remembering andre williams, the black godfather

March 19, 2019

The singer and songwriter Andre Williams, who passed away over the weekend, may never have been a household name, but in 2019, the fruits of his creative labors are all around us. The infamously raunchy R&B singer, band leader, and producer is probably best known as the co-author of Stevie Wonder’s first single, “Thank You For Loving Me,” and of “Shake A Tail Feather,” which was famously covered by Ike & Tina Turner, as well as Ray Charles in The Blues Brothers. But his most lasting legacy is as “The Godfather of Rap,” for the proto hip-hop vocal style he developed early in his career.

Born Zephire Andre Williams in rural Alabama in 1936, Williams served as something of a one-man bridge between the worlds of punk, hip-hop, and soul. The Cramps introduced a generation of punks to his music with their legendary cover of his 1956 hit “Bacon Fat,” while Williams himself returned the favor later in his career, collaborating with Detroit garage-punk mainstays The Dirtbombs on his fittingly titled Black Godfather record, and touring with Green Hornet.

Throughout the 1960’s, Williams made a name for himself as the man behind some of R&B and soul’s biggest names. He wrote for Motown and Chess, worked as Edwin Starr’s road manager, all the while maintaining a staggering solo musical output. By the 1980’s, addiction had taken its toll, and Williams found himself in and out of homelessness. In 1996, however he mounted a comeback, reworking some of his early singles for the album, Mr Rhythm. Where many artists revisit their early careers to clean up songs and drain the life out of them, Williams took a harder approach. His later career recordings take the legendarily wry sense of humor of his early work and inject them with a rare intensity and passion.

Williams continued recording and performing regularly — collaborating with country-punk act The Sadies, with hip-hop producer Kerry Moncreace, some band called The Red Hot Chili Peppers, indie legends Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and New Orleans alt-rockers Morning 40 Federation. He released his final record I Wanna Go Back To Detroit City in 2016.

Williams died suddenly on March 17th, after a two-week battle with colon cancer. He was 82. Today, his influence is spread far and wide through the music world. Whether they know it or not, there are few artists working today who don’t owe Andre Williams a debt of gratitude. So let’s have no moment of silence, instead let’s all turn it up loud in memory of the one and only Black Godfather.