolina state bar associations.

Williams was admitted to the State Bar of California on September 16, 1987. But his license to practice law in that state was suspended on September 16, 2004, after he failed to pay his bar fees, according to the state bar’s website.

He had an online presence that indicated he operated a law office at 916 West Trinity Street, but his name or status as an attorney does not appear during a search of the NC State Bar Association website. Nor does he appear in a search for paralegals on the bar association’s website.

“He did legal work,” Leslie, the bartender at 106 Main, told the INDY. “He didn’t have an office. He did title searches and that sort of thing. He didn’t litigate.”

Bolduc, at the James Joyce, wasn’t sure if Williams had passed the bar.

“I know he was a paralegal,” Bolduc told the INDY. “Maybe he was an attorney. He would come in here and do a bunch of briefs and technical writing.”

“He often brought his work here,” says Cash, at Accordion. “Sometimes he would finish beforehand, but if not, he’d bring it here.”

But even if he ran into financial difficulties that pretty much flatlined his status with the state bar for nearly two decades, those who served him drinks and food while exchanging heaping slices of good-natured banter could care less. They don’t measure him by whether he had passed the state bar but by the largeness of his heart that he shared while sitting at their bar counters.

The downtown bartenders who served Williams fondly remember a quick-witted, very direct person who didn’t mince words. He was highly intelligent, very observant, and capable of “being very, very silly,” Leslie says.

“He would come in and watch the soap operas on his phone or the TV,” Leslie adds. “He would watch The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful.”

Sometimes, he would watch his soaps at Accordion.

The Young and the Restless came on at 12:30 p.m. and The Bold and the Beautiful came on right after that,” Cash says. “He’d watch them back to back.”

Cash adds that Williams was a very private person. A mutual friend, Allen Redd, agreed.

“He was a tough old nut to crack,” Redd told the INDY.

Taj Snead, the front house manager at Bull City Burger and Brewery on Parrish Street, told the INDY that Williams would drop by every once in a while and have a seat at the end of the bar.

“He would read,” Snead says. “He would bring a newspaper or a book and order a burger and a beer.”

Cash says the week before Williams died, he arrived at Accordion soon after the start of her shift at 11 a.m.

“He drank all day and kept making song requests,” she says. “I told him I would play whatever he wanted me to play. He loved the Talking Heads and Journey. He was drinking Narragansett that week.”

Long before that fateful Tuesday night at Accordion, Williams had easily passed the highest bar of all: people genuinely cared about him.

“Marlon, I have seen your smile for years and it always lit up a room,” someone wrote on the yellow legal pad at 106 Main. “So many people love you.”

A memorial service for Williams will take place at 12 p.m. Saturday, December 10 at the Burthey Funeral Chapel, 1510 Fayetteville Street. A celebration of his life will take place at the Accordion Club immediately following the service.

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