A Detroit legend who notched his underground reputation solo, in the Five Dollars and Don Juans and as a sometime pal of Motown's Berry Gordy, Williams now records for three labels, tours as much as he wants, and is considering launching his own production company. His mouth remains salty as ever.
Not bad for a man who was so far down in the '80s, the street corner was his only company. Beaten by bad timing, worse luck, zero management, and, to put it mildly, an uncategorizable style, Williams deteriorated from galvanizing performer to threadbare junkie, resurrecting himself only in the early '90s. "I don't have no limit," says Williams, who just turned 64. "My roots are country and western. That's the music I love the most. I just do true stories, stories from my life, stories I have experienced, what's really happening now, the real deal."
The stories have been tumbling from Alabama native Zephire Andre Williams since 1957, when he began recording in Detroit, on Third Avenue, for the enigmatic Fortune label. "It was an Ampex single-track recorder," recalls the Chicago-based performer. "There was no sustain, and the mix was whatever you got right then. We recorded in the back room of a storefront, with four old black RCA microphones."
The rawness of those early recordings, available now only on bootleg on such labels as Regency, Eagle, and Gold Dust, has carried Williams from the Five Dollars' "Bacon Fat" and "Jailbait" into the '90s. In this decade, he has remade his mark with such raunchy sagas as "I Wanna Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas," "Pussy Stank," and his empathetic rendition of Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)."
Like other golem blues figures such as the cuter Joe Tex, the scarier Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and, on the white side, the Cramps, Williams purveys narratives equally ominous and sensual, slithery guitar and pounding rhythm underlining his gravel voice. On the West Coast, he records with the Countdowns, which he calls a garage group. In the Midwest, he records with the Sadies. In the East, "I use some boys out of New York, some rhythm 'n' blues boys."
Whether Williams is singing punk, blues, rock, or country, he's unmistakable -- a natural force committing unnatural musical acts. He mines territory similar to Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy, and, like them, he's a trickster. No matter how sexist his material may seem, the leer shaping it is friendly; check out "Looking Down at You, Looking up at Me," on his recent, determinedly dirty Silky album, for proof.
In the late '50s, when white pop mutated into rockabilly and black pop took the R&B fork, Williams began recording with Joe Weaver and his Blue Note Orchestra, an R&B outfit that recorded for Chess, Federal, and Fortune. During what he calls the Fortune era, Williams worked the Midwest hard, regularly playing venues such as the Akron Armory. He also nurtured such hits as his own "Pass the Biscuits Please" and the Five Dutones classic "Shake a Tail Feather" (he had to sue for royalties due him from Ray Charles's version of that tune on the Blues Brothers soundtrack). At Motown, he produced acts such as the Temptations, the Contours, and Mary Wells.
Williams also worked with the Five Dollars, a doo-wop group, and on his own, in a more traditional R&B format. A versatile, snazzy showman, he stretched his career into the '70s, when disco began to date his style.
"The day of the independent producer had diminished," he says, "and there was no market for my kind of stuff. It got very, very depressing, so I had to figure out another route."
That route was straight down. "The records weren't getting anywhere; half the masters I couldn't sell, or the records would come out and sell only a few," Williams says. "I couldn't get a job. It got very bad, all the way to the gutter, all the way to drugs, to manic depression."
Finally, he began to come out of his funk. "I went to rehab a couple of times, and I guess the people there just helped me," he says. "They figured I had something else to do, and I didn't have to stay in that kind of condition, so they worked me through it."
Now, Williams records for In the Red, a Los Angeles label that specializes in blues-punk; Chicago's Bloodshot label, where he works with the Sadies, a hard-charging twang band from Toronto that Williams greatly respects; and Tuff City, a New York hip-hop/trip-hop label preparing a compilation of old tunes Williams recorded for such long-forgotten imprints as Avin, Ric- Tic, and Sport.
Despite the renewed interest in the singer, none of his Fortune stuff has been reissued. A tiny label that flourished from the late '50s to the late '60s, Fortune spread the word of such talents as Williams, Joe Weaver, "Village of Love" king Nathaniel Mayer, and the Diablos. Owned by Jack and Devora Brown, Fortune seems to have been a cantankerous company. So far, Devora Brown (Jack Brown is dead) has resisted all efforts to license Fortune material; Williams is trying to wrest not only the publishing rights to his tunes but also back royalties.
"Fortune hasn't made any kinds of deals with nobody," Williams says. "They're just paranoid people. That is a loony tune company, man." Meanwhile, Williams is staying dope-(if not alcohol-)free, touring hard, dressing dapper, writing, and recording. A second In the Red album, The Black Godfather, is due in January, along with "Lapdance," a vinyl 10-incher featuring Williams and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The Tuff City retrospective should be out by December, and Bloodshot aims to release a live recording of Williams and the Sadies next June. As if that weren't enough, Williams is working on a book -- and film -- about his life.
"I'm not just a one-category artist," he says in his penetrating baritone. "I'm an entertainer. When you like all music, you can't keep it straight."