- Photo by Bohdan Cap
- Andre Williams
When Andre Williams died of cancer on Sunday, March 17, at age 82, he was well-known in Chicago as an R&B veteran who'd stayed busy and beloved in his later years. From his childhood onward, he'd spent much of his life here, but for a long stretch of the 1970s and '80s he was somewhere between "whatever happened to" and "missing in action." Drug addiction had all but ended his career, and for a while in the early 90s he survived by panhandling on the downtown Randolph Street bridge.
Over the decades Williams had amassed a cult following thanks to a string of early singles, among them 1956's "Bacon Fat," originally on Detroit label Fortune, and 1967's "Rib Tips" on Avin Records. He cowrote "Shake a Tail Feather," arguably his most famous song, though it wasn't a hit for him—the Five Du-Tones took it to the charts in 1963, and Ike & Tina Turner recorded it a couple years later. But when interviewers tracked him down to hear his story, he usually answered with a stern "Hell, no!"
Williams remained a man of mystery for ages. So I was surprised when, during the winter of 1988 and '89, I was driving down Garfield Boulevard and passed a streetlight with a poster tied around it reading ANDRE WILLIAMS. I doubled back and took the poster down for my collection: it was a headshot of 1980s Andre, advertising a new 12-inch single, "Signifying Monkey," where he adapted the famous black American folktale for the hip-hop generation. He followed it in 1990 with a full-length album, Directly From the Streets (on Swamp Dogg's S.D.E.G. label), whose liner notes went well out of their way to establish Williams as the true Godfather of Rap. The record stiffed in the marketplace, but he'd have better luck down the road, when his comeback kicked off in earnest in the mid-90s.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1936, Williams began recording in 1955. By the 1960s he was working as a singer, songwriter, and producer, bouncing between Detroit (where he was an early staff member at Motown) and Chicago (where he wrote or cowrote "Shake a Tail Feather" and, while a producer at One-derful Records, the Alvin Cash smash "Twine Time"). His legacy, though, was shaped by his own records—a series of songs where he talk-sang, starting with "Bacon Fat." Reissued by Epic when it caught fire, it streaked all the way up to number nine on the Billboard R&B charts. Williams's streetwise delivery and his way of always seeming to hint at something filthier than what he was saying have long prompted critics and fans to connect these early songs to modern-day rap.
As the 60s rolled by, Williams traveled all over the R&B landscape, writing songs for Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells at Motown, producing Bobby Bland for the Duke label in Houston, Texas, and finally settling in Chicago, where he recorded the seminal "Cadillac Jack" in 1968 for Chess Records, with the Dells singing backup. For Chess subsidiary Checker, he produced "The Prayer" b/w "Lilly White Mama, Jet Black Dad" for comedian Ray Scott in 1970.
At that point, Williams's output took a dive—in large part because in '73 he'd gone to work for Ike Turner for 18 months and picked up some of his bad habits. Addiction sidelined Williams for part of the 70s and all of the 80s, and the X-rated hip-hop of Directly From the Streets didn't help his fortunes any. He spent a few more years in oblivion—until summer 1995, when Chicago producer George Paulus, working with Billy Miller and Miriam Linna from New York's Norton Records, finally brought him back as he was meant to be heard. In 1996 Norton released Williams's album Greasy on vinyl, while Paulus's St. George label put out an expanded CD version titled Fat Back & Corn Liquor.
The album could serve as a template for any artist from a bygone era trying to make a comeback. Featuring a crack band with Dick Taylor from the Pretty Things (guitar), blues all-stars such as Twist Turner (drums) and Studebaker John (harmonica), and doo-wop legends the El Dorados (background vocals), it was a success from the get-go. Williams included a new version of his 1956 Fortune single "Jail Bait," and he was positively showing out all over the album, joking, begging, crying, hollering, cussing, and even getting down to some bona fide singing.
To Williams's credit, his comeback ended only with his death more than 20 years later. Unfortunately, when artists of Williams's caliber resurface, they usually sink back underground after two or three years (witness the short-lived resurrection of protopunk legends the Sonics). Williams, on the other hand, stayed fairly visible, beginning with a very shaky 1996 show at the Beat Kitchen—he'd gotten drunk and forgotten the words to "Riot in Cell Block #9," so he ad-libbed "fuck you" over and over. This became the unofficial catchphrase of the night, and a stern-faced Williams repeated it at every opportunity. At one point he asked, "Any of you white folks got $500 I can borrow?" Somebody shot back, "Fuck you!"
- A track from Andre Williams's 1998 album Silky, released by In the Red
What could've been a fatally flawed start instead led to more records and several tours, including a few in Europe. Williams branched out into country, punk, and even straight 12-bar blues, making good and sure to add his own personal stank every time. He even bottled a custom-made "stank" as a fragrance called Bait & Switch, marketed via Norton Records (whose books imprint, Kicks, published his 2009 collection of pulp fiction, Sweets). In 2008 director Tricia Todd released the rather tragic documentary Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year With Andre Williams.
When Greasy/Fat Back came out in 1996, I had the honor of joining John Battles and the late Shawn Maloney to interview Williams at the Beat Kitchen for Roctober magazine. The three of them had arrived before me, but Williams swiftly acknowledged my presence: "Y'all brought a black brother in! They told me you were all white!" He was in the middle of explaining how, in his new "Jail Bait" remake, he begs the judge not to send him to the big house because "they get the booty" up in there. He autographed my copy of his "Jail Bait" reissue album just that way: "They get da budy —Andre Williams."
I sat next to Williams, across the booth from Battles and Maloney, and it was like sitting next to an erupting volcano. For the next hour or so, he told scandalous tales about the business and his career, some of which he pointedly told us were "off the record." He talked about playing the Apollo and working with Swamp Dogg and Bobby Bland, and he took time out to praise the founder of Chess Records: "Don't put no bad thing on Leonard Chess! Don't be no Leonard Chess, don't be no Chicago blues! That's my man . . . the beautifullest Jew-man ever lived in this godly world!"
The three of us continued to get to know Williams, and at a subsequent Beat Kitchen gig we even played with him—I was on harmonica, and Battles and Maloney came onstage to sing occasional backing vocals. In a weird bit of serendipity, the rockabilly band that opened the show, the Frantic Flattops, played a song called "Is It True?" that unbeknownst to them had originally been recorded by Williams himself. He asked them where they'd heard it, and they said it was on some mixtape by an R&B singer who'd died long ago. Williams recapped this exchange midway through his own set, reminding the audience that "The nigga ain't dead!" He then called the Frantic Flattops to the stage to do the song again, this time backing him—and they killed it. It was one of the finest moments in live Chicago rock history.
The indie-rock set loved him—for a while, it seemed like nearly every garage or punk fest needed a cameo appearance by Williams, R.L. Burnside, or Rudy Ray Moore as the Cool Old Guy in the Club (though I got the distinct vibe that Williams wanted that title for himself, without the others muscling in). Many was the night you could see Williams stopping by a show at the Hideout or some other show bar, dressed in full Roberto's regalia, flirting with and kissing the women as they were introduced to him. The release party for Sweets was held at Phyllis' Musical Inn, and hearing him tell the revelers in the back to Shut the Hell Up was as much fun as listening to him read from the book.
Williams died the same weekend as surf-guitar pioneer Dick Dale. All over the Internet, roots rockers, historians, and record collectors bemoaned the likelihood that neither man would ever be recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even though they enjoyed mostly regional notoriety in their heydays, they hung in long enough to start respectable second acts in the 1990s. Even if they hadn't, their accomplishments would speak for themselves. Williams put the whole "Hall of Fame" thing in perspective in an unpublished interview with Miller, who passed away in 2016. "Now there's some serious bullshit," he said. "I ain't saying put Andre Williams in your building. But come on, rock 'n' roll wasn't built by superstars. Rock 'n' roll was built by strugglers." v