Andre Williams is a true original. Certainly a unique figure in the world of R&B, and more specifically “uncategorisable, crazy, quasi-comedy R&B”, he has seemingly spent his entire musical career marching to the beat of his own drum. Possibly mad, certainly inspired, only loosely tethered to the Earth as he bounces around somewhere up in the atmosphere, he inhabits some sort of orbit slightly beyond the norm, though not so far out as to be a pioneering figure peddling unlistenable experimentation; he’s somewhere between “slightly unexpected” and “punchably zany”.
(I’m talking about him in the present tense because, at the time of writing (December 2009), he’s still apparently going strong, touring and releasing new records at 73, his working pace seemingly undimmed by his advancing age.)
He was also arguably the first Motown signing to have enjoyed real, tangible commercial success before joining Berry Gordy’s empire, and as such represented something of a coup for the company. Williams had already been in the music business for several years, and was well-known in Detroit as a “character”, having a Top 10 R&B hit in 1957 with one of the most extraordinary hit records of that decade, the splendidly-titled Bacon Fat, on Epic, no less.
(It’s even conceivable that Berry Gordy might not even have had an empire if it weren’t for Andre Williams; according to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1, Williams, who shared the same barber with Gordy, met him while getting a haircut and offered to introduce Gordy to some of his major-label contacts, including his friend at United Artists, thereby leading directly to the deal to buy out the contracts of Marv Johnson and Eddie Holland and get Gordy some steady production work there, thus securing the financial future of the nascent label. Even though Motown never released a barbershop record, that’s not to say barber shops didn’t play a part in the story; indeed, the Elgins were also later paired with Holland-Dozier-Holland following a chance mid-haircut encounter. But I digress).
Anyway. Bacon Fat is a fantastic record. Williams – who freely admits he’s never been able to sing – instead adopted a kind of half-singing half-talking Deep South drawl, and cut a record with an insistent, minimal, dirty groove, somehow contriving to make what is unmistakeably a dance record but with a lurching tempo that averages out somewhere around 60bpm.
(This is where I’d normally have put a Youtube link so you could have a listen to that, but it seems that Youtube, normally so reliable in such matters, has well and truly failed me with coverage of Bacon Fat (well, there is this one, but it doesn’t seem to work properly), instead providing lots of videos of idiots eating actual bacon fat, and so you’ll have to search for it yourselves by other means. Sorry.)
But the success of Bacon Fat was nearly four years in the past by the time Andre rocked up at Motown, and he’d not been able to replicate its commercial appeal. Not for lack of trying; he’d been releasing a series of ever-stranger follow-ups, including Pass The Biscuits Please – which is three and a half minutes of a mumbling, increasingly impatient Williams requesting someone pass him the titular biscuits – and the self-explanatory Jail Bait, which could have got him arrested. These records failed to chart, for some unfathomable reason, and Williams lost his Epic deal.
By the time he got signed to Motown in 1961, he’d recently been spending his time recording with a good pal, the affable raw-throated singer and silly voice specialist Geno Purifoy, a.k.a. Gino Parks. The two of them cut a genuinely bizarre duet together, a sort of retread of Bacon Fat, entirely reasonably called The Greasy Chicken.
Williams and Parks were signed up to Motown together, but they were broken up almost immediately thereafter. Parks was assigned to a new Coasters-esque group, “Hank, Gino & Bob”, who were airbrushed out of history before they even got a record in the shops (their one and only single, Blibberin’ Blabbin’ Blues, was credited to Parks solo).
Williams, though, proved a tougher call to find work for. He would later become a respected producer and occasional songwriter with the company, co-producing the Temptations’ debut single among many other brushes with history, before moving on in the mid-Sixties – but his Motown tenure as a performer was much less impressive. He only managed to convince Motown to release this one solitary single featuring him as an artist, a low-profile release on the company’s near-invisible Miracle imprint.
All of which makes it sound as though this, Andre Williams’ one and only Motown single, should be fantastic, or at least fascinating. Crushingly, it’s neither. In fact, after going through the, er, “highlights” of Williams’ extraordinary, eccentric career thus far, it barely seems worth talking about this record at all.
Given a different (better) choice of material, Andre Williams’ first single for Motown might have been a quirky hit, or at least a baffling oddity to confuse and delight collectors in future years. Instead, Williams – co-writing with Mickey Stevenson, Motown’s latest and most promising songwriting talent – serves up a dismal rockabilly/R&B crossover, a would-be pop hit which sounds limp, goes nowhere, fails to raise the faintest chuckle and sounds almost nothing like the lewd, louche, drawling Andre Williams showcased on Bacon Fat the public had come to know and sort-of-tolerate (“love” would be pushing it).
No, this one is a real disappointment. It’s an uptempo number in which Williams exhorts the eponymous Rosa Lee not to stay out too late; it sounds like he wants to slip a double entendre or two in there somewhere, but if he does they’re very surreptitious, because this sounds straight and flat, and not in the least bit scandalous or salacious. It could have been sung by pretty much anybody, which makes you wonder just what the point of getting Andre Williams in to record it was. It’s like hearing Little Richard do a note-for-note, totally faithful cover of Living Doll or something.
It’s played and sung without energy or enthusiasm; the band sound ill at ease doing this rockabilly semi-country schtick, turning in a rote performance full of competent twanging guitar solos and faintly boring bass plucking, and Williams spends the entire song singing – way outside his range, too, he wasn’t lying about not being able to sing – and much of his vocal is unintelligible and sounds rushed. A total waste.
Unsurprisingly, and keeping up a hitless streak of four straight duds for the Miracle label, the single bombed. Perhaps if Motown hadn’t gone to the trouble of signing up Andre Williams, and then releasing a single that sounds nothing like an Andre Williams record, they might have had more luck. The song did take on a further life of its own when it was covered by white artist Johnny Powers, an associate of Motown producer Clarence Paul.
But everyone involved laid an egg with this release, which is a shame because Williams wasn’t anywhere near done creatively. He had several good years with Motown on the writing and production side, repeatedly clashing with management and rubbing Berry Gordy up the wrong way in the process, before eventually wandering off after one disagreement too many. He spent the late Sixties in numerous roles, working as a roadie for Edwin Starr and writing and producing for artists as diverse as Ike Turner and Parliament/Funkadelic; he also found time to further his own solo career, continuing to both tour and record, releasing a series of increasingly scandalous and/or bizarre records (sample titles: Humpin’ Bumpin’ And Thumpin’, Let Me Put It In, I Want To Be Your Favorite Pair Of Pajamas). He’s no novelty turn, though, putting his all into his work as much as ever. He’s still capable of bringing it right now, in fact.
But this was the end of Andre Williams, Motown artist, and however ridiculous and uncommercial his body of work now stands, I can’t help but feel that’s a bit of a shame.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“I’m So Sorry”