Andre Williams -- the Godfather of Rap, the last rock 'n' roller, the don of dirty R&B -- has lots of kids.
There are the five he sired himself, who have mixed feelings about his music. "They hated it -- they didn't even want to be represented by it," says Williams from his home in Joliet, Illinois. "They didn't come to my shows, because I was singing about let me put it in and all that. But it was sending them to college and they was bourgeois. Now that they're 34 and 35, they understand what it took for me to get them some brains on their heads."
And then there are Williams' other kids, his audience. "It's the same sort of 18-to-25 age range, the same one he had in the '50s," says Mick Collins, leader of Detroit's garage-rocking Dirtbombs and erstwhile Williams producer.
There are differences, though, between Williams' audience then and now, though he hardly seems to mind: "They're whiter and they're richer and they love Andre Williams," says Williams.
So what is the sound of the hippest septuagenarian on Earth? It's neither easily bottled nor easily explained. As a producer in Detroit in the '50s and '60s, Williams recorded citified doo-wop tunes, gutsy R&B, and woozy tracks like "So Strange," which long preceded Frank Zappa in the subtle oddness department. As a lyricist, he can be as graceful as Chuck Berry; he once sang, "My tears are the tears of a one-way romance/Didn't I deserve a backward glance?" And as a dirty old man, he's recorded palpably filthy tunes like "Let Me Put It In," "Pussy Stank," and "Sling It, Bang It and Give It Cab Fare Home," backed by a dust cloud of stalking rock 'n' roll, courtesy of Collins.
If that's not eclectic enough, he's also a dedicated country music fan, a distinction not necessarily common for a black man born in Chicago in 1936. But it does reflect his roots: Sent to live with his devout grandfather in Alabama when his mother died, he only heard music when he was out working the fields. "While I was lookin' at that mule's ass, plowin' that dirt, the boss would come down in his truck and he'd have Hank playing on the radio, and that was my first music," he recalls. His love of country was consummated on 1999's Red Dirt, his collaboration with Toronto's twanging Sadies.
And then there's the oft-repeated (but mysteriously originated) Godfather of Rap title. Williams began recording "talking" R&B tracks in the '50s -- most famously the fragrant travelogue/dance craze tune "Bacon Fat" -- but he didn't invent rap any more than Bo Diddley invented punk rock. The speak-singing he employs most of the time is a sly drawl, a crafty narrative, not a rhythmic flow. "Talk 'til you can't sing, then sing 'til you can't talk, then scream -- that's the formula," he says of his vocal style. "I've never been a vocalist and I've never subscribed myself to be one, because a vocalist, once they can't hit high 'C,' they don't have a job. But Andre can walk in and hit low 'Q.' I'm an entertainer."
And there's the key: What "the kids" have responded to for five decades is the crackling, oddball, Gomez Addams-like charisma of a great showman. "You got to sing it, talk it, dance it, you got to be a monkey, a hunky, a donkey," Williams explains. "You got to be something that relates to, 'Thank you, I'm glad you're here.'"
There are plenty of external reasons a performer so agile and charismatic as Williams should be a cult hero instead of a star: The music industry, as anyone should know by now, is no meritocracy. But this is a man of 70 with the drive to belt and sweat his way through two sold-out shows on the same night at this year's South by Southwest fest. He should have paved right over those bumps in the road. Unless, of course, Mr. Showman is possessed of one of those virtues that becomes a vice in the realm of show biz. Lo and behold, having shoveled shit for most of his teen years, Williams doesn't take it from anyone. "As soon as I left Alabama, I quit taking orders," he says.
His history speaks of the kind of prideful talent that industry people label "difficult." Between 1956 and 1960 alone, he had five separate combos, including the Don Juans, the Five Dollars, and the Five Thrills. Later affiliations with some of the most famous faces of '60s R&B, though, were not long-lived. "I respect Berry Gordy, but I didn't like him," says Williams, "and I liked Ike Turner, but I didn't respect him, in the same context." And more recently, Williams' studio collaborations with Collins seem not to have been entirely a picnic. "I can't understand why he don't want to produce me anymore," says Williams of Collins, whose productions of 1998's Silky and 2000's The Black Godfather helped reanimate Williams' career after decades of stagnation. "Maybe I just gave him a hard time in the studio, but I love him to death."
"It's very structured," says Collins of working with Williams. "We probably spent two weeks just getting the arrangements the way that he wanted them. It's almost like working on a theater production, because so much of it happens before tape actually rolls."
Collins has his own take on the tough-to-define Williams. "His biggest influence on music has been his sheer longevity," says Collins. "I mean, he's still standing, he's still doing what he's doing, he's still drawing a crowd, he's still making records."
These days, when not being a studio perfectionist, or raving up live audiences 50 years his junior, Williams does what any grandfather of nine should do. "I watch these young kids on that CMT channel," he says, "then I go to A&E to find out who killed who and why."
"Here's the key, man," Williams says. "I got these young kids that love Andre Williams. I'm a blessed man. It just happened that I had the genes to be able to get up and kick ass."
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