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.
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article