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Let's get it on
Andre Williams may be 63 years old, but he's still agile, mobile, and hostile
By Gilbert Garcia
Even at a young age, Williams was known for the frank sexuality of his music, in cult classics like "Jailbait" and "Bacon Fat." But now, at 63, this secret hero of gritty rhythm and blues is making his raunchy young incarnation seem positively tame. His music has one message: He's horny and he wants to do something about it.
"If my songs offend you, then you got my apology up front," the libidinous one says from his Queens, New York, home. "I'm just telling you the real deal, 'cause somebody out there knows what I'm saying. You might not want nobody to know while you're sitting next to your wife or girlfriend, but it's there. She knows it and you know it, but neither of you wants to admit that both of you know it."
Williams' 1998 album, Silky, on the California-based In the Red Records, is his most potent declaration of intent, an affirmation that none of those wild young garage rockers who admire him so much can get as down and dirty as he can. The album cover features Williams' outstretched hand touching a woman's bare bottom, an image that would make even the Dirty Mind-era Prince blush.
Even so, the cover offers only a hint of what Williams has on his mind. With "Agile, Mobile & Hostile," he defines the three essential traits for effective lovemaking. "Bonin'" gets to brass tacks, with Williams desperately shouting, "Bone me, baby, bone me." With "I Wanna Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas," he sets his metaphor machine into overdrive: "I wanna be your favorite lotion/So you can rub me on you every day/I wanna be your favorite toy/So I can be there when you wanna play." On the self-explanatory "Pussy Stank," he sounds like the guy who taught 2 Live Crew's Luke Campbell how to sweet-talk a woman.
As funny and loose as Williams comes off on record, some critics are a bit taken aback by the image of a sexagenarian with more than a passing resemblance to Sammy Davis Jr. unloading his dirtiest sexual fantasies on an unsuspecting microphone. For instance, when Williams joined the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion a couple of months ago for a wild encore at the New York club Tramps, critics were quick to gripe that Williams and Spencer repeated the title, "Lap Dance," approximately a million times. Williams can accept the critiques, but he has a message for those who lose the storytelling skills behind his monumental libido.
"They say 'the sleazy old man, the dirty old man,'" Williams says. "OK, I can buy that, 'cause all of those stars had rauncho tapes out before they got big. Look at Eddie Murphy's Raw. So 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. I'm just so thankful to Most High that I was able to pull myself back and get another shot at it, and it's happening, and it's great."
If rhythm and blues has always been carried by the tension between its gospel roots and its secular desires, no one embodies the contradictions more vividly than Williams. As exuberantly potty-mouthed as he can get in song, in conversation, he relentlessly expresses his devotion to God for carrying him through his tough times. As he puts it, "Most High runs my life." And like most R&B shouters, he learned the ropes singing gospel music in the church.
Williams was born in Bessemer, Alabama, but after his mother died when he was 6, his father moved him back and forth from Alabama to Chicago. In Chicago, he learned what he calls "the real technical gospel singing," and applied it in his first gig, with the doo-wop vocal group The Cavaliers. That led to a stint with the Five Thrills, and after a military stint, he landed in Detroit, where he helped to form the legendary Five Dollars. He says his workaholic tendencies led to the "triple-marketing" of his career, as he often had simultaneous releases out with the Five Dollars, Andre Williams and the Don Juans, or as Mr. Rhythm. As a result, Williams says he'd often have 12 singles out in a year, whereas another artist might have only three. While such market saturation could easily confuse young R&B fans, Williams believes it began to pay dividends for him in the early '60s.
"We were playing this place called the Akron Armory, which wasn't a bad place to play," Williams says. "And we had a fantastic white crowd. It blew our minds because that was the biggest crowd I'd ever performed for at that point. And I knew that something was going on, because we'd done two or three local, white dance-party TV things. So I noticed that something was going on."
Williams' most promising work involved his series of early '60s duets with Gino Parks, on tracks like "Greasy Chicken" and "My Tears." Williams recalls, "This was right before Sam & Dave; we were moving in that direction." But when Parks left the duo, Williams felt scared and insecure. He'd always had a group or another singer with him, and he didn't have the confidence to step out on his own.
"I couldn't handle it by myself 'cause I couldn't walk out there by myself and do what needed to be done," he says. "I was always the glue that could put a whole group together, 'cause I could fill in all their weak spots."
After he and Parks split, Williams quit performing. He struggled to make a living, doing production and writing work -- most prominently the classic dance track "Shake a Tailfeather" -- and leasing masters to record companies. Williams describes his long absence from the stage as "a depressing period" during which he struggled to make a living any way he could. At times, he wasn't sure he'd make it.
"I had to come out of the drug treatment, come out of the gutter," he says. "I had to experience everything going down to the bottom. I knew every level."
Eventually, Williams landed on his feet and started performing again. He found that a new generation of hedonist garage rockers worshiped the raw sexuality of his old recordings. At a time when so many musicians learn all the right notes but never find the right feel, Williams stood out as an authentic wild man. In a sense, he became to R&B what R.L. Burnside is to Delta blues; an unappreciated veteran whose stature had grown as the real deal became harder and harder to find.
Among his fans are the Demolition Doll Rods, who approached him after a gig at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Doll Rods had grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, and they'd been Andre Williams fans for years. They subsequently introduced Williams to Larry Hardy, the head of their label at the time, In the Red. (The band has since signed with Matador, which recently released its album T.L.A.) By this point, Williams had cut an album called Greasy for Hasil Adkins' tiny Norton label. When Hardy approached him about recording for In the Red, Williams figured it was worth a shot.
"The maturity is there now," he says. "The fear is there. You have to fear, you have to recognize that you can't go around fearless, because fear is a part of some of your safety mechanism. I've cut more paths through that forest than Jim Bowie or Daniel Boone."
Williams sees Silky as the album he always wanted to make, a dirty dose of unvarnished R&B. With backing from some of Williams' young rock acolytes, Silky sounds perfectly in tune with the lo-fi garage rock of Jon Spencer, the Oblivians, Flat Duo Jets, or Doo Rag. What Williams brings to the table is a vocal command that none of those groups can match.
"When I come in, it's a party, it's a thing," he says. "These young kids have been blowing my mind."
Williams looks at his current rejuvenation as the big payback for his long years in the wilderness, and he's not taking anything for granted. He released another album, Red Dirt, in May on Chicago-based indie Bloodshot Records, backed by The Sadies. The album continues to show off Williams', ah, unique sensibility. (Just guess what "Weapon of Mass Destruction" refers to.) And he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. He's waited too long for that.
"Many a day I really hated that I got into this," he says. "But now here I'm 63, and it's paying off. So that lets me know that the Book of Job didn't lie. It takes patience. You've got to wait your turn, and then you've gotta be sincere. That's what I'm about, man. I do 140 percent on every show. I don't take the money and run."