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At 72, Veteran Musician Scores in a New Scene

Dressed in a cerulean three-piece suit, orange sunglasses and a feathered fedora, 72-year-old Andre Williams stands out amid the strollers and slackers at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. He might not look like the typical musician at the festival, but Williams has toiled in the music industry trenches for decades.

Raised in a Chicago housing project, Williams spent the early days of R&B, as a musical jack-of-all trades — a bandleader, producer, arranger, choreographer and songwriter. Though he was never a great singer, he cultivated a trademark blend of talk-singing.

"I just decided I'd make up stories from situations I had been in and seen, and talk 'em out, and it worked," he says.

Ben Greenman, a music writer and editor for the New Yorker, says that over the course of his career, Williams has had a hand in writing almost 300 recorded songs. But, he says, Williams is probably best known for his 1950s party tunes, spiked with double entendres.

"One of the typical things he did was talk about sex in terms of let's say — what's a good way to put it? — meats and juices," says Greenman. "And clearly these are sex songs, but I suppose at the time they allowed people to deal with it and not be censored."

Williams also scored hits co-writing Stevie Wonder's first record and the snappy dance tune, "Shake a Tail Feather," which a number of artists, including Ike and Tina Turner, went on to record.

But Williams admits that his association with Ike Turner, who once estimated he spent about $11 million on cocaine in his life, wasn't the healthiest.

"The Ike Turner scene was not a good scene for Andre Williams because everything was available," says Williams. "[Ike] made everything available and it just got me in trouble, period."

Williams kept writing songs for Parliament Funkadelic and many others, but like lots of musicians, his compositions never made him rich, and his addictions made him homeless. He begged for change on a Chicago bridge for two years.

But Williams cleaned up, and in the 1990s he was rediscovered by young white rockers, with whom he began to perform.

"I always had a 'white following,' so I decided to just develop my stories and zero in on the kids, and it worked because I don't have a black following," explains Williams.

Agile Mobile Hostile, a full-length documentary about Williams' life, screened at the SXSW film festival last week. It can be tough to watch; Williams is jailed for drug possession and evicted from his tiny apartment, and even when he's touring, he looks spent and he drinks constantly.

The film raises the question of whether Williams should still be on stage, and whether the audience's relationship to him is exploitive. But Greenman says the issue is more complicated than that.

"Exploitation's a hard thing to determine because it's given him his career back. And it's given him a way to keep making music and to make a living from making music," he says.

Late Thursday night, Williams shambled into a crowd of friends and fans at a neon-washed Austin nightclub, where he performed with the country rock band, the Sadies. He cut a record with the band a few years back; it's one of 10 albums he's recorded over the past two decades, in genres ranging from old school R&B to so-called sleaze rock.

Despite his age, Williams is definitely not ready to rest on his laurels.

"Do I want to retire? No, no, no. The answer to that is no," says Williams, who will release another album later this year. "I do not want to retire. [I'm] just gonna keep doing what I do till my body tells me you can't do it no more, Andre. And then I'll produce."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.