Musical maverick Andre Williams has built an intriguing legacy during the past 50-plus years. He was hustling on the fringes as rhythm and blues morphed into soul, helping fuel the growth of the Detroit record industry with his early efforts on Fortune Records and off-and-on stints at Tamla/Motown, as well as rivals such as Ric Tic and Wingate. He also worked stints with Chicago labels like Mar-V-Lus/One-Der-Ful, Mercury and Checker, along with a dizzying array of independent productions in the late '60s and early '70s. But by the middle of that decade his name vanishes from its usual home on 45 labels.
The fact that Williams' work after Fortune was released through a myriad of labels and one-off deals makes a thorough career-spanning compilation a nearly impossible task; even figuring out who owns the rights to many of those masters four decades after the fact would be an accomplishment in itself. For those seeking a convenient introduction to the first half of Mr. Rhythm's career, there is an excellent import CD titled Movin' On released by Vampi Soul, also available as a double LP. It is a well-chosen selection of his solo work, though it's missing the production/songwriting side of the story.
However, the best overview of his first couple decades of music is available on a four-volume set of LPs on the mysterious (and probably illicit) "Detroit" label, which appeared in independent record store racks a few years back and can still be found with a bit of searching. Having this music all in one place more than makes up for so-so sound quality.
Featuring two volumes of Fortune material (subtitled Detroit Grease) and two pairing solo releases with songwriting/production work (Detroit Soul), these are the sort of compilations that can inspire a long-term crate digging project searching for more of the original records. The Detroit Soul volumes in particular barely scratch the surface of Williams' behind-the scenes work.
The Fortune sides display the stew of influences that have continued to emerge throughout Williams' career. Including singles released as a solo artist and with groups the Five Dollars, the Don Juans and others, there's straight doo-wop, crooners, jump R&B, weird near-novelty numbers and risque semi-spoken diatribes in the vein of the infamous "Jail Bait." The songs hold together as a piece overall, though, thanks at least in part to the primitive recording methods used at Fortune. No matter what type of weirdness is going on in the grooves it's clearly coming from the same place, one that sounds like a message from another planet -- or a planet where the recording gear doesn't necessarily work properly.
The other two volumes feature mostly work in a '60s soul groove, including the bulk of the singles released under Williams' own name. There's also a few big R&B hits here, including the original "Shake a Tail Feather" by the Five Du-Tones, the original "Mustang Sally" by Sir Mack Rice and "The Funky Judge" by Bull and the Matadors -- and the indescribable/indispensable "Lily White Mama, Jet Black Dad"/"The Prayer" single by Ray Scott, featuring Scott recasting a Redd Foxx routine detailing wished-for accidents of Gov. George Wallace in an extreme fashion.
So, where did Andre Williams go in the mid-'70s? According to the lengthy and entertaining Williams-penned liner notes available with the series, his disappearance can be attributed to the bad influence of Ike Turner, who Williams claims sent him into a tailspin. Regrouping to release a new LP in 1990 (with the help of fellow soul rebel Swamp Dogg), he went on to became a sensation in the modern garage rock scene with 1998's fabulously scabrous Silky LP, backed by Mick Collins and Dan Kroha of The Gories. Since then he's hopped around genres including traditional R&B, doo-wop, country, rap and rock, and it's always worth checking out what he's up to.