Hey Man, That Suit Is You!
Humpin’ Bumpin’ and Thumpin’ With Andre Williams
Redd Foxx gave him his nickname – Mr. Rhythm – and everyone from a pre-teen Stevie Wonder to R&B legend Ike Turner has enlisted his talents as a writer and producer. And let’s not forget two or three generations of punk and garage bands that have taken a raunchy spark of inspiration from songs like “Jail Bait” and “Greasy Chicken” – from the Cramps to Jack White. Andre Williams has been to the top of the charts, and the bottom of the gutter. The past decade, the Chicago raconteur has been blazing a global trail with all kinds of backing acts (the Sadies, Morning 40 Federation, Jon Spencer, the Dirtbombs), dispensing his salty life wisdom, reveling in the risqué, and cutting such ass-whomping records as Can You Deal With It? and the recent That’s All I Need for his hometown Bloodshot label. Of late, Williams, 74, also released a memoir (Sweets) and became the subject of a documentary (Agile Mobile Hostile). Although, as he says, he ain’t mean. He’s one of the nice guys.
“Nice guys only win in the movies,” he says. “And life has its rough edges. You got to have a little something of everything in order to survive.”
Stomp and Stammer: Good afternoon, sir. How’re you feeling?
Andre Williams: Surprisingly well and cautiously optimistic.
You say cautiously. I imagine you’ve seen a few trainwrecks in your time. But things have been on the upswing the past few years, right?
That’s what I’m saying. But you know this business, and in this business things can change overnight.
True. Who are you working with on this tour?
You said what band? Now that just skips my mind. I got it down here somewhere. Is it on the album? Get it off of there because I get it mixed up sometimes.
Well, sure, you have a different band on every new record.
That’s why I get it mixed up.
Are you going to show off your new album?
I try to stick with one pattern on the road, and every now and then I’ll embellish one song out of my latest CD. I try to stay with my same format.
All the hits?
Yeah. And wrap around that.
What are your favorites?
That’s a good question. I think I really lean toward country. That was my beginning, my environment, being raised in Alabama. I was in the cotton field quite a bit and my grandparents were religious so they didn’t allow blues to be played in the house. I didn’t hear too much R&B and blues until I was up in age. Most of what I heard was country and Western music. Hank Williams and Hank Snow, Patsy Cline … in that area. Johnny Cash.
Alabama in the 1940s, the consequences of the color line must have been pretty severe. What was that like, in those days?
Well, well, well, well … If you’re looking back at it, you would call it severe. But if you were living in the times, you wouldn’t really know what it was. You didn’t know until you knew better, because that’s all we saw. We didn’t know if we were being oppressed or whatever. We weren’t going anywhere. We knew something was wrong but we didn’t know what the hell it was until it finally developed itself, and then we started realizing. We used to call it Jim Crow, but the real word was discrimination.
You always hear the stories about Elvis sneaking into black nightclubs, but as a young man were you able to get into these places?
I didn’t do much going out until I was almost a grown man. My parents moved around so much.
What motivated you to get out and go north?
My father first came north and got a job at the steel mill up here, along with his brothers. They got the jobs up here and after they got halfway settled they sent for us. They’d just finished the Ida B. Wells Housing Project, and we were one of the first families to move into that project.
Were you writing songs from an early age?
I was scribbling things down but I never thought I was actually writing. I didn’t get into a writing situation until later on in my life.
How did you get the bug?
I was in the Navy and I came out of the Navy and one of my buddies was in Detroit and he convinced me to come up there to try to start my life. And it was pretty rough up there. The gift just came to me. I had to sing and dance to eat. It was one of those kinds of scenes. You know. I was forced into it. I had no choice.
When you wrote “Jailbait,” was there someone who inspired that?
Me. Me. Yeah. Absolutely. Me. All the songs that you hear about life in my repertoire you can almost always connect them to Andre Williams. I hate to admit to some of them, but that’s real.
Was there a certain girl?
No, I was just thinking about the punishment you would get and the fun you would have.
You were trying to discourage yourself?
I was trying to discourage everybody. Myself included. That wasn’t the way to go.
All these years later, it’s remarkable that you’re out there on the road, putting out a new record every year. Did you imagine, in your darkest days, that it would lead to this?
Never. Never. Never. I thought I’d be out of here by the age of 30. Every day after 30 I thought was just a gift. I still think that way. I still think any day now, Andre, it’s gonna happen.
You were down and out there for awhile. How’d you make it back?
I don’t know how it happened, but that was just another phase of Andre Williams’ life. That was just one of the many phases I had to go through being Andre Williams. It wasn’t no fun, but I consequently put myself in that situation.
How long were you living in the streets?
About three years.
What was the worst of it?
Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. That was the cause of it. And that was the worst part of living it. Drugs.
The crack didn’t come into play until way late. It was mostly cocaine, and marijuana of course. Quite a few people smoke marijuana, so that’s nothing new. The heavy drugs is what got me. I was panhandling, and being ready to die. I thought that was what was happening. I thought it was all over. This is it, Andre, you did it to yourself. Any day it’s going to happen so let’s go get high again. Hee hee hee hee. That’s a bad attitude!
What snapped you out of it? Ambition?
I think it was my kids. All of a sudden I just realized what the hell am I leaving them? What kind of legend am I leaving them? Am I leaving them a bum? A dope fiend? I got 12 kids and they didn’t deserve that kind of situation to be tacked onto them. They went to school, they graduated from college and they didn’t deserve that kind of history. With the help of the Most High, and myself, I wanted to leave them something. That gave me the motivation to come out of the crazy madness.
What did you do?
I went and checked myself into rehab. I didn’t have no money. And I was used to sleeping in the streets. So I told them my situation and they accepted me into the program and I spent a year-and-a-half in the program.
And then you had all these young bands who were into your music.
The kids love me. And I like playing with them. All of my musicians are youngsters and we get along fine.
I hadn’t realized you’d written songs for Parliament-Funkadelic.
Yeah, I did some work with them.
You’ve worked with everybody, actually. Who was the most unusual?
I think Stevie Wonder. He was the one, I really seen his future way before it happened. I knew he was going to be a superstar from Day One.
He was 12?
He was 12 years old and he was a nuisance in the studio, knocking over things and every mischievous thing he could think of, every 12-year-old kid thing, But I knew he was going to be a star.
And Ike Turner? Was he the craziest?
Yeah, I guess he was tops in that category. That was one of the most exciting adventures in my life, was the Ike Turner situation. I was writing and producing artists for him. A couple of times I would go out with him. I wouldn’t go out in no job capacity. I’d go out with him and just be his companion.
How crazy and wild was it? He was the Devil, wasn’t he?
As crazy as you could imagine in your mind was just about a tenth.
And women? Stacks of them, right?
Yeah, stacks! You hit that just right.
I saw a story that was amazing. Did you convert to Judaism?
Yeah, I am.
So you were circumcised as an adult?
That is a crazy story. Frightening, hilarious and painful. Can you share some details?
Well, I don’t want to go all the way into it but what you read is true.
Everything’s OK now?
Yeah. Well … yeah. Heheheheh. You’re trying to lead me into it but you’re not going to do it.
Are you still with the same woman?
I’m with Darlene. We’ve been in and out of relationships now for maybe 30 years. I didn’t want to break in no new woman after my wife died. I decided I get somebody that I know. I didn’t have to learn her, we get along real fine.
When you’re not on the road, do you get out much?
I stay at home. I stay at home because Andre Williams will get in trouble. I know by experience what’s out there in those streets. The minute I hit those streets I become a different person and the world changes.