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Photo by Doug Coombe
Starting with his run as a singer in mid-1950s Detroit, the history of Andre Williams might well be considered the story of rhythm and blues.
Williams developed into one of the era’s finest songwriters and tale-tellers, penning plenty of lascivious classics for himself (“Shake a Tail Feather” and “Humpin’ Bumpin’ and Thumpin’”) and others (Alvin Cash’s “Twine Time”).
Lengthy associations with Motown’s Berry Gordy, P-Funk’s George Clinton and wife-beating guitar god Ike Turner dwindled into 1970s addictions. But the punk, rockabilly and garage rock revivalists, such as The Dirtbombs, embraced (and recorded with) him in the 1990s, and the 75-year-old Chicago-based Williams has been on a tear ever since, with plenty of risqué roadwork and an album almost every year, including 2012’s Hoods and Shades (Bloodshot Records).
He greases up Bassy on Saturday, May 19.
How do you feel rhythm and blues has changed in your lifetime?
Well, I think the country is getting together, and the rock ‘n’ roll is trying to get together with the rhythm and blues people. More collaboration. Absolutely.
Did music bring people together or did increased integration lead to more collaborative music?
Well, what I think is that black music had the rhythm, and white music had the stories. There were more stories in white life than in black life because in black life there were only one or two life stories: there was depression or slavery or sadness. Those were the things that black people have capitalised on, because that’s what they lived with. With the white people, there was so much variety there. They weren’t suffering the same tyranny as we were, so they could write more stories. Does that make sense?
But surely there was personal happiness in black life, as well. You don’t think that came across in the music?
No, I don’t. I don’t think that came across until the generation that I’m in now. Before we were limited in the words that we could use, because there was so much censoring going on. And there were so many things you couldn’t say. And you had to have a college degree to write a song. [Laughs.]
Is that why you’ve written so much raunchy material? To say the kinds of things you couldn’t say in public?
The answer to that is absolutely, yes. It’s not sex. It’s being able now to say what you want to say without being censored.
How did you get away with some of the stuff you recorded?
Well, you had to imply. You had to say what you wanted to say, but you had to have the hidden meaning to get it published. Okay: “Shake a Tail Feather”. If you looked at that title real good, what would you think I’m implying?
No, it’s about shaking your ass. When I say, “Bend over, let me see you shake a tail feather,” I think that says it right there.
Today, your rawness is a badge of pride.
I’m 75 years old now. And I’m not scared to show what I want to say. I will speak to what I’ve seen, even though I might change the name or location [laughs]. The pop songs, I would say that 75 percent of the pop songs are generally make-believe. They’re not the real, raw truth. I just like to tell it like it is.
What’s your process for writing the songs?
Well, I never complete one song the same day. That first thing is to write the title, the theme, where I’m going, what it’s about. Once I get the title, then I start putting the story together. Then once I put the story together, I have to get ahead of a climax. Sometimes it would take me maybe a year to write one song, and then on the other hand it might just take five minutes. I’m not a musician, so I have to try to have strong stories. And let the stories fit the mood, and the mood fit the rhythm.
It also depends on what company I’m working for, which one can reach the biggest market. If I’m writing for a small label, I’ll probably write a less complicated song. If I’m writing for a big artist or a large label, I’ll probably write a universal story. And then I got the package.
You’re a gun for hire, in a way.
Yes, now you said it. You hit it on the nail.
Do you find yourself coming back to themes that you haven’t worked out of your system yet?
Yeah, I do that all the time. I always come back to the line, “If I had’na” or “I should’ve” [laughs]. Makes sense.
When you had your difficulties in the 1970s, were you able to transform any of that into art?
Well, it was a struggle. I had less contact with my family because of my drug addiction. I wasn’t able to rationalise well. During that time, you couldn’t be too smart, and you couldn’t be too dumb. You almost had to let the record industry think that you were dumb.
What was an example of that?
Well, I think the perfect example of that was getting in the door with Tina Turner. Ike was so powerful and he was so dominating, that you had to play in his court. You had to make him be convinced that he was The Man, and then you got through. Well, at the end of the day, that had to be his conclusion, that if it wasn’t for him that couldn’t have happened. I have to give it to you in two words: you had to kiss his ass. [Laughs.]
What exactly were you doing with him and Tina?
All production. I stood in the studio 24/7. Ike was the kind of guy that would take your ideas and knock them out the way he wanted to go.
This is your third time in Berlin in four years. Do you think Europe gets you now more than America does?
Well, I think the answer to that is, Europe allows you to speak the way you feel. Even though here in America we have freedom of speech. You know, we capitalise on that. But in Europe, you don’t have to put ice cream on it. And there’s more places to go in Europe, and you can do things you can’t do in America. Like they have these stores for men where they can go in, and the doors are closed, and then you can’t tell what the hell what they’re doing in there. [Laughs.]
That probably exists everywhere in the world except Saudi Arabia.
Yeah, except for where they wear the things on their heads.
What do you think of the political situation in America right now?
I’m not unhappy with Obama, but I would rather live in Europe. But I have family here. Even though I portray myself as a very dirty man, I’m really kind of religiously bonded. You know, I mean this dirty thing was never a façade, but I’d say it’s the only way that I could make a living, having a limited education. Life is ‘contradictual’. Otherwise they never would’ve had a jet plane. There’s air sucking in and blowing out [laughs]. Make sense?
If that isn’t a song yet, it should be.
Well, it might come to me one day. I’m not done writing yet.
ANDRE WILLIAMS W/ DJ MYSTIC N. & MOHAIR SAM Sat, May 19, 21:00 | Bassy, Schönhauser Allee 176A, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelderplatz