Andre Williams w/ Barrence Whitfield & the Savages and Bronson Rock. $15. 9 p.m., Dec. 1. Cafe Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, cafenine.com.
As of November 1, Andre Williams has officially spent 76 years on Earth, and that cautionary proverb about idle hands being the devil's playground still very much figures into his life. The Chicago-based singer/guitarist born Zephire Andre Williams has always had a knack for getting himself in trouble, so boredom (which he's seen a lot of while not on tour) does him no favors. In 2012, the old-school R&B and rock 'n' roll musician has been involved in the release of four records — two which are Bloodshot Records' Hoods and Shades and Alive Naturalsound Records' Life — and all this positivity is making him uneasy. “Things are going so well for me now. Generally, by this time, something traumatic would have happened, but it hasn't, and that's scary. In other words, it's just like going down a highway that I know nothing about at really high speed and I don't know the curves,” Williams says, speaking in a venerable, worn voice that belies the mischievousness that's a fixture of his work. “Nothing stays certain. I have to take everything a day at a time. My planning is awful.”
Williams' history in the music biz certainly has been a long and tangled affair. The 50-years-plus of the Alabama-born Williams' career as a songwriter and musician has taken him through the classic R&B/doo-wop labels Fortune Records and Chess Records, and connected him to music biz notables like Stevie Wonder (Williams co-wrote “Thank You (For Loving Me All the Way)” for him back when Wonder had “Little” in his name), Tina and Ike Turner (the pair recorded a version of “Shake a Tail Feather,” another tune Williams co-wrote), and producer/Motown founder Berry Gordy (Williams prides himself as being instrumental in jumpstarting Gordy's career). Along the way, Williams earned the nickname Mr. Rhythm from comedian Redd Foxx while recording his own hooky rock/funk tunes like “Cadillac Jake” and “Bacon Fat.” After the 1970s, Williams spent several years in obscurity, letting the typical rock 'n' roll vices of narcotics, booze and sex dominate his life. His name began gaining steam again in the late 1990s, and he's been exceptionally prolific over the last decade. In 2008, Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies released Agile Mobile Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams, a documentary focusing on his life as a down-and-out, little-known name riding the outskirts of the industry.
He's in a good place now. In answering a question about whether he still does any drugs nowadays, he repeats “No” over a dozen times. Sex has become a low priority for him, too, he says. Now, he cares more about taking care of his grandkids and minding what others think about him. The grandfatherly side of Williams is beginning to show — quite the contrast to what built his name in the first place.
A good part of what makes Williams such a fascinating character is that he's made it this far as a solo performer with a limited repertoire of concepts. By his own admission, he's not a very good singer (his voice has a talky quality), but he still finds something to prize in it. “There's something good about everything. If I'm not the best singer, then I want to be the best of the worst,” he says, laughing.
His music repeatedly engages lowbrow situations, ideas and characters — underage girls, cheap eats, blaxpoitation culture — with great glee and energy. “Sleazy” has been applied to him by journalists time and time again — almost always as a compliment — but he's skeptical of its use. “Sleazy is just a word. It has no meaning. It can be so provocative and so negative or it could be so positive. Sleaze sells and then some sleaze ain't sell, so the word sleazy don't impress me,” he says. “This is a sleazy market, this is a sleazy business, so if you can't get in the front door, then you have to go through the window.”
Though the hard luck, fringe-clinging quality of Williams' story and song subjects evoke the ramshackle grit of the blues — not to mention his actual music itself — he has no interest in identifying with that genre. “I don't try to come off as a blues artist. The blues is hardship. To me, I try to be more like a storyteller and [relay] something that I've seen, something that I observed or something that I feel, and that don't necessarily come under the category of blues. Sometimes, things are bright and happy, and you can't be a blues singer and sing a happy song,” he says with a giggle. “I don't think. Do you know one?”