Andre Williams is perhaps the greatest R&B legend you’ve maybe never heard of. He wrote “Shake a Tail Feather”. He scored hits for the legendary Fortune Records in the 1950s (songs like “Bacon Fat”, “Jail Bait”, and “The Greasy Chicken”). He worked for Motown Records five different times. He recorded for the legendary Chess record label in Chicago. He wrote for, managed, and produced artists such as Stevie Wonder (he claims to have had a hand in selecting Stevie’s stage name), Parliament/Funkadelic, Edwin Starr, and Ike Turner.
By the 1980s, Andre’s decisions and addictions had taken a toll and he was living in poverty, sometimes homeless.
His chance at redemption came in the 90’s when he released a string of raunchy albums that have been called "punk blues" or "sleaze rock", which found an all-new audience for the legend. The newly sober Andre continues to record and tour and the world is a better place for it.
If this were a just world, Andre Williams would be a Hall of Fame inducted pillar of modern music. As it is, he works hard to keep doing his thing and continues to be taken under the wing of young, up and coming musicians who help him do it.
We talked briefly last Friday (May 4), prior to his concert at OffBroadway in St. Louis, about his latest album, “Hoods and Shades” and the recent documentary released about him, “Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams”.
RYAN MIFFLIN: Andre Williams!
ANDRE WILLIAMS: Hello, sir.
How’s it going?
Oh, it’s going just great.
Good. Glad to hear it. Thanks for taking a few minutes to do a little interview here.
Oh, you’re perfectly welcome.
We’re glad to have you on Dirty Roots.
OK! I’m glad you wanted me!
Let me start of by going back a few years and talking about how you got started in Detroit back in the day.
Well, it was out of necessity. When I got there, I found myself stranded with nothing to do. And I just accidentally lucked up on going to a theater. And it just happened. The whole thing was an accident. But it wound up a 50-year accident.
That’s a happy accident!
Am I remembering correctly that there was a talent show going on at that theater?
Yeah. The Warfield Theater. And I think I won four shows straight. If you won one week, you could come back the next week. If you won first prize, it was $25 a week. Miss Warfield happened to be friends with Miss Brown, who was the president of Fortune Records. And that’s how that whole thing bubbled up.
Did you consider yourself a musician or singer at that point? Did you have a band?
No, I didn’t consider myself a singer. It was the $25! I didn’t know what I was really going to do. I’d just gotten out of the Navy and hadn’t made up my mind what I was going to do. And after I had those four shows and won all four of those shows, Miss Brown signed me up to Fortune and things just went on from that point.
You were connected to Motown Records a few times, right?
Yeah, about five times.
What did you do for them?
Well, some of everything. I was part of the management one time. Then I was the producer one time. And I was a road manager for a couple of the artists a couple of times.
What was that experience like, being part of something as historic as Motown Records?
It was fine, except for Barry (Gordy) being such a strict guy. He was a real….very, very strict type guy, you know? It was no fun working for him, I don’t think.
I get the feeling you have fun doing what you do nowadays, though.
Oh yeah. Now that I’m sober, I’m really having fun.
Tell me how you developed your sound. You have a really unique delivery. I mean, you could almost say that you kind of did the rap thing before there was rap.
How did you come up with that?
Well, I knew I wasn’t a singer! That was the first thing. But I knew I could put words together. That was about the size of it. It was just coming up with the stories and putting the stories to some music. And Miss Brown was putting them ol’ records out and putting them out in the street.
When you listen to your earlier stuff, it’s got that classic kind of R&B sound, and what you’ve been doing the last several years, it’s got a more modern sound to it. I’ve heard some people call it “punk blues”. How did you get to that new sound, here more recently?
Well, I never did want to be classified as a blues artist. When I started straightening my life out, I wanted to go another route. And some of the kids that was doing the punk music had already followed me from the early days and that led me into going into the punk.
You’ve mentioned a few times that you’ve been sober a while and straightened some things out. I know there’s a documentary that was done on you, which is really kind of about that journey, right?
Yeah, that was the beginning of the new Andre.
There was a couple of kids out of California who had been following me for quite a while (Tricia Todd & Eric Mathies) and they just wanted to do a documentary on me. They followed me around for a year, all over the country, and they got a good piece of product.
You’ve mentioned “the kids” took your music to the next level, and “the kids” did this movie. How does it feel to be somebody this far along in life, this far along in your career, and to have young people who want to come alongside you and help you keep doing it?
It feels great. Yeah, feels great. Very few people get that kind of opportunity.
Tell me a little bit about your new album, “Hoods and Shades”.
Well, “Hoods and Shades”…I wanted to do a clean album. Because all of the rest of my last four or five albums were kind of risqué. So I wanted to do a clean album. And that’s what I came up with, the “Hoods and Shades”. ‘Cause it looked like that’s what happening with all of these kids, all around the world, as a matter of fact. They’re wearing the hoods and wearing the shades. So I thought that would be a good start.
HERE’S THE OFFICIAL SITE FOR “AGILE,MOBILE, HOSTILE: A YEAR WITH ANDRE WILLIAMS” (You can also stream it online on Netflix)