Andre Williams is a true musical journeyman. Now a most ripe 76 years old, he's had the kind of career that seems like it could hardly be real to us 21st-century folk. He came of age in a time of segregated lunch counters and when musicians -- particularly ribald ones like him -- couldn't even title a song "Shake a Tail." So he called what went on to be one of his early R&B hits "Shake a Tail Feather" instead.
Williams has worked in the music business, both as a performer and behind the scenes, for more than five decades now. He spent some time under Berry Gordy before Motown Records became "The Sound of Young America" (but not long before), and even a couple of years in Houston as A&R director for Duke/Peacock Records. He had near-final say over which artists were offered contracts by the label, and would supervise recording sessons for the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland. Mostly, Williams remembers, he hoped he didn't incur the wrath of notorious label boss Don Robey.
"Working for Don Robey, anytime you missed the ball, the consequences were great," he laughs. "Don Robey was a very, very hard man to work for."
He put up with it, Williams says, "because I knew that Don Robey was a fair man, but he did not tolerate any nonsense."
Considerably later in life, Williams earned the admiration of rockers like Jon Spencer and the Sadies as well as Chicago label Bloodshot Records, which released the recent albums Hoods and Shades, That's All I Need and Can You Deal With It? Earlier this week Rocks Off called up the "Black Godfather" at his home in Chicago (he was having toast) and asked him to reflect over some of his most notable musical associations -- songs he did himself, songs he produced, or songs he had produced for him -- before he and fellow Windy City soul man Renaldo Domino show Houston how it's done at the Continental Club tomorrow night.
That came from a trip when I first got in the record business. Me and my first group traveled from Chicago to Memphis, and one of the boys' grandmother was there, and we stayed at her house. We played at this club in Houston where all the big stars played, and whenever they didn't have a big artist name coming in there, we was always put in that spot.
Rocks Off: How did it come to be called "Bacon Fat"?
We were driving down there and I was eating a sandwich, and it was a bacon sandwich. There were some people in the cotton fields picking cotton, and I stopped there and thought of the song "Bacon Fat." You know, I'm eating a sandwich, and I'm down there with these people who were picking cotton. And it just came to me.
At that time it was hard to get a song played if any words were risque; they wouldn't put the song in the playlist. So you had to be very careful in your lyrics. At that time the dance craze was popular. There were all kinds of dances out there - the Watusi, all them different dances. So I just thought maybe I'll make one of the dances the Bacon Fat.
That came from myself doing some things I shouldn't have done, and I went to jail. I was dating a girl that was underage, but I didn't know it. I didn't know it until I was behind bars (chuckles).
"Shake a Tail Feather"
"Shake a Tail Feather," again, was a song I wrote because of the same fact that you couldn't get a song played with any kind of risque lyric to it. I couldn't think of the title. The title first was "Shake Your Tail," and that wouldn't fly. So then we thought about chickens, and we said, "Let's just call it "Shake a Tail Feather."
And we were lucky. We got it through. At that time they were very, very censorous about the songs that they would play on the radio. Now it doesn't matter what you say almost.
"Thank You For Loving Me," Stevie Wonder
Oh, that was Stevie's first song. Berry Gordy and I and one more A&R man got together and put that song together, because we had to do something. Stevie was around the studio every day, tearing up everything, knocking the drums out of tune, and all day we couldn't get rid of him. So we decided that we'd just better cut him. He just made us almost need to record him.
"Do You Love Me," the Contours (as featured in the film Dirty Dancing)
All of those songs that were done at Motown, the artists would be assigned to different A&R men, and I was one of the A&R men that had the Contours under my wing. That's how that happened. I got lucky and got the Contours. I had about five artists under my wing, and the Contours was one of 'em.
More Andre on the next page.
"My Guy," Mary Wells
That was with Motown, and she was one of the girls that was on my list of artists to record. There were three A&R men, and each of the A&R men had five artists that they produced. Mary was one of the artists that was on my list. She was fresh, she knew nothing about the business. She was easy to direct at that time. She took orders very well, and she was a good artist to produce.
That was for Chess Records. I don't know, I've always done off the wall songs.
That's another situation where the dance craze came in. The Twist, all those different dances. I was working for Wonderful Records at that time, and we came up with "Twine Time" to match all the other songs out there that was dance songs, different dances. (Why "Twine"?) You know, I really don't know. To this day, I really couldn't tell you how that came about.
"The Only Black Man In South Dakota" (feat. the Sadies)
One of the boys in the band brought that to my attention, that all the songs were about different parts of the country, but no songs were produced about the Dakotas and all those states up there. What's those other states up there where the Mormons are and all of those guys?
"Black Godfather" (feat. Jon Spencer)
That was Jon Spencer's idea. All those songs produced by Jon were his own idea. It was his own ballgame. I was given that name. I didn't think of it myself. I guess it was because I didn't come on the stage in jeans and plaid shirts. I always wore suits and ties, and I guess they would label me the Godfather.
"Agile, Mobile, Hostile" (Williams' "theme song")
That's something that I've always guided myself with, choosing girls. They had to have those qualities. I was a rebel, and that came to mind. You know how us rebels think.
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