Andre Williams is trouble in the best and worst of ways. He enthusiastically joined the Navy in 1950, and they threw him in military prison four years later after discovering he used a fake ID and enlisted when he was 14 years old. He was fired from the Motown Revue in the 1960s for shooting a stranger he found in Smokey Robinson's dressing room. B.B. King bought Williams a plane ticket out of Houston while he was working for Duke Records, because Williams got intimate with a gangster's daughter. Despite such turmoil, Williams wrote such classic songs as "Mustang Sally," "Bacon Fat," "Shake a Tail Feather" and "Sweet Little Pussycat." But the ribald singer isn't one to make grand statements about his music.
"I've never been a singer," says the 65-year-old Williams, whose talking vocal style influenced everyone from Harvey Fuqua to Bootsie Collins. "I'm not screwing around with some singing stuff. I'm an entertainer. Singers come and go. Entertainers are forever."
Williams' remarkable recent comeback backs up that assertion. In the last decade, with albums such as Silky, Andre Williams Is the Black Grandfather, and Bait and Switch, and his association with younger disciples the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Sadies, and the Countdowns, Williams is still the explosive force who used to come onstage wearing a turban, and bend backwards while singing until the turban touched the floor. His resurgence is especially miraculous considering that his vices almost cost him everything in the '70s, and he was living in a homeless shelter.
"I found this little spot in Chicago where all the white boys come off the train with their purple platinum Visas," remembers Williams. "I'd make me $150 by 9 a.m. Then I'd take the bus to the projects and by the time I left the projects at 11, I'd have one dollar and 38 cents. I gave that up one New Year's Eve when I got so paranoid that I threw $290 in the Chicago River, and I almost threw in my coat. Those kind of things are what turned me around."
Williams rebounded with the resolve he's shown throughout his career. After his military discharge, the Bessemer, Ala., native took a bus to Detroit and entered the amateur show at the Warfield Theatre, which offered a $25 cash prize. Williams recalls, "I said I was going to get that $25. So, I'm thinking, 'What do you do, Andre? You're not the world's greatest singer.' Well, I can dance my ass off, and I was pretty. I won 12 times."
His triumphs at the Warfield led to his first recording contract with Fortune Records, where he recorded the hits "Bacon Fat" and "Jailbait." Dissatisfied with the label's promotion, Williams left Fortune but stayed in Detroit and started producing Little Stevie Wonder, the Contours, and early Supremes. Personality conflicts with Motown mogul Berry Gordy forced Williams to quit Motown, and he moved on to produce records for such stars as Bobby "Blue" Bland and O.V. Wright on Duke Records, Mac Rice on Mercury, and various artists for Stax. After Stax closed down, Williams moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s to work with Ike Turner. Eighteen months working with Turner was too much even for Williams. "I said, 'Andre, if you don't get out of here, you are going to be a dead man,'" remembers Williams. "I can smell a gunshot."
Williams then moved to Chicago and survived his subsequent fall from grace. Giving up his life on the streets opened the door for an offer to record again, resulting in the wicked album Greasy. Williams started touring again, and recorded a string of acclaimed albums for Norton Records and the In the Red label. They're dirty rock 'n' roll epics that take no prisoners. They prove that, in the words of WWOZ DJ and No. 1 Williams fan Louise Wehner, "Andre Williams is the Virile Potentate of greasy blues." Like Williams, the records are profound -- and profane. Williams' suggestive and raunchy lyrics are peerless, featuring Williams' bits of wisdom like "Slang it, Bang it, and Give it Cab Fare Home," "I Want to Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas," and "Let Me Put It In!" Even the music sounds like all the instruments are coated in KY Jelly and pomade.
Perhaps most importantly, Williams still performs like a man with something to prove. When he hits the stage at Rosy's on New Year's Eve, he'll be wearing his bowler hat, dressed sharp as a tack. And he won't leave until everyone in the club knows that he was the Black Godfather in 2001, and he will be the Black Godfather in 2002.
- 'Singers come and go,' says Andre Williams, whose talking vocal style became his trademark in the 1960s. 'Entertainers are forever.'