Williams has lived hard and had his share of ups and downs over the years. His health has wavered like his financial situation. Although he wrote the time-tested hit 'Shake a Tail Feather," he never received royalties. In the '70s and '80s, he was reduced to panhandling on the streets of Chicago.
Rediscovered in the '90s by a new generation of fans, he's cut several albums over the past decade, but at 72, he's still well known for indulging liberally in what he calls his 'vices." WWOZ radio host David Kunian once put it thus on his radio show: 'He chose to build his character rather than enhance his constitution."
That description could also fit the Morning 40 Federation, whose favored character-building techniques are well known. Williams met Ryan Scully of the Morning 40s in 1998, while he was on tour with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, at an after-hours show at Ninth Ward organist Mr. Quintron's Spellcaster Lodge. Their rapport was instant. ('We hit it off like father and son," Williams says.) In 2006, Williams began recording an album with the 40s, plus Quintron, Bingo! frontman Clint Maedgen and drummer Michael Voelker as the New Orleans Hellhounds. The nine tracks of frizzle-fried punk-soul resulted in Can You Deal With It? (Bloodshot Records), which hits record stores this week.
A chunk of the time Williams spent in New Orleans working on Can You Deal With It? was recorded by a film crew. Its documentary Agile Mobile Hostile: A Year With Andre Williams premiered at South By Southwest in Austin this past spring. The directors happened to choose a year that was pretty rough for Williams. He had a series of seizures that left him in a coma for a period. He was ejected from a senior living community and teetered on the brink of mental and physical collapse throughout the movie. During the period that was filmed in New Orleans, Mardi Gras 2006, an interview with Scully finds him totally distraught about the state of Williams, who apparently arrived in the city straight from a hospital bed and dove headfirst into Carnival. ('The most fun I had in New Orleans was doing the things I needed to stop, and I'll keep it like that," Williams says.)
"He needs to eat," Scully says in film, looking worried. "Nobody filled me in on the fact that he'd be coming down here with no teeth and it'd be hard to find food."
Williams had another attack around Halloween of 2007 but rallied to come back to New Orleans for a promised gig with the '40s. Since then, he says he's been getting back on track " he's cut out drinking and drugs and is nearly done with a rehab program. He's also working on another new record with the Sadies, a Canadian alt-country group on the Bloodshot label that he's worked with in the past.
"My mental doctor just gave me clearance, and now I'm waiting on my physical doctor to give the OK. So everything seems positive," he says. And he's looking forward to seeing the Morning 40s again as soon as he can.
"There is not another band out there like them," he says. "They've got their own unique sound, their own unique character. I'll be playing with them as soon as they holler for me."
- Kenn Goodman