Andre “Mr Rhythm” Williams, who had been in declining health for the past couple of years, passed away on March 17th.
In the coming days and weeks, smarter and hipper people than I will fill you in on how, if you’ve liked popular and unpopular music at any time in the past 60 years, chances are you’ve been exposed to the talents and long shadow of Andre—whether you knew it or not. As the old song goes, he’s been everywhere, man. Writer, producer, performer, hustler, chameleon, survivor, sinner, and saint; he did it all, and he did more of it than anyone you are ever likely to know. Remembrances will catalog his ups and downs, his struggles, his influence, and his legions of musical godchildren. Andre was an old school music business character who told tales large and small, undeniably true and often unabashedly bullshit, but always unmistakably Andre. He had, as the singer Kelly Hogan once called it, Andre-ance…
Like many misfits who were somehow underwhelmed by popular culture, I first came across Andre Williams via the Cramps covering “Bacon Fat.” After that, there the was the icy cool girlfriend with an album with “Greasy Chicken” and “Jail Bait.” I felt like I’d been given the keys to the cool kids basement hangout, a place that embraced and reveled in the oddballs, one-hit and no-hit wonders in rock and roll’s thrilling nether parts. Let all the others get their kicks on a sterile Happy Days nostalgia trip: THIS was the real stuff.
Fast-forward 20 years, and there I am getting a chance to record him. After putting out a single by him and the Two-Star Tabernacle (featuring a VERY young Jack White), I had the bright idea to put Andre and the fabulous Sadies in a studio in Detroit during a New Year’s Day blizzard for the Red Dirt album. It was madness. And marvelous. Snowdrifts in the corner of the studio that had been converted from a chicken slaughterhouse, unplowed streets, no food. Hell, I didn’t even mind that he called me “Rod” the whole time, and the Sadies “The Shades.” If I had a recording of the conversations that took place over the console, it would be a document of the glory days of early rock and roll so outrageous that it had to be true, even if (especially if?) it wasn’t.
After that, Andre was part of the family. He recorded with Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms, Jon Langford and Roger Knox. He’d swing by the office, resplendent in a lavender suit and bowler, charm the ladies, implore the men (embarrassingly, in our indie rock uniforms of scrubby flannels and jeans) to “keep making the cabbage,” grab a check and, just like that, head back into the world on his terms.
Andre Williams & Jon Langford
On a European tour with the Sadies around 1999, we’d been hearing stories of Andre, ahem, enjoying himself a little too much before, during and after shows. The exasperated Sadies called (an expensive call, you see, well before the internets). "Uh-oh," we thought, "time for some crisis management, or bail money, or something." But, it turns out, the Sadies (no strangers to sartorial splendor themselves), called to voice their great annoyance at how much room in the van Andre’s hatbox took up.
Behind the ever-lasting hustle, beyond the lusty growl or impish giggle after a dirty joke told in a conspiratorial aside, Andre loved music and he loved to entertain. Music was a way to connect us all. To see him connect to an audience was to see a man in his element. The smile, the knowing Andre smile. I see it now.
During downtime at a long ago recording session, Andre was telling me why one particular Hank Snow song worked better than another. His explanations were all intuitive, from the gut. “Andre," I asked, “how’d you get to know so much about country music?” I think, perhaps, it was only time I knew him that “Andre Williams” melted away and I was just talking to “Andre.” He told me that when he was kid, a young man, working in the fields, the “man on the horse” always had three things: mirrored sunglasses, a shotgun, and a transistor radio. He hated the man behind the sunglasses, he hated the gun, but he loved the country and western songs that played all day. I will never, EVER forget that. It’s a time and a place and an experience so far beyond my comprehension, yet Andre used it as a way to spend his life connecting us all with music.
Andre was so many things to so many, and there will be time, in the coming days, to celebrate, to gather with friends, to laugh, to swap stories, but right now we mourn. We’ve lost someone who it was a singular joy to call both a hero and a friend.
Rob Miller and all of us in the extended Bloodshot family.