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FEATURE -- Interview with Andre Williams

 Chicago music legend Andre Williams to perform free show at Millennium Park May 30

Andre Williams

Andre Williams at Chicago Blues Fest 2010

 photo: Jennifer Wheeler

by Eric Schelkopf

Chicago singer-songwriter-producer Andre Williams is a musician for the ages.


Over the years, Williams has worked with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Ike Turner to Parliament/Funkadelic.


At age 74, he continues to blaze a trail. Last year, Williams released That's All I Need on Chicago-based Bloodshot Records featuring several current Detroit bands like the Sights and Electric Six along with legendary guitarist Dennis Coffey, a member of Motown house band the Funk Brothers.


Williams will provide a musical lift to the Memorial Day holiday when he performs a free show at 6:30 p.m. May 30 at Millennium Park in Chicago. Justin Townes Earle also is on the bill.


He is the man behind "Shake A Tail Feather"" and his songs have also been embraced by today's generations of musicians. His song "Bacon Fat" was covered by punk band the Cramps and others.


I had the honor of talking to Williams about his illustrious career.


Q - Which do you like better, performing at festivals or in clubs?


Well, I like the outside shows because generally there's more people at them. But the inside shows are a little more intimate.


Q - What should people expect at the Millennium Park show? Are you going to be doing songs from your whole career?


I know we are going to do two or three songs from the old rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues stuff. Then we're going to do a few from the real raw rock stuff, and then maybe a couple from the recent stuff.


Q - So you like to mix it up for people?


Oh yeah. First of all, I never claimed to be a fantastic singer or vocalist. My strategy is just to be a good entertainer.


And in order to do that, I have to do a little of it all.


Q - You went back to Detroit to make the album "That's All I Need." How was that experience?


It was fantastic. Especially with Dennis. He brought back some of the memories of Motown for me.


Andre Williams
Andre Williams, Chicago Blues Fest 2010
 Photo: Jennifer Wheeler


Q - The Motown scene created such great music. Was it a better music scene than today?


That's a very good question. I wouldn't call it better. I would say the scene today is just as good, but it doesn't have as much glue.


The hit songs nowadays don't hang around very long. It doesn't give you a chance to really tour the songs out.


Before, in the rhythm and blues days, you could go two years and still be hot with the same song. But now, if you get a hit and don't jump right on it, in six months, you're almost like a brand new artist.


Q - The songs from that time seem to have a lasting appeal.


There you go. They were more wordy, and the stories had more depth. Now the stories are quick. It's that quick knock-out punch.


Q - You wrote the song "Shake A Tail Feather."A lot of artists have covered the song, including Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner. Do you have a favorite cover?


I think I like Ike and Tina's the best. 


Q - What do you think they brought to it?


Energy. Where Ray Charles brought more feeling to it. It had pain in it. But on Ike and Tina Turner's album, it had the "OK, let's get it on feeling."


Q - What was your inspiration in writing that song?

 Andre Williams' go-go girl

OK, since you asked that question, I knew there had to be a way to say, "Come on, and shake your ass." 


At that time, there was a lot of censorship. So I had to say, "Shake your tail," and then I put the feather in it to clean it up.


Andre Williams' go-go girl/photo: Michael Kurgansky


Q - Yeah, I like Ike and Tina's version because it makes you want to get up and dance.


Yes, exactly. And Ray Charles' version makes you want to listen.


Q - In 1998, you came out with the album, "Silky." Some people called it the world's sleaziest album ever. What do you think of that description?


"Silky" came out during a period in my life where I was doing everything wrong. Whatever you could figure that was wrong, Andre was doing it. 


It wasn't hard to make "Silky" because I was in that sleazy way of life. I was doing everything sick, dirty, unacceptable. 


But sometimes that type of situation sells. It wasn't because I was trying to figure out the market. It was just that I was being Andre, and I was in a real dirty stage in my life.


Q - You made that album with members of garage punk bands Demolition Doll Rods and the Dirtbombs. It seems like everyone wants to work with you, from all these different genres of music. Why do you think that is?


Well, that's another good question. I think it's because I try to bring something to the table that all musicians want to put in their medicine bag.


When you're traveling, you want to make sure you've got the aspirins, or make sure you've got the comb or the brush. That's what it is.


It's needed to complete the entire makeup of an artist. I think that's what they appreciate. Some of the people have to struggle to get it, and some get lucky enough to get the experience from Andre, who has already been doing it.


Q - You've worked with so many people, including Parliament/Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder and Ike Turner, of course. Have you had any favorite projects or favorite people you've worked with?


I've tried not to put any one of those artists better than the other one. I've have always seen all of those artists as artists who really wanted to succeed.


You can tell in an artist if he's there for the play or there for the pay. So when I see an artist who is there for the stay, that's when things work for Andre.


Q - When you first started out, you wrote "Bacon Fat," which hit  #9 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1957 and then they sold the song to Epic Records. Did you think the song would have been such a hit, that people would connect to it so much?


Well, I didn't know. But I knew that somewhere in the scheme of things, that there was a market for Andre Williams.


I knew I couldn't be Jackie Wilson. I knew I couldn't be Smokey Robinson. I had to just tell it, instead of trying to sing it. And it worked.


Q - Why do you think it does work?


Because people want to know the truth. If you can entertain them and lay it out there, it's more digestible.


Q - You're 74 years young.


Seventy-four. I never would have believed it. I didn't think I would see that number. No way.


Q - Do you have any life lessons?


My advice is don't be afraid to try. If you can see it, you can reach it.


But if you are too scared to try, it's not going to happen. Don't be afraid to get up out of the bed.


Some people won't get up at the moment because they know what's going to happen, or at least they think they know. So they say, "I might as well stay in bed because nothing is going to happen good anyway."


That's the wrong way. Get up, make up your bed, put on your shoes and start walking.


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