Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues have their legions of foot soldiers — men and women who played a role in the recording, writing, producing and/or performing of great old songs but, for whatever reason, never became known outside their tight-knit world.
Yet, as the decades go by and the music retains its staying power, a surprising number attempt to step out of the shadows and create a career — however late it might seem — as a creative artist whose work matters. And they hope that, to paraphrase the title of the first track on Andre Williams’ new Bloodshot Records album That’s All I Need, their time will come.
Williams, 73, has been one of those foot soldiers. His nickname, “Mr. Rhythm,” was given to him by Redd Foxx way back in the early 1950s, when the two performed at the same club in San Diego.
Williams went on to make sometimes-salacious R&B records like “Bacon Fat,” “The Greasy Chicken,” “Jail Bait” and “Loose Juice” for independent labels, especially a classic pre-Motown Detroit company called Fortune. He also helped Motown founder Berry Gordy get his start, produced Ike Turner, did live shows with Little Willie John, managed Soul singer Edwin Starr (“Agent Double-O-Soul”) and wrote a couple of 1960s dance classics for others — “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Twine Time.”
Williams also slipped into drugs, alcohol and homelessness in the 1980s. It was a struggle to survive but he managed to do so and, starting in the mid-1990s, he began to record again on small, hipster labels with retro sensibilities, often supported by younger Rock musicians steeped in Garage Rock/R&B history, like The Dirtbombs and The Sadies.
And, slowly, Williams began to build a reputation as a performer with an expressive voice that walked the line between talking and singing, giving his songs a kind of monologue-like authenticity. He also started to finally get known for songs with a sleazy, raunchy in-your-face element, like “Can’t Take ‘Em Off” and “Pussy Stank (But So Do Marijuana).” He became the subject of a documentary and more recently published a short-story collection, Sweets, that has won praise from writer Nick Tosches.
While that leadoff track, “My Time Will Come,” on his new album addresses the future, Williams believes it has now arrived.
“ ‘My Time Will Come’ is exactly what’s happening now — my time came,” Williams says. “Now I feel like I’m in the middle of what I was struggling to accomplish. After all the people I met, all the struggles and trauma I’ve been through, the drugs and alcohol and bad experiences, I was able to come through alive and well. My time has come.”
But with this growing success has come a change. That’s All I Need, co-produced in Detroit by Williams with a tight group of seasoned Blues/Rock/Soul musicians (including Motown guitar great Dennis Coffey) isn’t as, well, nasty as some of his efforts.
In fact, at times — like on the title song, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As Good Dope,” “Amends” or “Cigarettes and My Old Lady” — Williams can wax philosophical in a streetwise, life’s-lessons-learned way. Sort of like Gil Scott-Heron with a nod to Howlin’ Wolf. He can also pack some political wallop, like his knock at the self-righteousness of the religious right on “America”: “Just because you don’t see me on Sunday/Sitting down on the front-row pew/That don’t mean I don’t like America/I like America, too/Just like you.”
Williams seems to want to make a major statement.
“You put your finger on it,” he says. “I felt this time I wanted to write about some struggles I have seen and been through. I wanted to do it for my grandkids. I wanted to give them something they can go back to and be proud to have it in their house. I wanted to leave them some substance. These songs are not fantasies; that’s why this is so different.”
That’s not to say there aren’t funny elements in this album’s songs — Williams likes humor. And it doesn’t mean he’s forsaken his past, either. He’s proud of it.
“Those are my entertaining songs,” he says of his back catalog. “Those are the songs for after I get done telling about the realistic side of life. You’ve got to slide some humor into it, and the humor is the sleaziness.”
ANDRE WILLIAMS performs in the Southgate House’s Parlour room Thursday with The Goldstars and Eric Stein. Go here for show and venue details.