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The Rhythm Method 

Andre Williams is still doing down and dirty

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
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"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.

Things began to unravel, however, by 1973, when Williams was sent to work on the Let Me Touch Your Mind album by Ike & Tina Turner. What should have been a big break was more of a breakdown. The intense drug and booze indulgences Williams was now partaking in nearly killed him. "That was right about the time when things started to get out of hand a little bit," Williams says. "You gotta take all them perks in the music business one at a time like prescription medicine. Me? I done jumped over the pharmacy counter and was taking 'em by the handfuls."

When the '80s hit, work in the music industry had all but withered. Today, Williams can speak frankly about that time, but the words do not come easily. "The early '80s was a tryin' time for me," he says. "I thought it was all over. I fell into that drug scene and it got very out of control. A lot of crazy shit was going on. It led me out to the street. I left my family, left my home, left everybody and started staying in shelters. I thought it was over."

By this time, with song-publishing royalties drying up and no permanent address, Williams found himself where he never thought he would be. "Many cold Chicago mornings, man, at 7 o'clock I stood out on the Randolph Street Bridge with a cup in my hand and a scarf over my face with the snow coming down at 20 degrees below zero. But at 7 o'clock every morning, I was on that bridge and that bridge fed me. I was out there for two years every day. Never missed a day. From 7 o'clock to 9 o'clock in the morning. I only went but two hours, because I didn't want to be labeled as a panhandler.

"I was a business man," William cracks.
Williams eventually entered a rehab program and returned to his home in Chicago, where he began putting the pieces back together. No one could have been more surprised and grateful than Williams himself. "Looking back on that seven- to eight-year period, I know that should have been the end."

Williams also finally began returning the phone calls he had been getting from fans and journalists interested in getting interviews. In 1995, one of those calls came from a Chicago blues aficionado named George Paulus, who runs the St. George record label. Paulus wanted to bring Williams back into the studio as a performer to rerecord several of his early classics on CD. Billy Miller, who co-owns the Brooklyn-based Norton record label with his wife, Miriam Linna, was brought in on the project to issue it on vinyl for the digitally resistant collector. With backing vocals by the famed El Dorados and the able lead guitar of ex-Pretty Things member Dick Taylor, the session went smoothly enough, though the second day of recording had to be canceled because Williams, celebrating his 60th birthday, had lost his dentures the night before. The record, Fat Back & Corn Liquor, was released in 1996.

Williams also returned to the stage for the first time in nearly 35 years to promote the new album. Despite the lengthy layoff, Williams still sings till the wheels come off and keeps the bartenders busy wherever he plays. And in late 1997 he began work on an album of new songs, just released as Silky. The record was put out by In the Red, the small punk rock concern most noted for having unleashed the first Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album. For In the Red's Larry Hardy, doing a record with Williams was an honor. "When I asked Andre if he might be interested in doing an album of sloppy, sleazy R&B, and he asked me what I meant, I thought to myself, 'Well, you kind of invented it.' "

The standout track on the disc, "Let Me Put It In," actually dates back to a failed session some 30-odd years ago. "That song has definitely rolled with me a long time. A group I had called the Velvet Hammer had worked on that song as a demo, but we could never get it clean enough to where we could put it on a record.

"But now it works 'cause a lot of words that weren't accepted then are accepted now, so we had a chance to put the story in, put the cream on top, and let people make up their mind about what it really means." For Williams, the new sense of freedom artistically has unlimited possibilities. "Now I can do Andre Williams without having to critique it all the way down to the 'T.' I don't have to worry about making it palatable to society anymore. I can just put it out there. It's in the area of choice."

Now on tour with the Demolition Doll-Rods, a Detroit-based trio revealing enough for Penthouse, Williams is determined to be anything but an R&B graybeard. With new records in the bins and respectable airplay on college radio stations, Williams has found himself appealing to an audience young enough to be his grandchildren. "I intend to take this thing into Social Security-ville," he says. "With all the projects I've been doing the last couple of years, something should stick to the wall. Then I should have enough to diversify myself with my own nightclub, my own franchise for fried chicken, or a catfish farm somewhere -- or something.

About The Author

Rex Doane

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