Mustachioed, nattily attired, languid of speech, Williams is a striking figure with an intense gaze and intimidating carriage that can be learned only on the urban frontier. His career path has been particularly thorny, leading him from exultant highs doing backflips on the stage of the Apollo Theater to grim, half-frozen duty as a destitute panhandler skulking under the El tracks - he sank all the way, baby, and by 1995 was on the verge of going down a third and last time when his loyal cult of fans managed to reach out to him.
When Williams finally reached a Hollywood stage earlier this year, he delivered one of the most vivid and arresting performances humanly possible. Backed by aggressive, just-snotty-enough garage-rock white kids the Countdowns, Andre stomped, howled and strutted with an authoritative mix of professional R&B craftsmanship and anarchic, horny spontaneity that positively stunned. Just as Williams' raunchy, sometimes rabid, ante-upping recitation style jump-started the interpretation and expansion of R&B 40 years ago, he's still kicking down closed doors and - as one listen to his latest album, Silky (In the Red), makes clear - revealing undreamed-of delights.
The twisting road that carried Williams this far began 61 years ago in Bessemer, Alabama, where he grew up working on his grandfather's not inconsiderable 20-acre spread and attending church seven days a week. "It was a small community about 12 miles outside Birmingham, and we were pickin' cotton and corn and workin' in the fields," Williams says. "Basically, my people were, like, primitive sanctified folk, so we participated in nothing like the Saturday-night fish fry or parties or dances."
After a stint in the service, Williams wound up in Chicago, singing in a church choir for a time until entering and winning - for eight straight weeks - a local talent-night showcase. Hooked on applause and dead set on entertaining, he assessed the competition - very tough - and fell to scheming. Building from the black club revue background, where comics, hoofers, shake dancers, ventriloquists and singers worked side by side, Williams cooked up his own mixture, a stage show loaded with extreme dance moves and sly rants (yes, a prototypal rapper, he), and a cunning mix of lust, humor and generally wigged-out abandon.
"I was doing some territorial things that was sellin'," he says, "but I didn't have the Big Market voice, because at that time high tenors was the sound, like Clyde McPhatter, Nolan Strong, and I knew that I couldn't compete with those voices, because they weren't singin' from the throat, they were using their diaphragm - just beautiful singers. When I realized that, I knew I had to develop a visual show, so I started to do the dancing, the splits, the flips - we called it flash dancing - and so I developed the movements and made it the principal part of my show."
Williams also realized that if he didn't come up with a sound on his records that would really grab people, he was never going to go anywhere. "So I had to go back to the basics," he says, "and that is the drum - the first instrument that we invented. I focused in on that and said, if the drum has the magicness that sucks people's minds in, then the only thing I have to do is put the story on top. I decided that I was gonna try and literally talk a record with a hip story.
"So I called Miz Brown at Fortune Records, said I had a couple of songs ready to record. There was no problem with recording, because they did it in a studio out in back of the record shop, with four black RCA microphones, a little 1-track Ampex machine, and a whole lot of egg cartons absorbing the sound. They'd give the musicians 5 or 10 dollars, and they'd just hammer the song out." Williams didn't let anybody know that he was getting ready to talk. "I sprung it on 'em," he says.
"After we worked the song out and they heard me talkin', Miz Brown almost flipped her head. She was gonna stop me, but it just happened that a disc jockey by the name of Frantic Ernie Durham was at the session. He said, 'Hold up, let them finish,' and we finished 'Bacon Fat,' and Ernie said, 'Well, I'll play that on the air,' so Miz Brown figured she didn't have nothin' to lose."
"Bacon Fat" was an irresistibly greasy trip, driven by a raunchy tenor sax, with a tumble of vocal whomp-whomps and a Charleston beat warped into a funky Louisiana-style hesitation rhythm, all topped off by Andre's wicked declamatory patter and asides ("I feel like I wanna holler, but the town's too small . . ." "Mmmm, help yourself, young 'un"). He'd cooked the song up while en route to Memphis, "drivin', eatin' a ham and bacon sandwich, tappin' out a rhythm on my leg and just droppin' in some words, and bingo, it just jumped out there and happened." Within a week, a Columbia road man heard the record and informed Epic about it. He grabbed the master, Epic put it out, and it broke wide open in the black market, even denting the white charts. "And," says Williams, "that's when I started travelin'."
The road led him everywhere, and follow-ups such as "Jailbait" established him as a street-level poet unafraid to toy with even the most taboo subjects. Williams worked every chance he could, bringing crowds to their knees with his acrobatic moves and sizzling, increasingly raunchy spiels. After the British Invasion hobbled R&B, he was active as a producer (at Motown and Chess) and writer (his "Shake a Tail Feather" became a standard - which today, in a rather deliciously perverse irony, Okie wunderkinder Hanson often use as their opening number).
By the mid-'80s, though, Andre seemed past it, lost in a dope-addled fog, living in Chicago homeless shelters and panhandling at the same train station every morning. Presumed dead by many, living on handouts, he all but gave up, until one of the El Dorados approached him on the street, telling him about a local blues producer who recorded R&B veterans for the European market. Soon, Billy Miller's NYC indie Norton was putting out new and old Andre records. Williams found himself on what he refers to as "the alternative circuit," where, of course, the crowds go positively ape. To see an originator like Williams not only recalling but also avidly expanding his singular style - often reaching outrageously pornographic levels - is exhilarating, almost profound.
"It takes me back to what I'd seen the giant artists do as a kid back at Club DeLisa in Chicago," he says, still struck by the unlikeliness of it all. "The Countdowns back me, and they do it well - they're not polished musicians, but they are great talents, so I figure that opposites attract, and you got two extremes meeting each other, and the sincerity is there on both angles. And it took me to a completely higher level - of intensity, of sincerity and of emotions.
"My songs are very, very draining, very emotional, and now the music is right there with it, and it's up there where I always really thought I could take it. I've been trying for years to take it to that level, and now I've got it tuned in."
Andre Williams appears at the Viper Room on Thursday, September 10.