Graded on a Curve: Andre Williams, “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because
of a Kiss”

Today we remember Andre Williams who passed away on March 17, with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Zephire Andre Williams has packed a lot of living into his nearly 80 years on this planet, and along the way his name has been attached to a whole lot of records. In the second half of the 1950s he cut a slew of smolderingly low-fi platters for Detroit’s Fortune label, with “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because of a Kiss” growing into a national hit. The a-side is amongst the most potent R&B of its era, and it rightfully stands as a classic.

Specifically due to its scarcity, Andre Williams’ early work was once the stuff of legend. Not just his run of singles for Fortune, but his subsequent motions for ventures of differing size and longevity such as  Wingate, Sport, Avin, Checker, and Duke. He was also noted for his role behind the scenes at Motown during the first half of the ‘60s and as a co-writer (with Otha Hayes and Verlie Rice) of “Shake a Tail Feather,” the original of which was recorded in Chicago by The Five Du-Tones for the One-derful imprint.

The waxing of that ludicrously swank monster occurred in 1963 during one of Williams’ absences from Motown. It’s now well-established that he and Berry Gordy’s relationship was a highly volatile one, and by ’65 the two men had parted ways for good. His biggest post-Motown success came at Checker, one of the numerous subsidiaries belonging to Phil and Leonard Chess. Hooking up with Ike Turner in the early-‘70s sent Williams’ life into a downward spiral, mainly due to the steady availability of copious amounts of cocaine.

And Williams’ frequent label-hopping combined with his overall lack of national hits to basically insure difficulty and neglect in the anthologizing of his discography, even after he’d made his comeback. In ’84 Fortune Records, still in business against seemingly insurmountable odds, issued the compilation Jail Bait, but by the point of his ‘90s resurgence copies of that slab were long gone.

Unsurprisingly, the eventual appearance of the ’55-’70 material commonly came through avenues of questionable legitimacy. Around 2002 Williams’ biggest chart success “Bacon Fat” turned up on the first of three CD volumes devoted to the sources of covers by The Cramps, an event that roughly coincided with the arrival of four obviously illicit LPs from an entity known only as Detroit.

Possibly more reputable names such as Regency and Soul-Tay-Shus issued comps, but they were still quite difficult to locate. One of the easier to find was the Spanish label Vampi Soul’s 2LP/CD collection Movin’ on with Andre Williams – Greasy and Explicit Soul Movers 1956-1970. In giving a strong overview of those years it only skimmed the surface of his ‘50s output.

But in a welcome turn of events, Bacon Fat: The Fortune Singles 1956-1957 is currently available on LP courtesy of Rumble Records. While the title’s chronology is off (the timeframe is correctly ’55 to ’58), the selections are spot on. It’s not everything he cut for Fortune, but it does offer a considerable and enlightening helping of Williams’ formative work.

After bouncing back from drugs and homelessness, the man’s ‘90s reemergence found him in the role of a gravel-voiced, sharply dressed, and severely sexed-up high-roller. Instigated by the good graces and bent minds of assorted garage punks from the period including The Gories, El Dorados, and A-Bones, Williams’ return as documented on Greasy and Bait and Switch for Norton Records and Silky and Black Godfather for In the Red proved to be quite a spectacle. Bluntly, the mixture of smut and distortion was not for everybody.

Back then, the stumper for many was over just how much of his late-career persona was manifest in his initial sides. The rerecording of ‘56’s “Jail Bait” on Greasy seemed to suggest that Williams’ dirty-minded inclination was ever-present. And inspecting the original does reveal it as one of the more risqué singles of its decade; it’s a tune that’s potential to unsettle hasn’t diminished over time.

But in terms of content, “Jail Bait” noticeably sticks out amongst the other Fortune cuts. This isn’t a disappointment however, for in formal terms Williams and his assorted different backing groups deliver some of the rawest R&B of the 1950s. Though it’s actually presented as a warning against inappropriate dating/mating practices (Williams could’ve made it big in Hollywood under the production code), “Jail Bait” is overtly seedy. By contrast, the majority of his other Fortune entries achieve an internalizing of the sleaze, making it implicit and therefore a little more thrilling and culturally dangerous.

This is perhaps the largest part of why “Bacon Fat,” licensed by Fortune owner Devora Brown to Epic for wider distribution, climbed all the way to #9 on the R&B charts in ’56. While much youth music from the era can’t help but sound tame today, listening to “Bacon Fat” with fresh ears still packs a gritty and primal punch. It’s quickly understandable why this music once scared and angered so many.

The song is a steamy and urgent dance number loaded with unvarnished honking and stomping, and the most effective way to move one’s body throughout its emphatic groove just happens to be more than slightly reminiscent of a certain other physical activity. While it plays I can easily envision beads of lovely perspiration forming on the suave thinness of John Waters’ mustache.

According to Williams, he realized early that he didn’t have the skill to cut it as a top-notch crooner, so instead of striving to be a second or third-rate Clyde McPhatter, he instead elected to blaze his own trail (though one deeply influenced by the great Cab Calloway.) And he came up with a speaking style of rhythmic delivery that predates the foul-mouthed smack-talk of Rudy Ray Moore and the many innovations of Rap.

Along with “Jail Bait,” “Bacon Fat” is the finest example of Williams’ individual style. But its flipside is an invitingly odd hunk of doo wop. While not quite up to the captivating standard of “The Wind” by his Fortune cohorts Nolan Strong and the Diablos, it doesn’t fall behind by much. “Just Because of a Kiss” serves as a terrific b-side.

Again, the easiest place to currently score these two nuggets on vinyl appears to be Bacon Fat: The Fortune Singles 1956-1957. And if you’re nervous the other cuts won’t live up to majesty of the title track don’t be. The LP not only includes “Jail Bait” and the similarly dance-themed “Greasy Chicken,” it also offers his terrific ’55 debut “Going Down to Tijuana,” a tune that combines doo wop, slinky guitar soloing and some Latin-esque rhythm action to maximum effect. And he was a better singer than he thought.

But Andre Williams endures as a downright diverse guy. Red Dirt, the country LP he cut with The Sadies back in ’99 for Bloodshot Records remains one of his best outings, and in ’09 he made his debut as a novelist with Sweets and Other Stories. I’ve yet to read it, but since it comes with an introduction/endorsement from ex-music scribe and longstanding litterateur Nick Tosches, it’s on my list.

For a long time Williams basically existed as a rock ‘n’ roll casualty. And for the most part his return is geared toward those who crave large doses of racket and scuzz. That’s cool. But the gutbucket junk he conjured for Fortune should knock the socks off even casual R&B fans. Those singles form the powerful first chapter in Williams’ eventful career, and after consideration “Bacon Fat” b/w “Just Because of a Kiss” is the finest of them all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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