The uncle of bassist Charles Mingus, Fess Williams was skilled on many instruments, though he specialized on the clarinet and alto saxophone. As a youth he studied music at the Tuskegee Institute and moved to Cincinnati in 1914, where he worked with Frank Port's quartet. From 1919 to 1923 he led his own band before moving to Chicago and joining Ollie Powers. In 1923 he formed a new group in order to back the variety act Dave and Tressie and traveled to New York with them in 1924. There he led a trio in Albany as well as a band that played at the Rosemont Ballroom.
In 1926 Williams formed the Royal Flush Orchestra. The popular hot jazz outfit held residency at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom for most of its life and recorded on the Victor, Vocalion, Gennett, Okeh, Brunswick, Champion, and Harmony labels. Williams, Frank Marvin, and Perry Smith supplied vocals. The flamboyant Williams typically performed wearing a white suit and top hat.
In 1928 Williams traveled to Chicago where he temporarily fronted Dave Peyton's band at the Regal Theatre. Calling the group Fess Williams and His Joy Boys, he recorded two sides with them for Vocalion. The Royal Flush Orchestra continued to operate in his absence, and in 1929 he returned to New York to resume his duties.
The Royal Flush Orchestra recorded its last side in 1930. Williams remained active as a bandleader, but as the decade progressed his sound became outdated. He fell out of favor with the public and eventually retired from performing full-time to sell real estate. He continued to lead bands periodically during the 1940s and beyond. In 1962 Williams was briefly in the spotlight again when he appeared at a New York Town Hall Concert led by his nephew.