ANDRE WILLIAMS (By Dominic Turner)
Born Zephire Andre Williams, 1 November 1936, Bessemer, Alabama
Look up the word "sleazy" in the dictionary, and it's odds-on you'll find the name Andre Williams. But this minor R&B legend has a pretty impressive CV to go with his disreputable image, having worked in various capacities with the likes of Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Bland, Ike Turner, Amos Milburn, Edwin Starr, Alvin Cash, Mary Wells, George Clinton, the Dramatics, and a host of others. Singer, songwriter, producer and even road manager, he really deserves more credit for his half-century contribution to the world of rhythm and blues. Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Williams moved north with his family to a Chicago housing project when he was but a toddler. Little else is known about his childhood, except that Williams' mother died when he was 6 years old, and he was subsequently raised by his aunts. Andre's first documented singing experience was in Chicago's Cobbs Baptist Church choir in 1952. "That taught me real, technical gospel singing", he later claimed.
After a period of military service (some sources indicate that Williams spent time in a military prison after using fake ID to enlist in the navy), and brief stints with local doo wop groups called the Cavaliers and the Five Thrills, he moved to another great musical city, Detroit. Aware that a singing career was well within his capabilities, Andre quickly befriended Jack and Devora Brown, the owners of Fortune Records. The Browns had founded the label in 1947, and despite working with primitive resources (the recording studio was an Ampex 350 in the back room of the Browns' record shop!), they had managed to score a national hit in 1953 in the shape of "Jealous Love" by the Davis Sisters (Skeeter and Betty Jack). For a very interesting "Detroit News" article on Fortune Records, see http://www.detnews.com/2001/entertainment/0111/06/f01-336360.htm.
At Fortune, Williams recorded with a group called the Don Juans, who also cut records as the Five Dollars. If that sounds a tad complicated. it was! Both outfits were tough R&B quintets featuring exactly the same members: Charles Evans (bass), James Drayton (baritone), Lonnie Heard (tenor), Eddie Hurt (lead tenor, and cousin of Andre's wife), and Richard Lawrence (guitar). But Devora Brown used the Don Juans as a backing group for Andre Williams (as well as other Fortune artists), and had them revert to the "Five Dollars" moniker whenever they made a recording as the primary artists. The "Don Juans" name was tailor-made for Williams, as Devora was adamant that it evoked his unique style and charisma. Andre had no illusions of possessing the singing voice of fellow Fortune artist Nolan Strong, and he soon developed an innovative talking style which was to feature on many of his records, and which long preceded the rap generation.
He cut a total of twelve singles with Fortune (seven in 1956 alone), most of which were co-billed with the Don Juans. Starting with the 1955 release "Going Down To Tia Juana" and ending with "Movin'" (1961), Williams was responsible for some of the greasiest, rudest R&B around. Song titles like "Bacon Fat", "The Greasy Chicken", and "Please Pass The Biscuits" betray a certain obsession with matters culinary, but sexual innuendo was rarely missing from Williams' compositions. Without doubt, his two most celebrated sides were the afore-mentioned "Bacon Fat" (1956), a hilarious R&B dance romp (Andre's cries of "Have mer-cey!" and his mumbled comments about chicken are nothing short of hilarious!), and "Jail Bait" (1957), a slow novelty rap (also credited to Gino Purifoy), where Andre narrates with an almost bored intonation before squealing his plea for freedom to the judge.
The idea for "Bacon Fat" (the most popular Fortune recording, along with "The Wind" by Nolan Strong & the Diablos) came to Williams on his way to a gig at the Flamingo Club in Memphis. On his return to Detroit, he convinced Devora Brown to book a session in the studio, and while she set up the studio mics, Williams jotted down some nonsense lyrics on a table napkin. Most of the folks at Fortune were pretty sceptical of Andre's new spoken style of singing, and the only person who really believed in it was DJ Frantic Eddie Durham, who supervised the session. But the record took off, and sales of "Bacon Fat" were such that Epic Records purchased the master and took control of distribution, once it became clear that Fortune were unable to cope with the demand. Williams, nicknamed "Mr. Rhythm", and the Don Juans also performed regularly in clubs from Detroit to Memphis and, as you might expect, these live shows were pretty wild affairs. Williams wowed the audience with his lavender suits, while the band would don (sorry about that!) Zorro-style masks for their first set, and then return without the masks to sing as the Five Dollars!
So it was that the Five Dollars / Don Juans became the second most prolific group on the Fortune roster, just behind the legendary Nolan Strong & the Diablos. But relations between Williams and the Don Juans soured after the success of "Bacon Fat". not least because he used a different backing group on the record, which was credited to Andre Williams & His New Group. The Five Dollars attempted belatedly to capitalise on the situation by cutting a follow-up "How To Do The Bacon Fat" (1957), but it was not to be.
By 1961, Williams was helping Berry Gordy at Motown. Although he had a recording contract with Motown, he never actually made a record for any of Gordy's labels and his contribution was largely as a producer and writer. Amongst others, Williams co-wrote Little Stevie Wonder's debut "Thank You For Loving Me", and the B-side of Mary Wells' "My Guy", entitled "Oh Little Boy What You Do to Me", and lent his production talents to the Contours. The relationship with Berry Gordy was a love-hate affair; Gordy had his own way of working, and it clashed with the flashy, street-smart approach of Williams. As a result, he was fired on numerous occasions, only to be welcomed back into the fold shortly afterwards.
Amid so much hiring-and-firing, Williams also managed to co-write the celebrated "Shake a Tail Feather" with Verlie Rice and Otha Hayes, a hit for the Five DuTones, and "Twine Time" for Alvin Cash & the Crawlers on George Leaner's One-derful Records in Chicago. Another writing credit was "Girls Are Getting Prettier" for Edwin Starr on Ric Tic. Williams even acted as Starr's road manager for a brief period.
In 1965, he left Motown for good and moved full-time to Chicago, where he signed a contract with none other than Chess Records. Williams then released a worthy succession of R&B singles for Chess/Checker during the second half of the decade, including "The Stroke", "Gridle Up (Parts 1 and 2)", and "Cadillac Jack". He also lent his production and songwriting talents to a host of minor acts, both for Chess and for the Peacock label in Houston.
However, his wild lifestyle caught up with him after he was asked to produce a record for Ike Turner in the early seventies. His collaboration with Ike was stormy to say the least, but to make matters worse Williams developed a very serious coke habit. He returned to Chicago a total junkie, and spent several years roaming the streets and begging, but somehow surviving.
The fact that he managed to resurrect his career in the mid-nineties with a spate of recordings, including the album "Greasy" (on Norton), is a credit to his determination, and the excellent support he has had from people such as Jon Spencer, and Billy Miller & Miriam Linna at Norton Records. In fact, Williams now lives in Queens, New York, and has released more records since his comeback than in the first 40 years of his career! In 1999, he even satisfied a lifetime ambition by making a country album for the Bloodshot label, and has continued his habit of collaborating with the most diverse artists, including the El Dorados, the Sadies, and Dick Taylor (ex-Pretty Things guitarist). In the words of Lux Interior: "Andre Williams makes Little Richard sound like Pat Boone"!
N.B. For those Shakers not familiar with "Bacon Fat" (probably not many of you!), I'll try and upload an MP3 when time allows.
a.. "Jailbait" [LP, Fortune, 1984] - contains most of the songs from his classic '50s Fortune period, although "Bacon Fat" is surprisingly missing. Bootleg?
Methinks it's time that Norton (or whoever) put out a big CD collection, spanning the 50 odd years of Andre Williams' career.
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