The independent music business of the 1950s could made the Wild West look like afternoon tea at the DAR, so it’s no surprise it was populated by a small army of artists whose behavior had to be constantly weighed against their music.
Little Richard, anyone?
In the end, their music tends to outlast their stories, which is probably good — except the stories are pretty good too, in a crazy way.
That includes the story of Andre Williams, who died Sunday from colon cancer at the age of 82. He leaves a trail of tales, not all completely resolved and not all remembered fondly, but all of which do reflect the music business in which he spent much of his life.
He also left two of the most untethered records from the early years of rock ’n’ roll: “Jail Bait,” which he recorded in 1957 for Fortune Records, and “Shake a Tail Feather,” which he co-wrote for the Five Du-Tones in 1963.
“Jail Bait,” which like most of Williams’s own records was narrated more than sung, tells the chilling tale of a man who was unable to resist a girl below the legal age of consent.
He pleads with the judge, swearing he’ll never again look at a woman under the age of 42. It avails him naught, and all he can do is pass along his hard-earned wisdom:
“And now that it’s too late / As you look out from cell number 8 / I tried to tell you, mate / Seventeen and a half is still jail bait.”
Jail bait was an occasional theme in rhythm and blues records of the 1950s — “Young Blood” by the Coasters, “That Chick’s Too Young To Fry” by the Prisonaires — but no one made it quite as stark and raw as Andre Williams.
“Shake a Tail Feather” was a dance record that required the dancers to move at the speed of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Equally or more noteworthy, it involved howling on a level seldom replicated this side of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Andre Williams was born in Alabama, a few days before Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his second term, and moved to Chicago when he was 7. He mostly lived with strictly religious grandparents who sent him to church seven days a week, so it’s unsurprising his first music gig was singing in the church choir.
Years later, after building a career on songs that would never be heard in any church, he produced gospel recordings for Don Robey’s Duke and Peacock labels.
“I never went back to gospel music myself,” he said in a 1996 interview. “But I always had a hand in the music. I was mindful of a gospel song. I always knew where blessings came from.”
His primary exposure to secular music in his early years came from the radios played by the white folks for whom he worked. That meant a lot of country.
“I had a heavy C&W influence,” he said, pointing to the likes of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. What he liked most about country music, he said, “is that it told stories. There were lots of stories in country songs.”
When he finally started hearing jazz, blues and the embryonic R&B, he was drawn to the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” not only told a story, but suggested food wasn’t a bad hook for a song. He’d employ both lessons in future years.
As Williams approached 16 — “young, arrogant and foolish,” as he would later summarize his teenage self — he joined a Chicago vocal group that recorded for the United and Theron labels as the Sheppards. Williams was the entertainer in the group, the one who did flashy stuff on stage.
The Sheppards’s several records, while prized among collectors, sold poorly, and Williams decided to move to Detroit, sensing more fertile ground there for the music career he knew he was destined to have.
“The Chicago sound and the Detroit sound were distinctly different,” he said in 1996. “There were more love songs in Chicago. It was like blue lights in the middle of the ceiling.
“I couldn’t have done what the Dells or Curtis Mayfield were doing. And I didn’t want to be a backup singer. So I had to get to Detroit, because there was no place in Chicago for someone to become as big as I was going to be.”
Before his Detroit career could get started, he briefly served in the military, a step aborted when the Army learned he was underage. Once that was over, he proceeded with a bit of musical reinvention.
“I knew I was never going to be able to sing like the tenors who were popular then, Clyde McPhatter or Nolan Strong,” he said. “So I developed my own style.”
Which was, basically, rhythmic talking, the kind Rex Harrison did in My Fair Lady and that, 30 years later, rappers would start doing everywhere.
“I definitely hear my music in rap,” he said. “It’s a heady feeling when you realize you’re part of shaping new music.”
In Detroit he won a $25 amateur singing contest for eight consecutive weeks at the Warfield Theater, bringing him to the attention of Jack and Devora Brown, who owned Fortune Records.
Fortune was a wonderful Detroit label that produced exceptional music. Its star R&B act was the Diablos, on whose lead singer Nolan Strong the young Smokey Robinson went to school.
Fortune also reflected all the quirks of its owners.
“We were like a family,” said Williams. “A dysfunctional family. We were directed by the blind — two people who were very eccentric.
And who liked everything homegrown.
“We recorded in the back room, a stock room,” Williams recalled. “Our sound insulation was stacks of record boxes.”
Artists like Strong and Joe Weaver would come in every day. Everyone knew each other, which is how Williams fell into two Fortune groups, the 5 Dollars and the Don Juans.
As Williams told it, he ran both groups. He formed the Don Juans, he said, because his brother-in-law Eddie Hurt sang lead on 5 Dollars songs, and Williams wanted a group where he could sing lead himself.
Other members of those groups have different memories than Williams about how the groups ran — some of those discussions can be found on the fine vocal group website www.uncamarvy.com, run by Marv Goldberg — but however it happened, both cut a number of records in 1956 and 1957, including the food-inspired dance tune “How to Do the Bacon Fat.”
When “Bacon Fat” started to get some attention, the Browns — who had neither the facilities nor budget to promote a record on a national scale –leased it to Epic Records, where it became a top-10 R&B hit.
Forty years later, Williams remained convinced that “Jail Bait,” released on Fortune the next year, could have been even bigger.
“Epic wanted it,” he said. “It could have gone national and made me a star. But the Browns wouldn’t let it go.”
Soon thereafter, Williams left Fortune, though his memories 40 years later were charitable.
“At the end of the deal, Fortune was one of the precious old companies,” he said. “Their music was valuable.”
Williams’s own next step wasn’t the one he’d hoped for.
“The music was changing,” he said. “My time passed. By the early ’60s I was in a tailspin. No hits. No crowds. I was forgotten.”
Fortunately, he had a plan B: writing and producing for other artists. He put an ambitious young entrepreneur named Berry Gordy in touch with Art Talmadge of United Artists Records, which led to Gordy putting out his first-ever record, Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” on the new Tamla label.
“Berry never forgot that,” Williams said, and Gordy hired Williams to write and produce for the fledgling Tamla-Motown complex.
Williams estimates he wrote about 65 songs for Motown. He produced Stevie Wonder’s first record as well as early records for the Supremes (“back when they were singing things like ‘Buttered Popcorn’ ”), the Contours, Mary Wells and the Temptations.
But Williams admitted he chafed at working for anyone else, “which is the same reason I turned down an offer to go back to Chicago and sing with the El Dorados — I didn’t want to be a backup.”
Gordy, he said, “fired me six or seven times. Then he’d hire me back and fire me again.”
After he left for the last time, Williams worked with a variety of artists for the next 15 years, mostly on small labels and without any major hits. He credited one of his better-known artists, Ike Turner, with bequeathing him a serious cocaine habit. By the 1980s Williams was addicted and homeless, panhandling for money by the El in Chicago.
He cleaned up in the 1990s, recording a couple of new records, finding a new audience and going out on tour. That wasn’t the end of the drugs, though. A decade later he was in and out of rehab again, now singing with a variety of artists from country to rap and punk. He converted to Judaism.
Regrets? Hard to say. In 1996, he said he regretted that the Browns had never tried to go national with Fortune Records — and, by implication, taken Williams with them.
“They could have done what Berry did a few years later,” he said, because they had that kind of ear for talent. “But they wanted to keep all the control.”
Williams was voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2012. That same year, he wrote a sort of verse/song called “Blame It On Obama,” gently chiding those who would blame the then-president for everything.
Williams recorded a video in which he recites the song while sitting next to a water fountain.
He looks like a senior citizen. There’s a wistful weariness in his expression and when he rises at the end, he moves slowly. But he clearly values appearance, pride and dignity. He wears a grey suit and an old-school hat, and the song closes with his hope for a world where people feel less need to lay blame.
It’s a song wrapped around a story, naturally, and while it’s a long way from “Jail Bait,” Andre Williams knew long journeys.