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Published: 2012/03/17
by Brian Robbins

Andre Williams: Hoods & Shades & Craps & Life

Before there was rap, there was ultra-cool Andre Williams, rapping in his laid-back hipster style.

Williams has lived the best of times: he blew the doors off Detroit’s R&B scene in the 50s; recorded hits for Motown and Chess Records in the 60s; and wrote songs for Stevie Wonder, Ike & Tina Turner, and George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, to name just a few.

And he has lived the worst of times: with success came the lifestyle, and with the lifestyle came plenty of dope and booze. The highlife gave way to the lowlife – by the 1980s, Williams was a homeless junkie.

End of story? Naw – Williams was the real thing right from the beginning; the same grit that helped him make a name for himself in the first place drove him to clean up his act in the 90s and get back to his music. Andre Williams proved himself to be just as tough of a bastard as he sounded; he’d been down but never totally out – and now he was back. Since then Williams has managed to blur further borders: blending punk, psych, soul, funk, rock, and country while maintaining his signature soulful vocal style.

Williams’ latest album for Bloodshot Records, Hoods And Shades, finds the self-proclaimed “Black Godfather” laying down his one-of-a-kind vocals over a rootsier, more acoustic-based music than 2010’s That’s All I Need. But don’t mistake “unplugged” for “toned down” – Williams and his band are just as cool and nasty as ever.

The printed word does not do an interview with Andre Williams justice: no amount of italics or ellipses can capture his drawl, his growl, his laugh, his pauses, or his punches. But to hear that voice …

AW: Hello?

BR: Boy, that voice sure sounds like Andre …

AW: You’re absolutely right – you won! (laughter)

BR: Thanks so much for making the time to talk today, Andre.

AW: Aw, you’re perfectly welcome.

BR: You’re 75 years old. I know a little bit of your history … did you ever think you’d live to see 75?

AW: Nooooooo. (laughs) Anyone that bet on that would’ve won the lottery.

BR: I guess we’re all winners, ‘cause you’re still here, man. (laughter) I wanted to ask you about the back-to-the-roots feel of Hoods And Shades. What inspired that approach?

AW: Well, I decided, I was tired of doing the dirty stuff; I wanted to do some real Andre Williams stuff for a change. That’s what made me make up my mind to clean up my act. (laughs)

BR: Now, wait a minute – hold on … (laughter) This album ain’t exactly pure (laughter)

AW: Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not no angel. (laughs) I didn’t want it so clean that I’d go to Heaven – I just wanted to get to Murgatroyd. (laughter)

BR: Dennis Coffey and Matthew Smith were both on 2010’s That’s All I Need and they’ve returned for Hoods And Shades. [Note: Coffey and Smith both play guitar on the album, which Smith also produced.] Both of them are such great fits with your style; where did you connect with them?

AW: Well, Dennis I’ve known all the way from Motown, so that was no problem; it was just a matter of me getting in touch with Dennis at the right time. A couple of friends of mine in Detroit told me Matt was an Andre Williams fan from way back, so I called him. We just hooked up like brothers.

BR: Regardless of the differences in style between this album and the last, those two are still on either side of you. It’s a perfect fit – and a great album.

AW: Thank you. I’m getting calls from everywhere; people telling me that they really, really love this album.

BR: Most of the tunes on Hoods And Shades are either written by you or you and Dennis. Your songs tend to have two things: a lyrical hook and a great groove. When you’re writing, does one or the other usually come first?

AW: Well, you know … it’s life. I just pick up something that I’ve experienced – good or bad – and I try to put it in the Andre Williams context. I can go back to every song on this album and relate to something that went on in my life.

BR: I don’t doubt that. There are feelings in some of these tunes that may be from a long, long time ago but you sound like you’re right there when the song’s going down.

AW: You’re absolutely right.

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