Farewell, Zephire Andre Williams (1936-2019)

[Publisher's Note: We thank soul music historian and tastemaker Kevin Goins, for this touching tribute]

This one really hits me in the heart. A great man of music, MR. RHYTHM was his moniker. Andre is a legend in rock and soul who not only I had interviewed over the years but became an adviser and an ally through my own journey in music.

His life began in Bessemer, Alabama on November 1st, 1936. During his youth, he migrated to the Motor City, Detroit MI. Formed the Five Dollars, recorded the greeziest (yes, misspelling intentional) street-corner tracks for Jack and Devora Brown’s Fortune label during the 1950’s – “Down To Tijuana”, “Pass The Biscuits Please”, “The Greasy Chicken”, “Jail Bait” and the Top 10 R&B smash, “Bacon Fat” (he claimed the inspiration came from having a bacon sandwich for lunch while on the road – one of many tales Andre loved to spin).

[Publisher's Note: We thank soul music historian and tastemaker Kevin Goins, for this touching tribute]

This one really hits me in the heart. A great man of music, MR. RHYTHM was his moniker. Andre is a legend in rock and soul who not only I had interviewed over the years but became an adviser and an ally through my own journey in music.

His life began in Bessemer, Alabama on November 1st, 1936. During his youth, he migrated to the Motor City, Detroit MI. Formed the Five Dollars, recorded the greeziest (yes, misspelling intentional) street-corner tracks for Jack and Devora Brown’s Fortune label during the 1950’s – “Down To Tijuana”, “Pass The Biscuits Please”, “The Greasy Chicken”, “Jail Bait” and the Top 10 R&B smash, “Bacon Fat” (he claimed the inspiration came from having a bacon sandwich for lunch while on the road – one of many tales Andre loved to spin).

Then the 1960’s arrived and so did a brand new label in town, the Motown Record Corporation. Andre saw many of his friends – Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson – join the company and he did too. Problem was, the man was and remained through his life a rebel, one who marched to his own drum beat. That didn’t sit well with Berry Gordy and company – they wanted pop hits, Andre gave them no-nonsense R&B.

He mentored the Temptations, produced “Oh Mother Of Mine” and “Romance Without Finance”, encouraged members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams to write songs – only to see them get snatched by B.G. for Smokey. Then Andre wrote “Oh Little Boy” for Mary Wells, Motown’s tough-as-nails quality control meetings gave it the thumbs up, only to be blasted away by Smokey’s production of “My Guy”. Yes, Andre got the b-side of that single and some royalty money but had enough. Bags packed, he was Chicago bound.

Arrived at the Leaner Brothers’ operation and quickly, Andre cranked out the hits – authoring “Shake A Tail Feather” and “Twine Time”. Soon, Mary Wells – with 20th Century Fox Records contract in hand - showed up needing a smash and Andre produced her last Top 40 Pop hit, “Use Your Head”. The Mercury label offered Andre an executive job in the Blue Rock subsidiary and he green-lit the release of the original “Mustang Sally”: by its author, Mack Rice.

But, the restlessness soon got the best of Williams - the office job at Mercury bored him. Andre returned to Detroit to work for Ed Wingate, Gordy’s numero uno nemesis and owner of Ric-Tic Records. Produced and wrote “Inky-Winky-Rang-Dang-Doo” for the teenage Dramatics as well as cutting his own tracks, “You Got It – I Want It” and “Sweet Little Pussycat”.

After Wingate sold the last of his company to Motown, Andre took the Dramatics to Andrew Harris’ Sport Records, where they cut the double-sided single, “It’s All Because Of You” and “If You Haven’t Got Love” (the latter featured in the movie, “Detroit”). He cut a reboot of “Bacon Fat” called “The Pearl” for Sport as well.

Andre expanded his network of productions – recording for Chess Records in Chicago (“Cadillac Jack”, “Humpin’ Bumpin & Thumpin’”), manning the boards for Don Robey’s Duke-Peacock operation in Houston (where he’d produce Bobby Blue Bland’s “Chains Of Love” and The Masters Of Soul’s “I Hate You In The Day Time [But Love You At Night]). Then there were the party jams – “Rib Tips”, “Pig Snoots” – and the disco/funk of the Velvet Hammer recordings.

However, by the mid 1970’s, the recording industry had become a corporate landscape – Chess was bought out by GRT, Robey sold his labels to ABC-Dunhill. The indies that welcomed Andre’s works were gone and the majors had no time for a restless rock and soul Paladin with tapes in hand and wanting a seat at the winners’ table. Andre’s life slid into poverty and addictions were battled.

Then came the 1990’s and a rediscovery thanks in part to recordings Andre made for the Bloodshot label, expanding into country, punk and going back to his R&B roots. A new generation found him and the man went touring around the world. It was during this time he and I crossed paths.

I was working with Tuff City Records in 1998 when they assigned me the job of writing the liner notes for a reissue of Andre’s works. Days later, Mr. Williams walks into the office, wearing a white fedora, white overcoat, white suit…and this was WINTER. He and agreed to a day and a time that week.

With tape machine in hand and at least four blank cassettes, I met up with Andre is a run-down funky hotel in lower Manhattan. The man smoked more cigarettes in one night than I’d seen my own Dad light up in a week! He ran down his life and career for me, lot of facts with his own spins tossed in for good measure.

After he gave me his tales from the Brother Williams, I looked at him and simply asked, “Andre, with all that has happened and those whom you’ve said held you back, don’t you think that maybe you’d brought some of this onto yourself?” He gave me this look of WTMF did you ask me, then looked down and said, “Kev, I left home as a teenager, had to make my own way in life. Didn’t have a family foundation like a lot of folks and yeah, I f---ked up a lot. Maybe it’s time I stop blaming others for my misfortunes and take responsibility of my life.”

For the next few years, off and on, we stayed in touch. Andre welcomed me into his home for meals he prepared (dang, the fried chicken, green beans, corn and potatoes…) and he often stopped by the label’s offices. When I decided to form my own consultancy, Andre encouraged me all the way (“You’re much too smart, talented and gifted to be answering to a boss. Go for yours, Kev. You’re ready”). The last time we’d spoken was for liner notes I’d authored for a reissue of Mary Wells’ 20th Century Fox works in 2012. This time, Andre’s tone about Motown had mellowed and expressed to me his feeling that Mary leaving the label was a huge mistake.

On March 17th, 2019, Zephire Andre Williams made his ascension above the clouds at the age of 82 after a long battle with colon cancer.

To my friend and probably the funkiest rock and soul man I’d ever met in my life, thank you for your works, your music, your gifts, your raspy voice that will never leave my ears or head and for your encouraging words of wisdom. I will miss you dearly, Andre.

ZEPHIRE ANDRE WILLIAMS 
November 1, 1936 - March 17, 2019

 
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