The Rhythm Method

Andre Williams is still doing down and dirty

"My songs are damn shady, because I am a shady person," Mr. Rhythm is saying. "Truth is, all of us are; it's just that some of us haven't come out of the garbage yet."
Though it's hard to imagine anyone at New York's smoke-filled Acme Underground with salvation in mind, it never hurts to double-check. Fact is, all in attendance on this April night are getting what they came for: lowdown dirty Chicago-style rhythm and blues, hot out of the mouth of living legend Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams, who for over 40 years has been steadily subverting the minds and compromising the virtues of listeners with a repertoire of salacious semiclassics. Wearing a scarlet bowler and matching suit and fronting an eight-piece band, Williams slithers through his set, honoring requests for many of the bawdy standards he originally cut back in the late '50s for Detroit's long-defunct Fortune Records. Old favorites like "Bacon Fat" and "Greasy Chicken" are served to devilish perfection, as is Williams' seedy classic "Jail Bait," a cautionary tale about the adoration of the underage.

Take my advice, fellas
For goodness' sake
15, 16, 17
That's all jail bait!

Not many acts from Williams' era so thoroughly enjoy giving the people what they want. But Williams -- who between 1957 and 1968 broke into Billboard's Top 100 twice, penned a couple of well-known soul classics, and produced some of the biggest names in R&B only to end up begging for money to feed a mean habit on the streets of Chicago -- is happy to oblige. He's back out on tour. (He hits Bottom of the Hill on Thursday, July 9.) And his new album, Silky, released earlier this month by the Southern California indie label In the Red, sounds more like the sludgy blues-punk of modern bands like the Gories or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion than anything from Williams' R&B heyday. The tunes are some of his dirtiest ever, stretching far past the suggestive to something that can only be called single-entendre. New songs like "Let Me Put It In," "Bonin'," and "Pussy Stank" are raunchy enough to send Rudy Ray Moore running for cover.

But there's no sense in lecturing to Williams about good taste. He's heard it all before. "People now keep saying, 'Andre, you're too dirty. Quit being so lascivious!' " he says. "Lascivious. Shit. I didn't know what that meant until a week ago, and I've been lascivious for on near 61 goddamn years."

Williams first broke big in 1956. The catalyst was a dance number called "Bacon Fat," a sleazy slow grinder for the ages and one that eventually broke Billboard's Top 10 R&B chart for that year. Next came "Jail Bait," a cautionary tale that bespoke the glories of the underage wench and the price to be paid by those who dared to plunder. Finally, there was "Greasy Chicken," an infinitely deranged number with a seductive and sin-inducing power that has not diminished with the passage of time. Originally released on Fortune, Williams' seedy songs from the '50s eventually made him a lowbrow legend of sorts among record collectors and R&B fiends years later.

Despite the series of sleazy standards Williams waxed with Fortune, he would give up performing by the start of the '60s and confine himself primarily to the role of free-lance songwriter and producer throughout most of the decade. While working at Motown, Williams helped produced singles by Mary Wells, the Contours, and the Temptations, among others. Williams also worked with a child prodigy named Little Stevie Wonder, an experience he recalls with characteristic irreverence. "Stevie Wonder was a brat. No one wanted him around 'cause he was a pest. You'd look around and here was this little blind boy running around, banging on the drums, and knockin' the piano out of tune."

Eventually, Williams himself had a series of run-ins with record executives who didn't quite see things his way: "I was in and out of Motown for six or seven years. I musta been fired and hired there at least a half-dozen times." This was a pattern that would repeat itself elsewhere through much of this part of his career. "I've always had problems," he says. "Every venture I went into there was always something that wasn't quite right to make the thing fly. But in every company I was in I always made an impression. An impressionable impression. I wasn't the kind of guy who passed through and wouldn't be remembered. You go anywhere I've been and say, 'Andre Williams,' they go, 'Oh Lord, yes! Honey, let me tell you about that madman.' "

Luckily for Williams, for every door that was slammed in his face, there was an open one down the block. There were even a few hit records. In 1963, serving as the A&R man for the Chicago-based One-derful! and Mar-V-Lus labels, Williams co-wrote and co-produced the smash hit "Shake a Tail Feather" by the Five Du-Tones (later performed by Ray Charles in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie). Those who take delight in watching the ass-wagging the song inspires are eternally grateful. Other notable Williams-involved projects from the period include the Alvin Cash & the Crawlers 1965 hit "Twine Time," the original version of "Mustang Sally" by Sir Mack Rice, and even a hit called "Cadillac Jack," performed by Williams himself in 1968 for the legendary Chess record label.

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