History, Andre’s got one, to say the least. Born in Bessemer, Alabama, probably in 1936 his family relocated to Chicago. His mother past away when he was six leaving the kids to live under a stairwell until they were taken in by various aunties. By age sixteen Andre was in Detroit where he joined his cousin Little Eddie Hurt’s vocal group the 5 Dollars who had cut such classics as “So Strange
” and “Doctor Baby
” for the incredible Fortune label, perhaps the most unique of all the “indies”. Soon Andre was leading his own group– the Don Juans and was given top billing, his first Fortune release, or more aptly escape, was called “Put A Chain On It”,
then recording the aforementioned classics records, they were too raw for the top forty, soon they were too raw for the record business in general and as the fifties became the sixties Andre was on the move.
The sixties saw Andre hustling back and forth from Chicago where he scored big hits with the 5 Du-tones “Shake A Tail Feather
” (a tune that would go on to be recorded by Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner and Hanson) and “Twine Time” by Alvin Cash and the Crawlers, back to Detroit where he cut some sides with the Contours for Motown (Andre would be hired and fired by Berry Gordy over twenty times), to Houston where he produced sides by Bobby Bland at Duke. He still recorded under his own name, now adapting a boog-a-loo style best exemplified by “Pearl Time
” on Sport and “Sweet Little Pussycat
” on Wingate. After a brief stint and some minor hits at Chess (see above) Andre hit a dry streak, broken only by Bull & the Matadors’ “Funky Judge”, a minor hit covered in the 70’s by the J. Geils Band. By the 1980’s Andre was living on the streets of Chicago, smoking crack and living the life of a derelict.
I think it was George Paulus of St. George Records who first brought Andre back into the studio to cut a CD (Norton issued a much different version of the sessions on the LP Greasy
) backed by a band that featured the Pretty Things’ Dick Taylor on guitar and the Eldorados on backing vocals. Andre came to New York in 1997 to promote Greasy
a trip that would do Homer’s Ulysses proud (he would return home many years later, after many adventures and many countries, circumcised). In what would become one of the most unlikely comebacks of the century, Andre would tour the world, using various back up groups and sometimes pick up bands, building an audience amongst hepsters who hadn’t been born when “Bacon Fat” was released. This is about the time me and Andre became reacquainted. It started with Andre recording a station ID for my radio show (“anything with an antenna is important”). I began booking Andre to play in New York at the Lakeside Lounge (it started as a Camel cigarette sponsored one nighter, he ended up playing a dozen shows including a New Year’s Eve blow out that was probably the only time I really had fun on a NYE). We also booked him into the Circle Bar in New Orleans (we had a great backing band for one of those shows with Mr. Quintron on organ and the Royal Pendletons’ Mike Hurt on guitar). Hanging out with Andre was always a blast. Once at the Lakeside he invited his new wife (a Jewish, New York lawyer, hence the circumcision, he never bothered to divorce the first wife in Chicago) and her old aunties. Andre decided he was going to do the whole set without cursing. It got off to an auspicious start with the opening number “Pussy Stank” when on the P in “pussy”, Andre’s dentures came flying out of his mouth, ever the pro he caught ’em on a bounce and had ’em back in his kisser in time to come back in on the “stank”.
Once in New Orleans, at Mardis Gras time the 9th Ward Marching Band decided to make Andre it’s grand marshall. I was up on the balcony over the bar when they came marching down St. Charles Ave, Andre seated on a float like a Sultan. The entire marching band, bass drums, tubas, everything, took a right turn and marched into the bar, still playing (the Circle Bar is tiny, like a half of a subway car with a 10′ x 10′ room off to the side). When I got downstairs they whole band was inside, still playing, marching lockstep as Andre was carried in over their heads. I’ve never seen him happier.
On the day George W. Bush was elected (or whatever that was) Andre and I flew from New Orleans to New York City. First we had to stop at a liquor store to get a bottle of rum to stop his DT’s (it was 8:30 am). When we got to the airport Andre dropped the bottle, leaving a pile of broken glass and Bacardi all over the floor. The bar was closed. Andre soon found the woman with the keys to the bar and sweet talked her into selling him a new bottle. On the flight ‘Dre soon had made friends with everyone else on the flight. It was the only time I’ve ever flown that I would describe as fun. He predicted Bush would steal the election, predicted 9/11 and the war in Iraq, and predicted the financial meltdown– eight years before it happened. This guy doesn’t miss a trick. Our fellow passengers were bemused but time has proved Andre a keen observer of things and the way they work.
For the last twelve years Andre’s toured the world, gotten involved with countless women, many a third his age or less, recorded for a bewildering variety of labels including Norton (Bait & Switch
is my favorite of all his post-comeback discs, Robert Quine plays on two tracks, it was one of his proudest moments), In The Red. Bloodshot, St. George, and others I can’t remember. He’s also seen his sixties sides re-issued by Night Train (Rib Tips and Pig Snouts
is a must), and many
bootlegs of his Fortune sides (the offspring of Jack and Devora Brown, known as the “Wig Brothers” because of their ill fitting hair pieces, being too stupid to do the job themselves and unwilling to lease the stuff to those more competent than them, although before she died Devora issued an LP of Andre’s stuff– Jailbait
that featured some great unreleased stuff like “Is It True
” and “Tossin’ & Turnin’ and Burnin’ All Up Inside
“), leaving the field wide open to bootleggers.
The past few years have been rough for Andre. His wife (the real one) passed on and he’s been in and out of public housing and cheap flop houses. He had to quit drinking due to some serious health problems. Yet good things are happening too. Tricia Todd’s documentary– Agile, Hostile, Mobile: A Year With Andre Williams
played at SXSW to great acclaim and should have a distribution deal soon. The trailer can be seen here
. You can’t keep a guy like Andre Williams down for long. At 72, despite the hard miles he’s put on his body, he’s still better looking (and better dressed) than Bill Wyman. I hope he lives to be a hundred. Friendship with Andre isn’t always easy (or cheap) but I’m honored to know the guy.
Captions for the above photos from the top
top) Fortune Records poster that’s a bit too big for my scanner. 2nd down) Note from Andre for you handwriting analysis freaks. middle) Outside the Lakeside Lounge, summer 2000 (left to right): Hal Wilner, Anita Pallenberg, Andre Williams. 2nd from bottom) Andre steals a kiss from the late Bill Pietsch. bottom) Andre with the 5 Dollars, 1956.