on the road with
In 1995 I received a call to play on a series of recording sessions for St. George Records with blues/R&B producer André Williams. The name was familiar to me, but I really had no idea who André was, or what part he played in the history of classic blues and R&B.
Digging through my collection of 45 rpm records, I quickly dug up a few sides produced by André Williams, including one of my favorite Bobby "Blue" Bland records, "Chains of Love." Further digging would reveal that he had worked for Fortune, Motown, Duke, OneDerFul, BackBeat and dozens more labels, producing the likes of Smokey Robinson, Bobby Bland, Ike & Tina Turner, Alvin Cash (André wrote "Twine Time"), the Five DuTones (for whom he wrote "Shake a Tailfeather"), Ruby Andrews, Mel & Tim and countless others.
André had had a string of what could probably be considered some of the first rap records in the’50s with his own little R&B hits: "Jail Bait," "Cadillac Jack," "Bacon Fat" and others for Fortune, Epic and Mercury. André is really a very talented producer and artist, and it was really amazing to watch him work. He’s also quite a character, which is what makes him so interesting and a great guy to hang out with … for short periods of time, anyway.
Some time after the records we made were released on the St. George and Norton labels, I got a call to play the St. Louis Blues Festival with André Williams and the El Dorados, a classic Chicago doo-wop group who also appeared on the releases. They had several hit records in the mid-’50s on Vee-Jay, including a very popular tune widely known as "Crazy Little Mama" but actually titled "At My Front Door."
Our trip to St. Louis was (thank god) somewhat uneventful. Everyone arrived on time, the van ran smoothly — no problems at all. André had decided to play the star for this weekend: He was going to take a flight from Chicago to St. Louis and meet us at the festival. If you’ve seen André’s CD Fat Back and Corn Liquor on St. George Records, you couldn’t help but notice that he’s decked out in vintage gangster style: a double-breasted, pin-striped purple suit, complete with spats.
For this particular gig, André had been requested to wear the same suit, which had been rented from a costume shop specifically for the CD cover. André was sent over to the shop to pick up the suit on his way to the airport. As it turned out, it was a ’30s-style gangster suit complete with a fake machine gun!
André had no idea there was a machine gun in his suit bag. After arriving at the airport, André headed to the check-in counter. While he was waiting in line, for some reason he decided to check the suit bag to make sure everything was there, and to his surprise he was getting ready to check a bag with a life-size fake machine gun. Surprise! This was just a week after a terrorist bombing, and the airport security was greatly heightened. André would have been put in jail for sure had the bag been opened or, worse yet, scanned by the radar detector. Luckily he found the machine gun, returned to his friend’s car and left it there for safekeeping. Catastrophe avoided. Good work, André.
The night before we were supposed to play, we all took a walk looking for a restaurant to get something to eat. After walking around awhile, we found one that looked pretty good. As soon as we walked in the door, the El Dorados in tow, we noticed that the local oldies station was playing one of their hits from the ’50s. Talk about a coincidence.
For some reason, the band went in two different directions, white and black members each sharing separate tables. Near the end of our meal the waitress approached us and asked did we know the gentlemen (the El Dorados) sitting at the table over to the side. Record producer George Paulus replied yes, but why? Apparently the El Dorados thought dinner was included as part of our compensation for the festival. They had ordered the most expensive stuff on the menu and wanted George to foot the bill. They were close: actually, breakfast was free — wrong meal, guys.
Now the El Dorados were furious: They each had extremely expensive bills to pay, so they got their doggie bags and left grumbling, no longer speaking to us. So much for a smooth trip.
By morning the El Dorados had cooled out and everything seemed to be going well. Our festival appearance went on without a hitch, André put on a great and very entertaining show, and everyone was happy — especially André, because they had used his picture on the front of the festival program.
Now the fun was going to begin: the ride home. Fortunately, a couple of the El Dorados rode back to Chicago in a limo driven by another former ’50s doo-wopper. For our return trip George put everyone on notice: NO DRINKING OR OPEN LIQUOR IN THE VAN. We were going to be driving back to Chicago through hostile territory. The van was full of musicians both young and old, black and white. If we were stopped by the police, they would surely figure that we were up to something, so it’d be better to be safe than sorry — no need for all of us to go to jail for something stupid.
About an hour into the trip we all became hungry. George stopped at a Burger King so we could grab a bite to eat, and André disappeared around the corner. Little did we know that André had spotted a nearby liquor store and picked up a fifth of whiskey for the trip home.
For a while the ride went rather smoothly. I was sitting up near the front, so I didn’t notice that André and Huffy from the El Dorados were sharing a bottle of whiskey in the rear of the van. André began to get very excited about how well the gig went, holding up the paper and proclaiming he was going to take it to the whorehouse with him when he got back to Chicago. He figured that would be good for a free piece of ass if nothing else.
With all the wild talk and commotion going on in the van, I began to suspect some whiskey had made its way into the vehicle. André even wanted to know if anyone had a "cebular phone" he could use. The fun never seems to end with André. Next he began talking about going to Africa on a "Sa-ar-I"(safari) after he got off his "high anus"(hiatus). More fun with mispronounced words. Too bad his "constituaries" (constituents) weren’t there to help him.
More jokes and laughter continued till we reached Chicago. As we neared the city, we were trying to figure out where to drop everyone off so they could get home. André was easy: Anywhere on the South Side, and he’d take a cab. Of course he had a pocket full of money from the festival, so cab fare was nothing to him.
Most of the El Dorados live near 55th and the Dan Ryan Expressway, with the exception of bass vocalist Clarence "Huffy" Wright. He lives in Calumet City, a far southern suburb 25 miles from 55th St. and the Dan Ryan, and 50 miles from where the rest of the band had parked their cars. With the addition of the alcohol, the conversation grew from hysterical to ridiculous trying to get Huffy home.
Huffy, where can we drop you off to get you home easily?
Huffy: Calumet City, motherf’er.
We are not going anywhere near Calumet City. How about at 55th Street with the rest of the group?
Huffy: No, motherf’er, I got to go to Calumet City!
Can you take a bus from 55th St. to Calumet City?
Huffy: You don’t understand: Buses don’t run to Calumet City
What about a cab?
Huffy: You don’t understand: Cabs can’t go to Calumet City — it’s too bad there.
Can you get someone to pick you up?
Huffy: No, motherf’er, you got to drive me there.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity — probably more like 45 minutes in real time, which was plenty — when finally George decided to drive him to Calumet City just to shut him up. After going 50 miles and more than an hour out of our way, we finally pulled up to Clarence’s apartment building.
As soon as we got near his apartment, he shouted, There’s my car right there.
We all busted out laughing.
Huffy, why the hell didn’t you leave your car on 55th Street?
Huffy: You don’t understand motherf’er!
Okay, okay. Goodbye, Huffy. End of gig.