Photo by Drew Reynolds
I conducted this interview with Andre Williams in 2006. At the time I was living and DJing in Asbury Park, NJ, where he had just played a show at the reintroduction of bowling alley turned music venue Asbury Lanes. This was his post-Norton Record days, and he was backed up by a local band called The Rib-Eye Brothers. The show was perfect. Williams was the consummate show man, proving that even in 2006 he still had it. I caught up with him shortly after, and while we said we would keep in touch, the number in Chicago he gave me eventually was not available. Originally I wanted to submit this to some magazines, and then I misplaced the interview in the shuffle. This week I found it, so I decided to just put it up here on FMF. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to reprint this in any online magazines.
FMF: All right. I wanted to start off by getting a brief introduction on how you got into the music business and I know you started out on the Fortune record label with Jack and Debra Brown. Was that the first label that you recorded on?
AW: Yeah, I was 17 years old and didn’t know shit.
FMF: How did they treat you?
AW: They treated me enough to where I could get my hair done and meet pretty girls.
FMF: When you were 17, was there anything else besides that? I mean, is that all that mattered to you? I know that’s what mattered to me when I was 17.
AW: Oh, you did it when you were 17?
FMF: Well, I got my hair done (when I had hair) and tried to chase the girls.
AW: OK, yeah, that was the beginning.
FMF: Did you have any influences back then?
AW: Did I have any what?
FMF: Influences? Any of your peers or any other artists that influenced you back then?
AW: There were no peers, I just got out of the Navy and went to Detroit. Didn’t even know that I could entertain, had no idea I could entertain, but I didn’t have but $25 and I seen a sign that said Amateur Show at 11:30. Winner gets $25. So I said: “I’m gonna get that $25”. So I went in there, I wrote the song while I was waiting on the Amateur show to start, and I won it eight weeks in a row.
FMF: So you got $25 each time.
AW: Each time
FMF: Not bad.
AW: Dorothy Brown came and seen me on the 8th week and asked me if I was interested in signing a contract.
FMF: What was the first record you put out for the Brown’s?
AW: The first record I put out was “Going Down to Tijuana.
FMF: I know that you got involved with Berry Gordy at Motown, and I wanted to talk about how you got involved with him.
AW: All right, that was the barber shop right next to the theater where I was getting my hair done and my barber introduced me to a guy working at Fords in the Foundry. He was a song writer. So, I went to his house and I heard some of his songs, and I gave him a card from Art from United Artists. I said tell him that Andre told you to call. That’s when he caught a deal with Marv Johnson, made “You Got What It Takes” and he hit with it. I went by where he had a studio in his house, and I said Berry, I need a job ( cause I knew then that he was on to something good). That is when he was cutting money, so he hired me. Then he fired me. Then he hired me again and fired me again, because I would not write him no short shit, you know man. I always danced to my own music; I didn’t like Berry, but I respected him.
FMF: The other Motown story I wanted you to clarify is about Stevie Wonder being a pain in the ass when you first got there.
AW: They brought Stevie in, he must of not been more than 11. He and Berry and Clarence Paul recorded a song called “Thank You Mother” and was trying to think of a name to call it. That’s when Berry said he is the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, so we come up with Wonder, and then we put the Stevie together. Once we recorded it, Stevie used to walk in, knock the piano out of tune, bust the heads of the drums, and Berry did not want him in the studio. “Don’t bring him in the studio.” But there was something about Stevie. He could pitch your voice, you know what I mean? He could mimic your voice. He called Rebecca, who was Berry’s secretary and in Berry’s voice said: “Rebecca, write out a $25,000 check for Stevie, and the comptroller wrote the check out.
FMF: Just like that?
AW: Just like that. I mean Stevie had it from day one, and then he went on to greatness. I did not see him. In fact I have not seen Stevie in some 30 years.
AW: But, you know, we never crossed paths before, but he wouldn’t admit to that. Matter of fact, he has never said it didn’t happen.
FMF: Who else did you work with at Motown besides Stevie Wonder?
AW: Mary Wells.
FMF: Mary Wells, ok, did you do the flip side of… (Andre finishes my sentence)
AW: Flip side of “My Guy”. I owed Berry so much money that I sold it.
FMF: How many times do you think you got fired by Berry Gordy?
AW: Five times.
FMF: Five times?
AW: He fired me five times
FMF: Now after you left Motown, you moved on to the Chess label?
After the second time Berry fired me, I went to One-derful Records and I hit with “Shake A Tail Feather”. Then Berry sent a telegram for me to come back, you know any time something happened good, Berry wanted to buy it, try it, or get it. So, he sent me a telegram to come back to cut the Contours because the Contours had “Do You Love Me”.
FMF: Did they ever take care of you for “Shake A Tail Feather”? Did you finally get paid for that?
AW: Do you have a month to hear that story?
FMF: I would love to sit down with you for a month.
AW: Well, I got paid for “Shake A Tail Feather”, a couple of times, but you know there was almost 15 artists that cut that song. OK, I got some money. There was some money I didn’t get. I went to court because I wrote “Shake A Tail Feather” but there was three more peoples name on it. In Chicago at the time, you could not get a record deal without giving the owner part of the song.
FMF: How about Alvin Cash and the Registers and “Twine Time”? You had originally recorded that with those guys and I wanted to hear your story about that.
AW: After I did the Contours record, and I think the Mary Wells record, I left Berry again, because I think I shot some body. I was running the management office for Berry, booking the acts and there was a guy up in Smokey’s dressing room and I shot him.
FMF: You shot him?
AW: I hit him but the gun went off. And then they got me out of jail and then I went back to One-derful and I hit with “Twine Time”. He could not say that I was writing that song with the Five Du-Tones as a backup for “Shake A Tail Feather”. The band was on tour, so I had Alvin to come in and just put the words down and it came off so good, we decided to put it out.
FMF: Did Cash back out of doing the record at the last minute?
AW: He did not back down. He was so bad that I put him on that record.
He backed down, no, no, (Laughs) Did he have a hit since?
FMF: Not as big as “Twine Time”.
This interview was conducted shortly after Wilson Pickett’s death, so the topic shifted to Pickett.
FMF: Wilson Pickett just passed away recently. Do you have any Wilson Pickett stories? Did you guys cross paths?
AW: Me and Wilson Pickett worked in Detroit for $40 a night when he was just getting into the Falcons, Remember that group?
FMF: The Falcons, yes, “I Found a Love”.
AW: Then Pickett went with Mack Rice. That is when I was the vice president at Mercury Records and Mack came to me with “Mustang Sally”. I could have got a piece of that song, but I couldn’t proposition the right people, because Mercury did not play those games. So I moved to Detroit and I recorded Sir Mack Rice on the first album.
FMF: You worked a little bit with Ike Turner, can you tell me how that came about?
AW: IkeTurner. Oh my God. I went to Houston, Texas after I had left Peacock Records and went to a show where BB King was playing. I asked BB for plane fare to go to California. I went to California and I called Ike and told him that I wrote “Shake A Tail Feather”. So Ike sent for me and he introduced me. I weighed 180 lbs. when I went there. I stayed 18 months and I left and I weighed 80 lbs.
FMF: Sounds like there was a lot going on in that time. What made you decide to get out of there?
AW: There was a lot going on. I got out because I was going to die.
FMF: That is a good enough reason for me.
AW: I would think so.
FMF: What year was that?
FMF: When you came back, did you get right back into music or did you take some time off?
AW: I did not take no time off, it took me off, I went to the gutter in ’67.
FMF: Did it stay that way until you got back with the Norton guys, later on?
AW: No, gone, gone, gone. I was pan handling on the bridge called the Randolph Street Bridge in Chicago. I pan handled there, everybody was giving me money every morning and one of the El Dorado’s who I knew, drove by and seen me and told me that a guy owned a record label and was looking for me. I went and cut that first CD and he made a deal with Norton to do the vinyl and he kept the CD. And the rest start happening.
FMF: Do you do a lot of the same recording techniques like you did back then now? Do you have any special things that you do?
AW: Same technique. I cut the track and I bring the tracks home and I come up with the words. And that is the way we did it in Motown.
FMF: Is that is the same way you do it now?
AW: Same way I do it now.
FMF: What is your opinion on sampling, and people sampling you?
AW: My opinion on sampling is, damn, I really don’t know because I have never been sampled.
FMF: I had read that Fat Boy Slim sampled you.
FMF: Fat Boy Slim the DJ. His name is Norman Cook.
AW: He never paid me
FMF: That is what I want to get to – did you ever get paid for being sampled? I heard he sampled Humpin’, Bumpin’ and Thumpin’ (on the track “Sho Nuff”).
AW: Did you hear that he paid me?
FMF: No I heard that he used it. I give you that, yes sir, but you don’t have any opinion on that at all?
AW: Well, my opinion is this: I think that they should sample me. I mean I got nine [at the time] CDs out, 300 copy rights, sooner or later they are going to sample me.
FMF: Right, but you don’t have a problem with that? A lot of artists get a little upset.
AW: I have no problem with nobody sampling me. Everybody can sample me.
FMF: I read that Red Fox gave you a nickname, Mr. Rhythm. Is that true?
AW: Yup. I was in the Navy in San Diego. I was on the destroyer, USS Compton, DD705 and I was coming ashore every weekend. I would go to the Harlem 400 Club where he was in, and me and him got tight. He gave me that name.
FMF: What year was that?
AW: That was 1954
FMF: So you guys were pretty tight friends.
AW: Yeah, we got to be friends because neither one of us were making no damn money. He was young then, I liked him and he liked me and I couldn’t sing, I still can’t sing, get that straight. ‘Cause I am not a singer, I am an entertainer and that is when Red said, you can dance and you got the rhythm, so he called me “Mr. Rhythm.”
FMF: ‘54 huh? Did you ever keep in touch over the years as his success got bigger?
AW: We never seen each other since.
FMF: I appreciate the interview Andre. I thank you. It is because of guys like you, artists like you, that put out this kind of music that allows me to do what I am passionate about.
AW: I want to help you do what you got to do.
FMF: You guys made the music.
AW: You are doing me as much favor as I can do for you – I want you to realize that.
FMF: I appreciate that, I really do . I am very passionate about this music. I hope it gets it proper dues, especially guys like you that have been in the business for so long, you know?
AW: All this helps me get some of what I deserve so I can just keep on being Andre Williams.
Andre Williams new LP, Hoods and Shades is now available through Bloodshot Records. Produced by Don Was, and featuring Dennis Coffey and members of the Dirty Three and the Dirtbombs, this full length looks to be another scorcher from Mr. Rhythm.
More info on the limited edition LP here.