By Rex Doane
"Any of you who might have come here tonight in search of atonement had best head on back home now," announces the man known as Mr. Rhythm. "You've done shown up at the wrong place."
Though it's hard to imagine anyone has come out to New York's smoke-filled Acme Underground with salvation in mind, it never hurts to double-check. Fact is, everyone in attendance on this April night is getting double helpings of just what he came for: low-down dirty Chicago-style rhythm and blues, hot out of the mouth of living legend Andre Williams. Wearing a scarlet bowler and matching suit and fronting an eight-piece band, Williams slithers through his set, honoring requests for many of the bawdy standards he cut back in the late 50s for Detroit's microscopically small Fortune Records, old favorites like "Bacon Fat," "The Greasy Chicken," and "Jail Bait," a cautionary tale about the adoration of the underaged.
Not many acts from Williams's era so thoroughly enjoy sweating to their own oldies. But Williams, who between 1957 and 1968 broke into Billboard's R & B charts twice, penned a couple well-known soul classics, and produced some of the biggest names in R & B only to end up begging for money to feed a mean monkey on the streets of Chicago, is happy to oblige. His new album, Silky, released last month by the southern California indie In the Red, sounds more like the sludgy blues-punk that backing musicians Dan Kroha and Mick Collins stirred up when they were two-thirds of the Gories than anything from Williams's R & B heyday. But the tunes are some of his dirtiest ever, barely bothering with the double entendres that characterized his classics. New songs like "Let Me Put It In," "Bonin'," and "Pussy Stank" are raunchy enough to make Rudy Ray Moore run for cover.
"People now keep saying, 'Andre, you're too dirty. Quit being so lascivious!'" Williams says. "Lascivious! Shit. I didn't know what that meant till a week ago, and I've been lascivious for on near 61 goddamn years."
Williams was born on November 1, 1936, in Bessemer, Alabama, and given the hip handle of Zephire Andre Williams. When he was five, his family took a ride north on the Illinois Central all the way to the end of the line. They settled on Chicago's south side, where they became some of the first tenants of the brand-new Ida B. Wells Homes--an address Andre still recites proudly. It was 1941, and Andre's father, Tom, made a respectable living fueling the war effort at Bethlehem Steel. But his mother, Fanny, a beautician, died two years later from tuberculosis, and the Williamses' Chicago idyll was over. "She spent her whole life breathing in them fumes from wig frying and it finally caught up with her," Andre says.
After that, Tom Williams took to the sporting life, leaving Andre and his brother, Nathaniel, to fend for themselves on the streets and school yards. Andre, it seems, began to emulate his dad: "I bounced around a bunch of schools 'cause them boys was jumpin' on me, 'cause I was the only good lookin' little old guy in the room," Andre says. "They had gangs back then, too, like the Deacons and the Sons of Sabres. And if you went to a school and you was new and them girls liked you, you was like fresh meat for them gangs."
By the time he'd enrolled at Englewood High, Andre had landed a job as a busboy at a steak house on 47th. Working from four in the afternoon to four in the morning, Andre quickly became as familiar with the local truant officers as with any teacher he had at school. Though he'd sung a little in the choir at the First Church of Deliverance, the notion of making music for money had yet to occur to him. "I didn't know whether I was going to be a stickup man or what," he says. "I hadn't made up my mind." He decided that a change of scenery would help, took his brother's birth certificate, and joined the navy. To the best of his recollection he was 14 at the time, but other dates he gives make it more likely he was 16.
Ironically, while in boot camp at Great Lakes, Andre did start singing semiprofessionally, in one doo-wop group called the Cavaliers and then another called the Five Thrills, which cut two sides for Parrot, a label run by Chicago DJ Al Benson. But his career as a vocalist had to go on ice when he was shipped out, as he recalls, to Rhode Island and San Diego--where Redd Foxx, then the emcee at a club Andre danced at on weekends, gave him his enduring nickname--and eventually the Korean theater.
In 1954, Williams says, he received some distressing news from back home: Nathaniel Williams, who was supposedly already in the navy, had decided that he, too, needed a change of scenery. Navy officials, noticing that they now had two Nathaniel Williamses with the same parents, opted to keep the real one. Andre was plucked off the boat and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was dishonorably discharged. He left D.C. with everything he owned on his person: a pair of black pants, a red corduroy jacket, a Ben Hogan cap, and $25.
With little calling him back to Chicago, Williams headed for Detroit, a city he'd been introduced to by his bunk mate at boot camp, Nathaniel Wilson. He'd already met Wilson's brother-in-law, Little Eddie Hurt, and the other vocalists who would become the members of his first Fortune backing band, the Five Dollars. He'd also met Wilson's sister Carrie Sue, who became his first wife. "We'd all just sit out on the porch, singing and buzzing with the cats," he says. "All those other guys wanted to do was sing, but I was looking for a way to make me some money. And with my discharge, my options were definitely limited."
Pounding the pavement, he passed the Warfield Theatre, which advertised its weekly talent show on the marquee. The purse was $25. "I said to myself, Shit, I don't care if I have to steal it. I'm going to get that bread," he says. "I went there two hours before the curtains opened and entered that contest. I sang this song Harold Burrage had out at the time, 'Hi Yo Silver,' and did the splits, the tumbles and spins and shit, and won that $25." Williams then proceeded to win the contest for the next seven weeks.
Now a genuine local phenomenon, Williams was soon approached by Jack and Devora Brown, who ran the tiny Fortune label. Like many of the small independent R & B labels that cropped up in urban areas after World War II, Fortune was a family operation. But unlike Sun or Chess, also hatched humbly circa 1950, Fortune never shook its mom-and-pop status. The old storefront, on Third Avenue in Detroit, still stands, but it looks more like the sort of shabby corner grocery where you'd hesitate to buy a pack of gum than a place where R & B history was made.
At the time, Fortune had made its mark with a series of hugely influential releases by Nolan Strong & the Diablos; Strong's stunning falsetto introduced the sound later popularized by Smokey Robinson on Motown. Williams knew he couldn't outsing Strong, so he decided to outhustle him. "As soon as I signed with Fortune, you know, I got enterprise in my mind and energized to diversify," he says. "I told Mrs. Brown, 'Since you got the Five Dollars, that ain't Andre Williams. Let's cut Andre and the Five Dollars. That'll give you eight records a year instead of four, and you'll make more money.' I didn't know how clever I was at the time." Later he made a third group from the same personnel, the Don Juans; their first Fortune single, recorded in 1955, coupled a prison blues, "Pullin' Time," with "Going Down to Tijuana," which had its own dance, a kind of cross between the monkey and the jerk.
Despite his nascent marketing genius, Williams never received any royalties on his releases for Fortune. His biggest hit for the label, "Bacon Fat," earned him only the down payment on a new Cadillac--even though the song was licensed to the nationally distributed Epic label and reached number nine on Billboard's R & B chart in early 1957. But such an arrangement wasn't unusual for black or white artists at the time, and today Williams even remembers the Caddy fondly. "That was a hell of a car back then," he says with a smile.
The chart success of "Bacon Fat" did land Williams a gig at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, alongside Little Richard and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, where he learned an invaluable lesson: "When I went to the Apollo I took a black tuxedo and some red velvet shoes, a bright red shirt, a straight black tie, and a red handkerchief," he says. "Now, everybody knows, you don't mess with a tuxedo. But not Andre. I was ready to run out on the stage and Nipsey Russell, the emcee, takes me aside and says, 'We don't do that in the profession. Look at Jackie Wilson. Look at Lloyd Price, Dee Clark and them. Look at the nice suits they got on.' Nipsey then gave me a card for Fox Brothers and told them to get me something for my next two shows. That's where I got my first tailored black mohair suit, the one that shines when the spotlight hits you, makes you look like you got a lot of class. After that I said to myself that I will not hit the stage unless I have a new suit and tie, a haircut, and I'm smelling good."
Prior to a pair of New York gigs in December, Williams informed WFMU radio listeners that he was fully prepared for his weekend engagement: he'd brought along five bottles of Michael Jordan cologne.
Williams's next landmark recording was "Jail Bait," in 1957. The lyrics weren't the only controversial thing about it. According to Williams, Fortune reneged on their agreement to give Epic the record, and without the benefit of national distribution it received only marginal exposure. "Fortune got greedy," he told Bill Dahl for Living Blues in January. "I think they had first rights of refusal or something like that. They was gonna hold 'Jail Bait' and try to bust it nationally themselves. Well, one reason it didn't happen was because 'Jail Bait' got banned. By them banning it, it only made it bigger. But it didn't make it big enough to keep me at the level that 'Bacon Fat' had."
Williams made a few more records for Fortune, but nothing else hit like "Bacon Fat" either, and he began sniffing around for new opportunities. A few years back, he'd met an aspiring songwriter named Berry Gordy at a barbershop in Detroit. Willams thought enough of Gordy's material to recommend it to United Artists honcho Art Talmadge, who ended up buying Gordy's recordings of Marv Johnson. Gordy, of course, had gone on to found Motown, and was now in a position to offer Williams a job.
At Motown, Williams produced singles by Mary Wells and the Contours and the first release by the Temptations. He also worked with Little Stevie Wonder, an experience he remembers less than reverently: "Stevie Wonder was a brat. No one wanted him around, 'cause he was a pest. You'd look around and here was this little blind boy running around, banging on the drums and knockin' the piano out of tune. He'd go into the different offices and be messing with the girls so they couldn't do their work. He even learned how to mimic people and get on the phone there and make prank phone calls. Berry eventually barred him from the Motown offices unless he was there to record a session."
But despite initial brushes with success, Williams couldn't stay on Gordy's good side. "I was in and out of Motown for six or seven years," he says. "I musta been fired and hired there at least half a dozen times." In between he flitted from label to label, from Detroit to Chicago: One-derful!, Mar-V-Lus, the short-lived Mercury subsidiary Blue Rock, Golden World, Ric-Tic, Chess. "I've always had problems," Williams says. "Every venture I went into there was always something that wasn't quite right to make the thing fly. You know, I was always short of the good promotion man. Or I had some cat who didn't have no ear who was over my project. But in every company I was in I always made an impression. You go anywhere I've been and say 'Andre Williams,' they go, 'Oh Lord, yes! Honey, let me tell you about that madman.'"
Jo Ann Garrett, a Chicago-based soul singer Williams produced for Chess in the late 60s, diplomatically confirms his reputation. "Like a lot of creative people, Andre had difficulty when it came to compromise," she says. "He could get very passionate and stubborn about what he thought the record should sound like." Luckily, for every door that was slammed in Williams's face, another one opened down the block.
"Andre was what you might call an entrepreneurial producer," says Robert Pruter, author of Chicago Soul and Doowop: The Chicago Scene. "In other words, he went to all the local record companies to see if they needed someone to produce R & B. Many of these companies, such as the major labels, really didn't have the producers on hand who were knowledgeable enough or had the connections to get into the R & B field. People like him proved to be invaluable for companies like Mercury, who in fact hired him to do A and R for Blue Rock."
Whenever he was liberated from Motown, Williams always managed to chart with the other labels, as producer, songwriter, or both. In 1963, doing A and R for Chicago's One-derful! and Mar-V-Lus, he cowrote and coproduced "Shake a Tail Feather," by the Five Du-Tones. (It would be a crossover hit for James & Bobby Purify in 1967; it would also be performed in 1980 by Ray Charles for the Blues Brothers sound track, and Williams would have to go to court to get his royalties.) "I knew if I could find a way to get people to shake their ass I'd have something," he says. But the moral standards of the time made it impossible for Williams to write a song that said simply, Shake your ass. "Everything had to have ambiguous words," he says. "So I thought, shake your booty...no, no...shake that thing...no...shake your money maker...been done before. Then I got 'shake your tail feather' and that was it!"
Despite a certain instability, Williams managed fairly well throughout the decade, coauthoring Alvin Cash's hit "Twine Time," producing the original version of "Mustang Sally," by Sir Mack Rice, in 1965, and even waxing an R & B hit of his own, "Cadillac Jack," for Chess in 1968. Williams also recorded a few sides at Motown, but his final falling out with Gordy ensured that none of them would be released. According to Williams, who by that time had divorced Carrie, he was supposed to marry Fay Hale, Gordy's vice president of manufacturing. But he'd met a girl in Chicago named Yvonne Jarman and decided to marry her instead.
"[There was a thing] with Berry's operation where everybody that was somebody, Berry would pick their wives. Marvin Gaye with Anna Gordy, Harvey Fuqua with Gwen Gordy, you know," he told Living Blues, and his decision "kind of pissed Berry off. So he took all my shit and put glue on it. Glued it to the shelf in the can, and none of it ever came out." (Gordy was unavailable to confirm or deny this.)
In 1973 United Artists hired Williams as part of the production team for Ike and Tina Turner's Let Me Touch Your Mind, a big break that would lead to a big breakdown for Mr. Rhythm. The album would be Ike and Tina's last together, and the infamous tension they created in the studio helped fuel a booze-and-drug binge that Williams says nearly killed him. "That was right about the time when things started to get out of hand a little bit," he says. "You gotta take all them perks in the music business one at a time, like prescription medicine. Me, I done jumped over the pharmacy counter and was taking 'em by the handfuls."
By the start of the 80s, work had all but dried up for Williams, and he was staring down the barrel of a long, lean decade. Today he still has trouble talking about it. "It was a tryin' time for me," he says. "Superdepressed. Not getting no shots with nobody. Doors closed everywhere. Not being strong enough to draw in a local Chicago club. You know how you cover up when that kind of deal hits you? I fell into that drug scene and it got very out of control. A lot of crazy shit was going on. I was burning bridges like you would not believe. I was selling short deals, deals that I could not fulfill. It was disastrous. It led me out to the street. I left my family, left my home, left everybody, and started staying in shelters. I thought it was all over."
With few royalties rolling in and no permanent address at which to receive them, Williams was reduced to begging. "Many cold Chicago mornings, man, I stood out on the Randolph Street bridge with a cup in my hand and a scarf over my face with the snow coming down at 20 degrees below zero. But at seven o'clock every morning I was on that bridge and that bridge fed me. It was a lucrative bridge. I'd catch the people coming in from the suburbs on the Metra train. I was out there for two years every day. Never missed a day. I only went but two hours, because I didn't want to be labeled a panhandler." He cracks a smile. "I was a businessman.
"Looking back on that seven-, eight- year period, I know that should have been the end of Andre Williams. I was right there at the cliff," he says. "I'm an old man getting ready for the box, I'd used to think to myself." Williams checked into rehab in 1984, then again in 1987 with better results. The impact this rogue period and his struggle with substance abuse had on Yvonne and his three children is something Williams won't discuss, though it must have been considerable. Yvonne, now a devout Christian who says she doesn't listen to her husband's records, chose not to elaborate either. Though the two are still married, Williams has been hanging his hat in New York recently, and he isn't sure exactly how old his kids are or just what they're doing. He says that the last he knew, one son was a teacher in Chicago, the other was playing baseball in Europe, and his daughter lived in Atlanta.
Throughout his low years, record collectors and journalists had not stopped trying to track Williams down, looking for a fact, a rare 45, a where-are-they-now story. The Cramps had covered "Jail Bait," "Bacon Fat," and "The Greasy Chicken" in their live sets, bringing new notoriety to some of his best work. In 1995 Williams returned a call from a local blues maven named George Paulus, who ran his own small label, St. George Records. Paulus wanted to bring Williams back into the studio to record some of his early classics--most of which were out of print--on compact disc. Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, who own the Brooklyn-based Norton label, agreed to put out the vinyl version; having already worked with crazed hillbilly genius Hasil Adkins and Little Richard's ultraextravagant mentor Esquerita, they were excited about Williams's prime R & B mayhem.
Produced by Paulus, with backing vocals by Williams's old Chicago contemporaries the El Dorados and guitar by original Rolling Stones bassist and Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor, the recording sessions proved that Mr. Rhythm was back--in more ways than one. "Andre's an incredibly talented individual, but a sincere pain in the ass to work with sometimes," says Paulus. Williams was still every bit the control freak, and the entire second day of recording had to be canceled because he had lost the bottom plate of his dentures at his birthday celebration the night before. Despite these setbacks, the resulting 14-song release, Fat Back & Corn Liquor (the vinyl, called Greasy, features some different songs and alternate versions), authentically captured Williams's 50s sound. R & B fans delighted, and the British magazine Blues and Rhythm went so far as to proclaim Williams the comeback artist of the decade.
Inspired, Williams took the next step, making a modest return to the stage for the first time in nearly 35 years, in July 1996 at the Beat Kitchen. Next he returned to New York for the first time since his engagement at the Apollo to play two shows at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. Toward Christmas Norton unveiled a new single culled from the Paulus sessions, "Poor Mr. Santa":
Mama said, "Get out them red pants, Santa
I'm going down on you tonight
I'm giving you your Christmas present
Hot, juicy, wet, and tight."
With new records in the bins and respectable airplay on college radio stations, Williams found himself appealing to fans young enough to be his grandchildren, but he was determined not to be some R & B graybeard. In early '97, Larry Hardy, whose In the Red label released the first single by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 1992, asked Williams about doing an album of all-new, all-blue material--"an album of sloppy, sleazy R & B," says Hardy. "He asked me what I meant and I thought to myself, Well, you kind of invented it." The standout track on Silky, "Let Me Put It In," actually dates back to a failed session some 30 years ago. "That song has definitely rolled with me a long time," Williams says. "A group I had called the Velvet Hammer had worked on it as a demo, but we could never get it clean enough to where we could put it on a record. But now it works 'cause a lot of words that weren't accepted then are accepted now.
"Now I can do Andre Williams with having to critique it all the way down to the tee. I don't have to worry about making it palatable to society anymore. I can just put it out there. It's in the area of choice."
It's his newfound freedom to be raw that Williams hopes will keep bringing young listeners and their wallets to his shows. "Maybe that's the little niche that might make me a millionaire, being that dirty old man," he says. "'Cause ain't no competition out there. There ain't but one Andre Williams. I ain't fightin' through ten or twelve acts trying to be the best of that--I am that!"
Recently Williams was asked to take his immaculate suits and dirty mind on the road with the Blues Explosion, which has made well-intentioned plugs for other R & B elder statesmen like R.L. Burnside and Rufus Thomas. He's also planning to head west of Chicago for the first time in his career, to promote Silky. "I intend to take this thing into social-security-ville," he says. "With all the projects I've been doing the last couple of years, something should stick to the wall. Then I should have enough to diversify myself with my own nightclub, my own franchise for fried chicken, or a catfish farm somewhere--or something."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andre Williams cover photo by Noel Grigalunus-Basil Fairbanks Studio; The Five Dollars photo courtesy Gorge Paulus; Andre Williams vintage photo courtesy George Paulus; album cover; Andre Williams photo by Billy Miller; Andre Williams photo by Jennifer Jeffery.