Turn it Down: A look back at the soulful sound of Andre Williams

Detroit’s proto-rapper refused to follow trends

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Going back to 1950s Detroit, there was only one R&B singer known for a “talking” style of singing, and that’s Andre Williams— aka “the Godfather of Rap.”

That relaxed lyrical delivery, perfected by Williams on edgy tracks like 1957’s “Jail Bait,” is undeniably proto-hip-hop. Decades before the onset of rap, he was rhyming his way through a series of unconventional dance hits like “Bacon Fat,” “Greasy Chicken” and “Pass the Biscuits Please.”

Born Zephire Andre Williams on Nov. 1, 1936, the dynamic singer/songwriter was born in Alabama, but at age 16 ventured north and landed in Detroit. By 1955, he took over as lead singer of The 5 Dollars, a budding Motor City-based doo-wop group. After a few wild performances at the Warfield Theater on Hastings Street, the emerging outfit signed to Fortune Records, a gritty mom-n-pop label, and the rest is history.

After a series of regional R&B hits, in 1956, Williams got a boost after Epic Records, a major label, picked up the “Bacon Fat” 45 rpm and distributed it nationally. This led to a boost in sales and packed shows across the country—but also attention from the higher-profile Motown Records.

In 1961, Williams left Fortune and began a five-year stint at the rapidly growing Motown, where he worked as mainly a producer and writer for the label’s roster of talent. In fact, he was only scheduled for one single of his own, “Rosa Lee” b/w “Shoo Ooo,” but it was never issued. Still, he remained productive. William co-wrote “Thank You For Loving Me,” Stevie Wonder’s first record. He also penned tracks for other Motown legends like Mary Wells (“Oh Little Boy What You Do to Me”), Eddie Holland (“If Cleopatra Took a Chance”) and Marvin Gaye (“Mojo Hannah”). He also oversaw the production of two LPs by The Contours and managed Edwin Starr.

In 1963, he co-wrote his most commercially success track, “Shake a Tail Feather.” It was a hit for the Five Du-Tones, who reached No. 28 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart and No. 51 on the Hot 100 chart with their rendition of the energetic party starter. Over the years, it’s been covered by a string of other big names, most notably: Ike & Tina Turner, Bobby Purify, Ray Charles, The Kingsmen, The Romantics and The Monkees. More recently, pop acts like Hanson and The Cheetah Girls have also put their stamp on the ’60s classic.

After his exit from Motown, Williams signed with Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records, Chicago’s legendary blues label. There, he cut 1968’s “Cadillac Jack,” which climbed to No. 46 on Billboard’s R&B chart. The slick, bluesy single would ultimately be his second and last appearance on the mainstream charts.

From there, he recorded for a series of smaller labels, including a pile of now-classic underground tracks like “Sweet Little Pussy Cat,” “Rib Tips, Pts. 1 & 2” and “Pig Snoots Pts. 1 & 2.” Aside from issuing novelty singles, at the onset of the ’70s he also spent time writing songs for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and producing tunes with Ike Turner. 

However, as the 1970s wound down, Williams’ battle with drug addiction led him to many years of extreme poverty. Eventually, the acclaimed songwriter was homeless on the streets of Chicago. 

Luckily, by the 1990s, a few different record labels signed Williams and helped him revamp his life and career. After Norton Records dropped his “Greasy” LP in 1996 and then In the Red Records followed with 1998’s “Silky,” the R&B legend embarked on multiple world tours and scored a new, young fanbase along the way. From there, he recorded yet another stack of raw R&B LPs and singles. His long, bizarre career was then chronicled in “Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year in the Life of Andre Williams,” a 2008 documentary film—it’s worth a watch for any Michigan music lover.

Williams, 82, died March 17, 2019, in Chicago. Fittingly, his final studio album (released in 2016) was titled “I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City” — a nod to the city the first that welcomed his peerless brand of soulful music.

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