Photo by Bohdan Cap; courtesy of Bloodshot Records
History and the Hustler
by Cat Celebrezze
Andre Williams doesn't sing. There are plenty of things he does do - strut and swagger, growl and howl, and lay down the truth harder than shooting behind the eight ball. But the guy does not sing. A more apt phrase for what he does is ‘raunch' - entertaining with the piety and prowess of a pimp saint. Singing is just too weak and limited a descriptor for his breed of storytelling. And if it's one thing Mr. Andre has, it's a story, one he's gonna tell in the dangerous baritone drawl of hustler with the heart of gold and using a multitude of bumping R&B variations that will never get old.
Here's the short, nuts 'n bolts version of his story: born in 1936 with the name Zephire Andre Williams, Mr. Andre was more than a bit of a hellion by the time he was a teen. He caused trouble in his hometown of Bessamer, Alabama until he got sent to Chicago, where his grandmother lived, and then, at 13, did a stint in the Navy, impersonating his older brother in order to avoid going to State Reformatory School.
Once he decided that "me and the Navy weren't gonna get married,"1, Mr. Andre spent a year in Fort Leavenworth with a bad conduct discharge but eventually landed in Detroit in the late 1950's, where his musical career began. His name is found as performer and producer on releases from labels at the time clandestine, but now considered hallowed birthplaces of R&B and Rock 'n Roll: Fortune Records and Motown Records in Detroit and Chess Records in Chicago. In the 1950's he had hits with names like "Bacon Fat" and "Jailbait." In the 1960's, he was a producer on some of Stevie Wonder's earliest singles and co-authored "Shake a Tail Feather" that became the smash hit for Ray Charles. In the 1970's, he wrote songs for Parliament and Funkadelic and had an eighteen-month gig producing for Ike Turner (that just about killed him).2 He spent the 1980's struggling with the vices such a lifestyle encourages and the aftermath, living with addiction and at times, homeless. And then in the late 1990's and oughts, he was (re)discovered by a bevy of Detroit and Chicago-based garage-band royalty, putting out records with him as the punk-raunch front man and ringleader, in addition to having his back catalog from the ‘50's and ‘60's re-packaged and re-released. In 2016, at the gentlemanly age of 80, he put out his umpteeth album, a set of soulful funk called I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City that has him sounding as original as ever and sticking to what he knows works: "I didn't wanna sound like no-goddamn-body! I wanted to tell stories! I had seen so much bullshit in my life and I said to myself 'Andre, if you could ever say things that relate to people…So if I could get a drum rhythm which captivates people and put a hell of a story on top of it, I can't lose. And that's where I went."3
From this itty, bitty bio, it should be clear that, if anything, Mr. Andre has stamina. He's been there, done that, and is gonna do it again, better than any man a quarter his age. But there is a deeper biography of Mr. Andre that bubbles up in his music, showing him as a surprisingly consistent and prolific storyteller of what we shall call the ‘blue drama.' It's telling, at least if Google Ngram viewer is to be believed,4 that the increase in the etymological usage of the word ‘raunch' coincides with Mr. Andre's first recorded work. If Doo Wop is a genre dedicated to the group harmonies, pop proclivities, and somewhat sentimental love narratives, Mr. Andre is the anti-hero of it's shadow genre, Dirty Doo Wop, or "Go Go Soul" as some prefer to call it. In the uptight 1950's and 1960's, way before flower children brought sex into open conversation and onto suburban home shag rugs, Mr. Andre was writing songs about unrequited lust ("Hey Country Girl," "Tossin' & Turnin'' & Burnin' All Up Inside"), dangerous attractions ("Going Down to Tijuana," "Jail Bait") and just plain doing it ("Come on Baby," "Do It"). During his Fortune, Motown, and Chess years, Mr. Andre came up with a poet's ransom of metaphors for the bump and grind of sex, culminating with a the suite of songs that make food sound so much like fucking, it'll leave you feeling both hungry and horny. Not many could have pulled off such a metaphoric feat without falling prey to easily dismissed, absurdist theatricality that can be found in say, the work of Screaming Jay Hawkins or Little Richard. "Bacon Fat," "The Greasy Chicken," "Pass the Biscuits Please," "Chicken Thighs," "Rib Tips," "Pig Snoots," "Loose Juice" are like going on a picnic at a strip club. And we're not talking about hot wings in the nasty pole environment of Spearmint Rhino, with plasticly enhanced body parts stomping around in clear heels, either; rather these tracks are a like a smorgasbord in the classy, sassy cabaret clubs that put the tease in stripping and which John Casavettes made famous in (his first edit of) The Killing of A Chinese Bookie. If Redd Foxx ever had true contemporary, it's Mr. Andre.
It's not surprising then that greasy garage band gods and goddess like The Gories, The Dirt Bombs, The Demolition Dolls, and sleaze rockers Green Hornet took a shine to Mr. Andre in the late 1990's and early oughts. The guy has more dirty rhythm and grooves and than a Russ Meyer film. And we can count ourselves lucky to be witness to this even better second act, because Mr. Andre got to take off the metaphoric gloves and pen an opus of in-your-face raunch anthems. Lecherousness never sounded so verboten and delicious as it does on the punk-raunch grinding on Silky (1997) and the distorted party music found on his 2003 release, Black Godfather. Highlights on Silky include the pugilistic and irresistible "Agile, Mobile, and Hostile," the dirty surf of "Pussy Stank (But So Do Marijuana)," and the red-hot, red-light district sensibility on "I Want to Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas," "Bonin'" and "Let Me Put It In." On Black Godfather, Mr. Andre continues his exploration of all things debaucherous and hot in "Whip that Booty," "Whatcha Gonna Do," and "Sling That Thing."
And though he diversifies at times, writing and rapping about money ("Money Ain't Got No Loyalty" - Life, 2012) or the existential human conundrum ("Dirt" - Hoods and Shades, 2012), or the rampant head-up-their-own-ass mentality of the established music industry as ("Hall of Fame" - I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City, 2016), or his fondness for Motor City (title track of the same) or murderous tendencies (the countrified performance with The Sadies called "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)" - Red Dirt, 2003), or petty theft ("Bring Me Back My Car Unstripped" - Silky, 1997), or the dangers of hustling ("The Car With The Star"- Silky), or putting an odd spaghetti western spin on the racism that keeps the black man/white woman taboo in place ("The Only Black Man in South Dakota" - again, Silky), it's his bold, bawd, badass, unrepentant love of humping that inspires his finest work.
And let's be clear: Mr. Andre's material is not some juvenile preoccupation with the physics of getting laid but a full blown philosophy on the power of pussy. We hear him expound on the seriousness of his endeavor in between songs on the 2003 live album he did with Green Hornet entitled Holland Shuffle!: Live At the World: "What did you say sir? Ship me to Afghanistan? Oh no. ‘Cause if I'd been shipped to Afghanistan, everybody would have been having' sex. There would not be no guns. I'm dead serious. I. Am. A. Firm. Believer. Of Sex." Combined with the everyday muscle he puts into his storytelling ("You come up with stuff about what the fuck happened yesterday! Always in life, fellows, if you wake up tomorrow, something's gonna happen in that day that the world can relate to"5), it makes Andre Williams one of the most unique (and unapologetic) artists in the past 50 years of Rock and R&B. "They say 'the sleazy old man, the dirty old man... OK, I can buy that, 'cause all of those stars had rauncho tapes out before they got big. Look at Eddie Murphy's Raw. So get off my back about the language; I'm trying to tell a story. Dig the theme. We can't all go on the expressway. Sometimes some of us got to take the low road."6
So there it is, as blunt as a swingin' dick: Mr. Andre Williams is a man with one helluva prodigious output. He's a hustler with a history - one that's made him a master storyteller and a voice we'd all be lucky to have around for another generation. So take the Sunday off from church and give him an ear for listening. He'll definitely stick it in.
1. Interview with Andre Williams, Joss Hutton, Phillippe Korpar-Migreen and Ski Williams, first published in Bucketful of Brains, 2001, available now on Rock's BackPages. https://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/andre-williams-
4. scientific charting of raunch
5. Hutton, Korpar-Migreen, Williams Bucketful of Brains
6. "Let's Get It On" by Gilbert Garcia at Rockabilly Central. http://www.rockabilly.net/articles/andre.shtml
Spotify playlist with all tracks mentioned here: https://open.spotify.com/user/gojiracat/playlist/1sC0e2650piyv0v242JiuG
Also see this 2001 interview with Andre Williams
Also hear Cat Celebrezze's band Yvonne Champagne album Murder Winds on Spotify