MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.
The enormous music industry party known as South by Southwest has taken over Austin, Texas. Every year thousands of musicians flock to the city for the festival.
This year, one of them is Andre Williams. Hes 72 years old and hes toiled in the trenches of the music industry for half a century.
NPRs Neda Ulaby caught up with Williams at a coffee house in downtown Austin.
NEDA ULABY: Andre Williams stands out here amid the strollers and slackers. Hes resplendent in a cerulean three-piece suit, orange sunglasses and a feathered fedora. Williams has never shied from the spotlight. He likes attention and when he got started in the music business, he says, he knew he wasnt a good singer.
Mr. ANDRE WILLIAMS (Musician): I knew I was a good liar. I would always have lied all my life. So I just decided Id just make up stories from situations that I had been in and situations that I had seen and talk them out, and it worked.
(Soundbite of song "Bacon Fat")
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) While I was down in Tennessee, all my friends was glad to see me. Seen some down by the railroad track, seen some cotton pickers with their sacks on their backs. They said, hey man...
Unidentified Group: Hey.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Were glad to see you back - we got a new dance they call the Bacon Fat.
ULABY: Williams' talk singing became his trademark.
Mr. BEN GREENMAN (Music Writer and Editor, The New Yorker): He was always a very limited singer.
ULABY: Ben Greenman is a music writer and editor with The New Yorker. He says Williams had a hand in writing almost 300 recorded songs including some hits. But, he says, Williams is probably best known for his 1950s party tunes, spiked with double entendres.
Mr. GREENMAN: One of the typical things he did was talk about sex in terms of lets say - meats and juices - so there are a lot of those kinds of songs where hell talk about chicken, pork. I mean, clearly, these are sex songs, but I suppose at the time they allowed people to deal with it and not be censored.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: Andre Williams grew up in a Chicago housing project. His mother died when he was six. During the early days of R&B, Williams was a jack-of-all-trades - a bandleader, producer, arranger, choreographer and songwriter. He bounced between labels. He was hired and fired repeatedly at Motown. There he co-wrote Stevie Wonders first record and a snappy dance tune you may have heard.
(Soundbite of song "Shake a Tail Feather")
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Twistin, shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it baby. Oh. Hey, we gonna loop de loop now. Let me shake it out baby, yeah. Hey, we gonna loop de la. Bend over let me see you shake your tail feather.
ULABY: "Shake a Tail Feather" was a hit for a couple of groups including Ike and Tina Turner. The late Ike Turner once estimated he spent about $11 million on cocaine in his life. He became a good friend of Andre Williams.
Mr. WILLIAMS: The Ike Turner scene was not a good scene for Andre Williams because everything was available, and Im the kind of guy that Ill overdo it, so when I went downhill with Ike, he just made everything available for me and it just got me in trouble, period.
ULABY: Williams kept writing songs for Parliament Funkadelic and others, but like lots of musicians, his compositions never made him rich, and his addictions made him homeless. He begged for change on a Chicago bridge for two years.
But Williams cleaned up, and in the 1990s he was rediscovered by young white rockers, with whom he began to perform.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: I always had a, quote/unquote, "white following," so I just decided to develop my stories and zero in on the kids because I dont have a, quote/unquote, "black following." All my following were foreign kids and Caucasians, which is great with me. You know, I dont have to play them ghetto joints.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: A full-length documentary about Andre Williams screened at the South by Southwest film festival last week. It can be tough to watch; Williams is jailed for drug possession and evicted from his tiny apartment. Even when hes touring, he looks spent and he drinks constantly.
The film raises the question of whether Williams should still be on stage. Ben Greenman of The New Yorker says whats going on is complicated.
Mr. GREENMAN: It seems like its more a case of young musicians finding an old guy who sort of was a case of arrested development in that regard, or whos willing to be seen that way. You know, exploitations a hard thing to determine because its given him his career back. And its given him a way to keep making music and to make a living from making music. And I suppose there might be an element of exploitation, but hes also using the audience in the same way.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Woman: Long time, no see.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
Unidentified Woman: You know, I gave you acid when we were touring the country, remember that?
ULABY: Late last night, Andre Williams shambled into a crowd of friends and fans at a neon-washed Austin nightclub.
Mr. WILLIAMS: It bubbles my insides. It bubbles my heart to know that I got this kind of support.
ULABY: He was here to perform with the country rock band, the Sadies.
Unidentified Man #2: Well, ladies and gentlemen, right now, we have a very, very special treat for the Sadies especially. Wed like to call at the stage, a very good friend of ours, I mean, its been a while since weve been able to work together, so if you would, please give a warm continental(ph) welcome to a very good friend, the godfather, Mister Andre, Mister Rhythm Blues.
Unidentified Group: Yeah.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Unidentified Man #2: Here he is right now, folks.
ULABY: Williams cut a record with the Sadies a few years back. Over the past two decades, Williams has recorded 10 albums ranging from old school R&B to so-called sleaze rock. Another one is coming out later this year.
Do you want to retire?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Do I want to retire? No, no, no. The answer to that is no. Im just going to keep doing what Im doing until my body tells me you cant do it no more, Andre, you know? And then Ill produce to kids in the studio. I dont intend to step out of music, I intend to lay down out of music - dead. But other than that I intend to participate in music as long as I live because that's all Ive ever done. That answer your question?
ULABY: Oh, it certainly does.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Austin.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: And you can watch clips from the documentary about Andre Williams life and listen to more music at npr.org/music.
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