KRCL 90.9 FM DJ “Bad” Brad Wheeler had just seen him in Chicago at the city’s Bluesfest and ran into Williams after the performance. Wheeler got a phone number and gave it to Will Sartain of The Urban Lounge, and presto, The “Black Godfather”—as Williams was nicknamed by comic/actor Dolomite—will be coming to Salt Lake City to lay down the law. “I’m ecstatic about him coming here,” exclaims Wheeler. “He’s one of the architects of rock & roll.”
Raised in Bessemer, Ala., Williams wasn’t allowed to listen to R&B at first, but the country music playing on the radio in the ’40s made a big impression on him. “That’s because I knew I wasn’t the world’s greatest vocalist,” he explains. “Country music always had great stories, and when you have a great story, you don’t have to have a great voice.”
1950s-era R&B hits on Fortune Records like “Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait,” recorded under the name “Andre Williams & the Don Juans,” molded his vocal style—more talking than singing—which has influenced today’s rap artists. His visual style was just as inimitable, including wearing velvet suits even in “bucket of blood” style joints, as he calls them. In the early ’60s, Williams’ “Shake a Tail Feather” was a hit for the Five Duo-Tones and Ike and Tina Turner. He moved to Chicago blues label Chess Records and, in addition to his own songs, wrote a number of tunes for other musicians, later to include Parliament and Funkadelic.
“[Motown’s] Berry Gordy, I respected for his administrative style, but didn’t like, and Ike Turner I liked, but didn’t respect,” Williams laughs. The two lined up Williams to produce Bobby Blue Bland as well as Tina Turner’s Let Me Touch Your Mind album. Williams also wrote Stevie Wonder’s first release, “Thank You For Loving Me.”
Through the ’80s, he languished in poverty due to drug addiction, but Williams started making a comeback in the ’90s, a reversal of fortune documented in the 2007 movie Agile Mobile Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams.
His latest album, That’s All I Need, is a homecoming of sorts, with Williams back in Detroit, aided and abetted by locals Outrageous Cherry, the Dirtbombs, the Electric Six and guitarist Dennis Cherry from Motown house band the Funk Brothers. It’s an album full of slow-burning soul.
Cherry in particular adds something special to the recording with his sizzling lead work underlining Williams’ vocals. “I’ve worked with Dennis Cherry on so many projects on Motown, and he’s one of the most admirable musicians I’ve ever met,” Williams explains. “We’re familiar with each other’s style, what makes us tick. It makes the sessions much easier. And he helps relate to the other musicians.”
Williams’ songs still have a large basis in personal experience, like “When Love Shoots You in the Foot:” “It’s about when you make a mistake and choose the wrong person; you fall in love but they don’t love you.” On the title track, what he “needs” is listed: “A banana-colored woman/ an orange Cadillac/ a pea-green suit/ and pocketful of $100 bills” equals a fine evening of romance.
“What I like best about him is that he’s old-school and new-school at the same time,” Wheeler says. Williams sounds contemporary alongside the likes of Jon Spencer and Jack White on his later efforts. “He’s like a dinosaur still walking the Earth, eating smoke and breathing fire,” Wheeler adds. “And he can probably still kick any musician’s ass onstage!”
His live show should be a musical tour de force from all periods of his career. “From the ’50s to now,” Wheeler says, “it all sounds as dangerous now as it did then!”
ANDRE WILLIAMS & THE GOLDSTARS
w/ The Rubes
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Monday Aug. 16, 9 p.m.
$13 adv./$15 day of