R.I.P. Andre Williams: 10 Essential Tracks From the Soul Great

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Andre Williams performs onstage at the Chicago Blues Festival in Chicago on June 12, 2010. 

Andre Williams spent half a century deconstructing American music -- and to hear him tell it, fame was the last thing on his mind. “I have lived like a king, and I have lived like a bum, and I have lived like a tramp,” he told the Village Voice in 2010. “I just care about saying it like I saw it.”

What he saw was the beautiful grime of daily life. In a raucous career that spanned five prolific decades, Williams invoked American music of all stripes -- only to spit Bacardi in its face and grin with cigarette-stained teeth. He had a penchant for three-piece suits and a Biblically randy way with words. As ex-publicist Marah Eakin put it in 2010, he was a blur of “suits and cologne and songs.”

He deemed himself “Mr. Rhythm” -- and the world is less colorful without his raunchy grooves. Williams passed away Sunday (Mar. 17) of colon cancer after receiving hospice care, as confirmed by his manager and musical director. He was 82.

As an idiosyncratic Detroit soul singer in the 1950s, he introduced himself to the world with dance-instructional odes to fried food: “Bacon Fat,” “The Greasy Chicken.” “Jail Bait” was a stern warning to a child predator. Despite regional success, none of these were received with open arms by the public.

One song would cut through. “Shake a Tail Feather,” a 1963 co-write between Williams, Verlie Rice and Otha Hayes, became an R&B smash. Originally a No. 51 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for The Five-Dutones, the song eventually received covers from The Romantics, Tommy James and the Shondells and Ike & Tina Turner, among many others. The Monkees sang it in their 1969 TV special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee; ditto Ray Charles in the 1980 classic The Blues Brothers

For the rest of his career, Williams combined soul, R&B, country, rock and spoken-word to messy, thrilling ends. Off-kilter gems like 1999’s Red Dirt and 2012’s Hoods and Shades put him alongside rock’s great tinkerers: Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. And he plowed through addiction and illness to keep this art alive until the day he died. “I think I have to [attribute] my survival to his Most High,” he told the Red Bull Music Academy. “He decided to leave me here to suffer.” 

In honor of the life and legacy of Andre Williams, here are 10 essential cuts from his body of work.

“Bacon Fat” (Bacon Fat, 1956)

In his debut single for Fortune Records, Williams takes a hike down to Tennessee, where cotton-pickers and rail-riders are “glad to see me.” It turns out they have a new dance move called the Bacon Fat in the Volunteer State -- and Williams’ backing singers respond with an unctuous whomp, whomp, whomp. Williams’ disaffected, atonal spoken-word practically invents Lou Reed; the sound is quintessential Southern soul.

“The Greasy Chicken” (Jail Bait, 1957)

Williams’ second dance song is even greasier than the first. It begins with a flurry of chicken noises. The band is seemingly locked in first gear. Williams ratchets up the silliness, calling out the title from around the world in fake languages and silly accents. Williams’ Spanglish may not have aged well, but this obscure soul gem still has us doing the title dance.

“Jail Bait” (Jail Bait, 1957)

Bawdy humor was the name of the game with Williams -- and he was naturally skilled at skirting the edge of good taste without falling off it. “Jail Bait” has Williams admonishing a salacious Casanova to not pursue underage girls: “A quick elimination/ That’ll take you out of circulation,” he warns. This subject matter may have come off more lightheartedly in 1957 than it does in 2019 -- but that lumbering, slogging Detroit rhythm is timeless.

“Cadillac Jack” (single, 1968)

Come the 1960s, Williams headed for Chicago and upgraded to Checker Records (a subsidiary of Chess), where he cut his teeth as a producer and cut his own 45s. “Cadillac Jack,” recorded for the label, ups the production budget and the lascivious humor both. “He thought he had it made,” drawls Williams over movie-style strings. “Until he started foolin’ around with another fella’s maid.” It’s only the beginning of Jack’s problems.

“Humpin’, Bumpin’ and Thumpin” (single, 1968)

Williams’ grooveology only grew deeper while on Checker. “Humpin’, Bumpin’ and Thumpin’,” a triple-entendre about hitting the dancefloor and having carnal knowledge, contains his most sordid, swinging rhythm to date; his increasingly slurred delivery is a harbinger of his anarchic 1990s work. If you don’t at least tap your foot to this one, there must not be blood in your body.

“Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill)” (Red Dirt, 1999)

After spending the 1980s out of music due to homelessness, poverty and drug addiction, Williams unexpectedly found a young, alternative audience in the 1990s and began recording for In the Red and Bloodshot Records. Red Dirt, a full-on costume change into Western wear, is full of uproarious country drama: the homicidal “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill)” showed he could hang in open prairies and ghost towns.

“Whatcha Gonna Do” (Black Godfather, 2000)

Recorded for garage rock mainstays In The Red Records, Black Godfather amps up Williams’ edgiest aspects. Its highlight, “Whatcha Gonna Do” combines them all: Electric Prunes-style drones, horror-punk blasts, Williams howling like Ralph Wolf from Looney Tunes about body parts. Most young garage rockers can only dream of making a racket like this.

“Can You Deal With It?” (Can You Deal With It?, 2008)

Williams became even more himself in the 2000s: by the time of Can You Deal With It?, he was cramming New Orleans soul, Steppenwolf yowls and Motörhead-style riffs into an utterly original stew. He’s still ruminating on the unholy word “booty” and ideating the imprint in a woman’s dress -- but when set to absurd, Neanderthal music that would Andrew W.K. proud, the title track comes off as blustery, innocent goofiness.

“Dirt” (from Hoods and Shades, 2012)

By 2012, Williams was practically an elder-statesman of weird culture: on the Hoods and Shades highlight “Dirt,” he confronts the last enemy death. Over a jaunty, country-blues backing, Williams moans like a reaper about how “no matter how high we go,” we’re nothing but topsoil when the rubber finally hits the road. Sweet dreams, kids!

“Shake a Tail Feather (Live)” (Choice Cuts: Best of Andre Williams, 2012)

The Williams song that belongs in the time capsule has nothing to do with death or horniness or fried food: it’s so infectious that a plethora of 1960s artists wanted to try it out. Williams being Williams, there’s a ribald story: “We’d go to dances and see girls shaking their asses,” he helpfully explained in 2010. “And a chicken’s tail has a feather in the ass. So I changed it from “shake your ass, baby” to “shake a tailfeather.” And it flew!”

Every version of “Shake a Tail Feather” has its own danceable charm, but it’s worth hearing this standard from the horse’s mouth: it’s a swampy R&B treasure that could have been an early Beatles hit. We’ll miss the horny, harebrained cult hero who started it all.