The Black Godfather
"Andre Williams makes Little Richard look like Pat Boone." -- Lux Interior of the Cramps
"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, a.k.a. 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 here in Houston, among dozens of other labels in those cities as well as Memphis, Los Angeles and today, New York. 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 himself demurs -- he says he spoke the words not to make an artistic statement but simply because he wasn't a good singer.)
Williams's early promise seemed to have fizzled when an 18-month stint collaborating with Ike Turner in 1971 turned, eventually, into many, many years of cocaine and crack addiction, years in which, as he put it, he "had to climb up just to get to the curb." 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 that reintroduced this X-rated original gangsta of old-school R&B and proto-rap to a generation of punks and garage rockers. (That X-rating is no joke -- the cover features Williams grabbing a woman's bare ass, and song titles include "Bonin'," "Let Me Put It In" and "Pussy Stank.") Later, Williams released Red Dirt, a similarly raunchy C&W album with Canadian psychedelic alt-country maestros the Sadies, performed with Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion at a series of nasty and ear-annihilatingly loud shows, and has released a trio of albums for Norton.
Today, the nattily attired Williams -- whose suits could put those of Fillmore Slim and Don Magic Juan to shame -- seems like nothing so much as the living link between Cab Calloway and early Ice-T, equal parts musicmaker and hustler, pimp and entertainer, poet and comedian. The recent convert to Judaism -- who underwent a bris while awake and in his sixties -- is also something of a sage, so I talked to the man and scoured out a half-dozen long interviews and sought to craft from them an anthology of the Wit and Wisdom of Andre Williams, the OG of R&B. (In addition to the quotes from my own, 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 up tight 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. You know once you step out in the streets you're steppin' on a stage. You understand?"
On honesty: (Speaking about the release of his song "Let Me Put It In.") "Here's how I feel, it's the most honest record this year. I look at you and I get to talkin' 'bout the dick and the pussy and you know what it is, so we ain't talkin' 'bout nothin' new. Let's get real here! Mormons do it too, or there wouldn't be no little baby Mormons!"
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 individuality: "I didn't wanna sound like no-goddamn-body! I wanted to tell stories! I had seen so much bullshit in my life and I said to myself, 'Andre, if you could ever say things that relate to people...' I'll tell you somethin', fellows, the first line of communications was the drums. That was in Africa, the Congos, the Mongos, and all them 'gos. When they was doin' communications, it was with the drums. So if I could get a drum rhythm which captivates people and put a hell of a story on top of it, I can't lose."
On persistence: "Don't give up! Take no as if you're putting salt and pepper on some eggs. 'No' is not poison. If somebody tell you no, it don't mean diddly, because there's another door, y'understand? And don't ever be scared of your creation, that's the main thing; that's the point I'd like to give to any struggling artist."
On songwriting: "You come up with stuff about what the fuck happened yesterday! Always in life, fellows, if you wake up tomorrow, something's gonna happen in that day that the world can relate to. You just got to find that one thing that happened. And then put your own self in it."
On Houston: "Man, Houston was the place! I never would have left Houston if I hadn't got a fantastic offer from Uni Records! They gave me a five-artist package deal, and that was an offer that was too good to turn down. But as far as Houston, heh heh, there is no other place."
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 fishcart 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 appetites: "You see, I am a bit of a greedy man! I don't know how to take things in moderation when it's good. Good pussy, I want it all! Good coke, I want it all! That's why I'm glad I never did experience heroin 'cause I know I woulda been dead."
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 Viagra: "I think Viagra's good for guys who snort cocaine and can't get hard...I don't need it, baby."
On living right: "Well, I guess you could probably say: plenty sex. Plenty sex and don't worry about tomorrow 'cause it's coming anyway. And nothing you can do about it. Just try not to do something today that you're going to worry about tomorrow coming back at you. Because what you do today depends on how well your tomorrow's gonna be."
On living in New York: "I'm livin' in Queens, got my own offices, my own production companies, my own publishing companies and my own lawyer staff, thank God. I can focus strictly on the artist end of this. I'm in New York, and I'm lovin' it, and New York loves me, and I love New York. And now that I'm Jewish, I'm into the real posse!"
On power: "No, I don't want nobody to be in control. Let's let the control control it."
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."
Andre Williams appears Saturday, February 26, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899. Waxploitation DJs open. The Continental all-stars will back him.
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