Matt Smith walks us through Andre Williams’ new album ‘I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City’

Inventing an attitude

Jun 1, 2016 at 1:00 am
Andre Williams.
Andre Williams. Photo by Matthew Smith.

From impromptu recordings to hourlong jam sessions, Andre Williams' I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City (Bloodshot Records, out June 3) is a collection of refreshing tunes demonstrating all of his influences and musical capabilities without him actually playing an instrument (aside from the tambourine on the last track). Blues, garage rock, country, pop, and of course, 1960s-style Detroit soul — this album has it all. Williams' lyrics capture the zeitgeist of contemporary Detroit after a period of reflection, reminiscing, and enjoying the present moment, all of which a listener will experience listening through the album. This zeitgeist feeds off Williams' legacy and assists the creation of the powerful modern energy found on the album, deserving of just as much praise as his earlier work, much of which has flown under the radar of the mainstream for his entire career.

 Williams began his career in the 1950s with Fortune Records, and after recording a few hit singles, became influential in the behind-the-scenes work at Motown Records, co-writing with Stevie Wonder, producing albums for the Contours, and managing Edwin Starr. He's best unknown for co-writing the standard for all rhythm and blues artists, "Shake a Tail Feather." Williams is partially responsible for the second-best scene in The Blues Brothers, and hardly anyone realizes it (as Ray Charles covered Williams' song in the film). Williams managed to be so instrumental in creating some of the most influential music in rock 'n' roll history without playing a single instrument.

Early in his career, his natural talent for orchestrating hit records earned Williams the nickname "Mr. Rhythm," and it is exactly this type of unconventionalism that helped shape rock 'n' roll to what is it today. "He's not a household name, he's not well-known, but he's such a pivotal figure in music," says Matthew Smith, producer of Williams' latest work. People unaware of his very tangible legacy might view him as just another blues musician playing some raw garage rock, but, as Smith says, "He was controversial from the beginning. He invented an attitude."

 In an age of oversaturated bluesy/garage/rock music, Williams has brought back some pure rhythm and blues. At 79, he is more progressive and provocative than most contemporary rock musicians half his age. Through exposure to Williams' discography, one realizes the amount of ersatz artists out there. Williams comes off as raw and genuine as only one can on a homecoming album. I Wanna Go Back presents a less raucous Williams, in contrast to the content of his earlier releases, yet with similarly timeless tunes and more prolific lyrics. Perhaps this has to do with his conversion to Judaism 20 years ago? Perhaps it's simply his natural artistic evolution. All I know is, it's pretty damn good. At moments it's easy listening, at others it's deeply reflective, and at the next, it forces the listener to contemplative thought about how stunningly relevant this album is.

 Williams' influence in the music industry is far from over, and this album proves it. Metro Times met up with Smith (Outrageous Cherry, Volebeats, THTX, Chatoyant), who has a bit of history with Williams, and who produced his newest album, to discuss the album's relevancy and Williams' untold legacy.

When Smith and Williams reconnected, Williams had cleaned up his substance abuse and was looking to make a new record. Smith is known for keeping a clean ship, and having certain artists gravitate toward him because they know that in the studio, the focus is on the music, not partying. There are no distractions in the studio. "It's a little more of a military attitude, very disciplined," Smith says about working with Williams now versus in the past. Their latest collaboration is exactly that: a combination of disciplined work ethic, with a splash of classic rock 'n' roll spontaneity.

 The two collected something of a local supergroup of musicians for the recordings, and their expressiveness under Williams' orchestration sounds as natural as can be. Local music industry powerhouses Danny Kroha, David Shettler, the late Steve King, Dennis Coffey, Smith, and a few others are responsible for the sonic foundations backing Williams throughout the album. Hopefully these figures will be seen as group performing with Williams when his health permits him to do so. I Wanna Go Back was recorded in little sessions in between bigger health issues over the past few years, with Williams commuting between Chicago and Atlanta, where he resides with family. "His goal is to get back to work," Smith says, so we should expect to see Williams taking the stage as soon as he is sure he's ready.

 The opening bubbling synth noises and following growl from Williams set the tone for what Smith describes as a "futuristic-doo-wop" opener from which the album draws its name. The point and counterpoint vocal layers present Williams singing playfully with himself, stating how he wants to go back to Detroit city, perhaps the city of old which he grew up and prospered in. This sets up the perfect perspective for the next track, where he offers observations about the times, and how hard they are now. As the song "Times" says, "You can't take a $1 bill and go nowhere, and a $20 bill will only get ya bus fare. That's times. It's hard." Williams has experienced plenty of ups and downs throughout his life, which is part of what makes this album so relatable, yet it is only from these low points that he can create another upswing for himself, and he's coming out swinging with hook after hook.

 When describing how they crafted the songs in the studio, Smith relays what a unique process it was. "We'll be playing a riff for an hour, and he's standing there singing parts and very carefully orchestrating the groove and other musical details — a very intense process, actually — and then the minute he feels the right feel and can dance to it, he'll say, 'Alright, let's do it,' and I'll tell the engineer to hit the record button, and all the lyrics will just come out of him, and we've got a finished track," he says.

 The first track and "Meet Me At the Graveyard" were crafted using this process. "We had done a show the night before, and we were in the studio the next day working on an instrumental track. We had gone over the rhythm so many times it started mutating," Smith says. After a lunch break, Williams realized the old Fortune Records studio had been on the corner across from where they were recording, and where a field now grows. He walked back in, got on the mic, and it all just flowed out of him. He created actually multiple doo-wop harmonies, each overdub done in one take, to create a one-man doo-wop group.

 Williams is really the opposite of every other rock star nowadays. Rather than spending hours finding the right sound of each instrument, Williams focuses on the overall orchestration and groove of the band. "I came to the conclusion that to make a serious rock 'n' roll record in the 21st century, you gotta find a guy who's in his 70s," Smith says. "You can take a long time doing something, or you can get the right people together and create music more efficiently. It's all about the chemistry."

 "Times" is another product of this particular process. After jamming to find the right groove, Smith noticed the band was sounding good, so he told the engineer to record them and just get the riffs. With 10 minutes left on the studio clock, Smith told Williams to try and sing something he had written down in a notebook, and it all came together. "You can hear us on the record like, 'Hey Andre, you wanna do something with that? It sounded pretty good!'" The whole track was completed in a matter of minutes, and they mixed it pretty quickly, also.

"'Morning After Blues' was recorded in my living room," Smith says. "I had never heard anyone play the tambourine like that, and I was just captivated, so I knew that had to go on the record."

Same with "I Don't Like You No More." Recorded live in a living room, and 15 minutes later they were mixed and done. Pure, unconventional, rock 'n' roll.

"Hall of Fame" is a standout track on the album where Williams articulates the range of things he's done in a funny but serious manner. He's reflecting on his vast catalog of accomplishments, and decides he doesn't care if he receives another pat on the back from the academy for everything that he's done. He understands the contributions he's made to history, and whether it's written down eternally in some hall of fame doesn't matter much to him.

"Andre never really wanted to be sitting around and doing the business side of things ­— he was really focused on being a creative artist," Smith says. He's more concerned about moving forward then being hung up on lost royalties.

"However, he would definitely appreciate it if someone would investigate and find out what the hell ever happened to the money he's undoubtedly entitled to for his contributions to music throughout the years. Open invitation to work for a legend, just saying," Smith says.