R&B singer/producer Andre “Mr. Rhythm” Williams, died in Chicago on Sunday (March 17) at age 82, according to a statement from his label, Pravda Records. “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of legendary artist Andre Williams,” read a FB statement from the Chicago-based label. “He died this after in Chicago at the age of 82. He touched our lives and the lives of countless others. We love you Dre.”
William’s manager, Kenn Goodman, tells Billboard that the singer died on Sunday afternoon while in hospice care in Chicago surrounded by family. “He was diagnosed two weeks ago with colon cancer that spread to his lungs and brain,” Goodman says. “After that his body started shutting down pretty quickly,” he adds, noting that Williams had battled a number of other health issues recently, including strokes and seizures. “But was committed to trying to sing and record again.”
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, on Nov. 1, 1936, Zephire “Andre” Williams launched his career as a teenager after moving to Detroit in the early 1950s, where he quickly became a key member of the city’s then blossoming R&B scene, making his name after winning the top prize at the Warfield Theatre’s amateur night show eight weeks in a row. Known for his fiery, often profane style, Williams signed to Fortune Records and took over the lead vocal slot in the vocal group The Five Dollars.
Renamed Andre Williams and the Don Juans, the group released “Goin’ Down to Tijuana” in 1955, with Williams releasing his signature hit, “Bacon Fat,” the next year, hitting No. 9 on the Billboard R&B chart. His sing-talking style on the track presaged hip-hop, earning him the nickname “godfather of rap.” He wrote and produced hits for other acts during his early years in the business, including the Five Dutones’ “Shake a Tail Feather,” as well as cranking out other beloved Fortune Records singles including “Jail Bait” and “The Greasy Chicken.”
An early 1960s four-year gig as artist/producer/writer for Motown Records failed to produce any recordings of note, though he did score a co-write on Stevie Wonder’s first song, 1964’s “Thank You For Loving Me,” and worked with The Temptations, while continuing to write and produce for other acts at the time, including Alvin Cash & The Crawlers (“Twine Time”) and The Contours. He followed in 1965 with a run at Chicago’s Chess Records, during which he released some of his other most beloved tracks such as “The Stroke,” “Humpin’ Bumpin’ & Thumpin'” and “Cadillac Jack.”
Williams sat in on sessions withe everyone from Parliament to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ike & Tina Turner and Mary Wells over the years, hitting his most productive stride in the 1990s and early 2000s, when a new generation of soul-loving rockers discovered his gritty, grooving sound. Always natty on stage in colorful suits and matching hats, Williams’ career renaissance took off in 1998 with the Silky album, which featured backing from members of the garage rock band The Gories, adding some punk swagger to his raunchy soul.
The next year he continued the re-up with the Bloodshot Records release of the country-fried Red Dirt, recorded with The Sadies as his backing band, and featuring Williams’ versions of songs by Johnny Paycheck, Eddy Arnold and Lefty Frizzell. Energized by working with younger acts, Williams kept the train rolling with a series of raucous albums on indie labels that bested his entire early career studio album output, including The Black Godfather (2000), Bait and Switch (2001), Greasy (2003), That’s All I Need (2010) and his final studio effort, 2016’s Pravda release Don’t Ever Give Up.
Watch Williams performing “Bacon Fat” in 2012 and see some of the tributes to the singer below.
It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Andre Williams, Mr. Rhythm, The Black Godfather. Legendary artist, Epic storyteller, Father, Grandfather, Friend. Thank you to all that supported my father thoughout his career. #TheBlackGodFather#unsung#Unsunglegend pic.twitter.com/Zo5eDQNqe5
— Andre Williams (@MrRhythmAndreW) March 18, 2019
Oh man. Sad day. RIP to an absolute American original, a soul man, titilator, activator.. Andre Williams. Shake a fuckin tail feather, baby. https://t.co/FrjWmJ19NR
— Low Cut Connie (@LowCutConnie) March 18, 2019
The Magic Bag is saddened to see another longtime friend has passed away – R.I.P. Andre Williams. The legendary soul singer lit up the stage at the Bag every time he appeared. #MrRhythm pic.twitter.com/bEwRo2o8Oh
— Magic Bag (@themagicbag) March 18, 2019
Sad to see Andre Williams go. An early R&B/Rocknroll legend; all but forgotten until he was brought back to life in the 90s by garage rockers like Jon Spencer, Mick Collins, etc I was honored to book him to play in my hometown once.??#RIPAndreWilliams #MrRhythm #andrewilliams pic.twitter.com/hwzVtu9E2P
— Marko DeSantis (@SugarcultMarko) March 18, 2019