"Andre Williams? If he's still around, he's probably doing time."
-- Keith Richards
Nobody in the last 50 years has worn more hats -- pimped-out Stetsons all -- than Andre Williams, aka the Black Godfather, Mr. Rhythm, and the Father of Rap. In Detroit in the '50s and '60s, he recorded doo-wop and R&B simultaneously, under three or four different names, and worked as a producer for Berry Gordy at Motown, a role he later filled at Chess in Chicago and for Don Robey at Duke-Peacock in Houston, among dozens of other labels. His compositions and/or performances, such as "Twine Time," "Shake a Tail Feather," and "Bacon Fat" have been enshrined in the nation's R&B canon; his "Mojo Hannah" has become a New Orleans R&B staple; and his performance of "Jail Bait" was cited a few years ago by Keith Richards as one of his favorite records of all time. (And his spoken-word performance of the 1959 recording has led some to call it the first rap song ever.)
Williams' early promise seemed to have fizzled when 18 months spent collaborating with Ike Turner in 1971 turned, eventually, into many, many years of cocaine and crack addiction. And then, in 1996, he came roaring back, with a collection of reworkings of some of his old classics. Two years later came Silky, the collaboration with Detroit underground-rock legends Mick Collins and Dan Kroha, which reintroduced this X-rated original gangsta of old-school R&B and proto-rap to a generation of punks and garage rockers. Later, Williams released Red Dirt, a similarly raunchy C&W album with Canadian psychedelic alt-country maestros the Sadies, and has released a trio of albums for Norton.
Today, the nattily attired Williams seems like nothing so much as the living link between Cab Calloway and early Ice-T, equal parts music-maker and hustler, pimp and entertainer, poet and comedian. The recent convert to Judaism is also something of a sage, so we talked to the man and scoured out half a dozen long interviews, in order to craft from them a collection of the wit and wisdom of Andre Williams, the OG of R&B. (In addition to the quotes from our own talk with Williams, the other original interviews can be found at furious.com, ugly-things.com, franmagazine.com, cosmik.com, and nardwuar.com)
On dressing well: "My father always said, 'Always wear a shirt and tie.' So if you get uptight and have to ask somebody for something, they'll give you what you look like. If you look like a bum, you're gonna get a dime. And if you're dressed, they're gonna give you more. So I've always been a shirt-and-tie man, because you never know who you're gonna bump into."
On his bad reputation: "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."
On Don Robey and Berry Gordy: "Don Robey was a very, very strict, no-nonsense, hands-on gamblin' man. He wasn't scared of nothin' or nobody, period. Can't make myself no clearer, can I? Robey told you what he thought in front of your face. Berry Gordy was a fantastic producer himself, as well as a businessman. Berry Gordy had an ear. Don Robey didn't have an ear -- he'd hire people to be his ear. But Berry Gordy could hear hits. Don Robey, if you brought him a tape, he'd have to hear somebody's opinion and he'd lay the money down. But payin' you later might be a question! You know, creative accounting?"
On Don Robey and Little Richard: "Little Richard brought Don Robey some demos, and then Little Richard said something smart to Don Robey. And Don Robey pulled out a gun from under his desk, shot it in the air, and threw him out the studio! That was when he was recording under Richard Penniman. And also, he was downtown, sellin' fish! And Don Robey drove up and seen him down sellin' fish, and took a fish out the fish cart and slapped him over the head and told him his artists don't sell no fish!"
On hanging with Ike Turner: "You know how your mother would have little porcelain elephants or whatever on the kitchen shelves, like salt-and-pepper shakers? Well, every single one of these in Ike's house was full of coke! You could either pick the neck down or move a leg and shake a gram out of it! Full of coke! When I went to work with Ike, I was weighing 185 pounds. At the end I was 85 pounds! I was hemorrhaging, and I was sitting at LaGuardia Airport wiping blood with the tail on my shirt and trying to tuck it back so I could get on the airplane -- to get home, to get well, 'cause I knew I was dyin'. Luckily, I got home, and it took me about nine months to recover from that."
On his sexual history: "You know, actually, I sat down one day, and I think I got about halfway into a fifth of Bacardi. And I tried to reflect on that. And I think that I'm somewhere around 7,000 actual sex encounters. I sat down with a pencil, and I was just marking, marking, marking, as I could remember. And the number was just about there. It was 200 pages of straight lines."
On what to expect at his shows: "I'm a very, very, very X-rated artist. You cannot come in expecting 'Amazing Grace.' We might sing 'Amazing Grace' in the morning, but the night is about sex and money -- that runs the world."
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