DETROIT — Street-savvy, grimy and unabashedly raunchy, the music of Andre Williams held a unique spot in the R&B world of the late 1950s. Lusty old songs like “Jail Bait” remain staples of the ex-Detroiter’s live show.
Detroit’s fetish for music’s wild side is well-chronicled, and Williams was an early step in the evolutionary chain that spawned everyone from the Stooges to Insane Clown Posse. Now a longtime Chicago resident, Williams still has a soft spot for the city where he made his name — including work for acts such as Stevie Wonder and the Dramatics — before drug abuse and poverty took him on a disjointed ride through the 1970s and ‘80s.
At a clean and sober 73, Williams is a keen, colorful talker with a warm take on life. He arrives in town with an upcoming new album (“That’s All I Need,” due May 18) and his first book of short stories, the semi-autobiographical “Sweets.”
Q: You’ve been embraced over the past decade by a new generation of listeners, especially here in Detroit. This has got to be a real kick for you.
A: Absolutely. This is like I woke up in a different world. A different atmosphere, a different outlook, a different everything. Like it’s all new. And it’s all good — things are so positive, and going so well, I couldn’t ask for anything better. Things are still developing for me.
Q: What do you think has driven this reassessment of your career?
A: I think it all boils down to my stuff being so different. It’s not tied to a time. A new generation thinks of it as something new — a novelty. Because that’s exactly what it was. I never claimed to be a vocalist. I’m an entertainer, and I always tried to be one of the best. These songs come from different experiences in my life. You can hear the atmosphere I was in at the time. And it’s all paid off.
Q: Those had to be really heady days back then on the Detroit music scene.
A: It really was. No. 1, you had so many choices. At one time, believe it or not, there were record companies like grocery stores in Detroit. A record label on every block. I know it sounds unbelievable. And it just developed into the town of music, like a Nashville.
There were so many ways to go in the music business — you didn’t have to be just the singer. You could be so many other things, and have just as full a life as a star could. I found all the niches that I could dive into and still be part of the overall thing. I just wanted to be a force in show business. A Cab Calloway — that’s what I was after. That’s why I was bouncing around to different categories — a little rhythm and blues, a little gospel.
Q: There’s a pretty eclectic crowd drawn to your shows now.
A: Believe it or not, in some places, the guys who own the venues have different parts of the venue spaced off: One part close to the stage would be chairs for senior citizens. And then in the middle would be the young go-getters. And then way in the back would be the guys who don’t want their wives to see them. (Laughs) ... I just try to cater to all those facets.
If it keeps you off the welfare line, and gives you the freedom of doing what you want to do ... a lot of people considered it my downfall, doing what I wanted to do. I don’t because I was never the kind of person who followed the crowd. I like to cut down my own trees to get to the water.
Q: The book is something new for you. You brought a lot of your own experiences and wisdom to the pages.
A: Of course, I cover up some people, places and things, but it was the real deal, in some shape, form or fashion. I got it down on paper.
The older you get, the clearer you can see the end of the road. When you get my age now — I can see on both sides of the street, and I can see the end of the street. So I don’t have to guess. I’m traveling at the speed where I can be safe. I know all the crooks, all the gambling places, so I don’t have to stop and play. I can just go straight ahead. Nothing is mysterious to me anymore. Do you see what I mean?
I have my goals set. I know what I want. Because I’m just happy being here after seeing so many of my partners gone — people who weren’t as promiscuous as me, but didn’t make it.
It can take a long time to figure out how far you can go, and where you can go.