To say Andre Williams has been around the block is an understatement.
For more than five decades, the “black godfather” has been wowing crowds and wooing women with his soulful, gravely, proto-rap delivery.
But even after traveling the world, playing shows from Southern Illinois to Stockholm, he was awed by the Yukon.
“It’s absolutely mind-blowing,” said Williams, as he sat on a bench gazing out at the Yukon River on Saturday. “This is one beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful country.
“The people I’m living with don’t know how blessed they are.”
Williams came all the way from Chicago to partake in the territory’s biggest music festival and like most of the artists, Williams was boarding with locals for the weekend.
His hosts were a family of placer miners.
With the long hours digging in the dirt looking for gold, mining is not an occupation Williams thinks he’d be cut out for.
“I’ve never seen a white man with jeans like that,” he said. “His jeans – they had history.”
If there’s one thing Williams knows – other than music – it’s clothes.
Walking the streets of Dawson in a bright red jacket, two-tone shoes and a white fedora, Williams, even at 75 years old, still cuts a striking figure.
“I’ve always been a dresser,” he said. “I love clothes.”
It’s why he has such an affinity for Spain.
“Because of the clothes,” he said. “They’ve got some fantastic tailors there.”
Later that night, when Williams took the stage, it was in a red velvet custom-made suit from Spain.
This was the first time Williams had ever come to the Yukon.
There were a lot of firsts for him during the festival.
His set that night, at 1:00 a.m., was the latest he’d ever played a show in all his years as a performer.
Along with his four-piece band, The Goldstars, Williams had the crowd bumping and grinding to hit singles from the ‘50s and ‘60s like Bacon Fat and the raunchy classic, Jail Bait.
The crowd wasn’t just dancing, they were crowd surfing too. Another first for Williams.
“I’ve never seen that at one of my shows,” he said.
While his on-stage persona is rough and tough, backstage Williams was full of concern for a man he saw dropped by the crowd during his set.
When told that the guy was OK, Williams was relieved.
“I thought he would have to go to the hospital,” he said. “That just shows the power of music.”
Raised in Bessemer, Ala., about 20 kilometers outside of Birmingham, a career in music was not something Williams’ family considered a respectable occupation.
“They were what you’d call certified Christians,” said Williams. “I didn’t hear my first blues song until I moved to Detroit.”
His grandparents, who were sharecroppers, didn’t have a radio, but the landlord had one in his truck. It was from listening to that car radio that Williams developed a love for country acts like Hank Williams and Hank Snow.
When he was 13, Williams moved up to Chicago to live with his father, a steel worker. But that didn’t last long.
At 14, he enlisted in the Navy using his older brother’s birth certificate. But when his brother got drafted, the Navy found him out and kicked him to the curb.
Instead of going back to Chicago, he moved to Detroit.
It was there he started performing at amateur nights, winning fans with his bravado and showmanship rather than his voice.
To set himself apart from the popular crooners of the day, Williams developed a rhythmic, lyrical style.
Williams describes himself as an entertainer, not a singer.
His act eventually caught the attention of Devora Brown, from Fortune Records, who offered him his first contract.
From there he went on to Motown Records, where he co-wrote and produced songs for such luminaries as Stevie Wonder.
Over the decades, Williams worked with a veritable who’s who of R&B legends, including Berry Gordy and Ike Turner.
But in the 1980s, Williams fell on hard times.
It was the 1996 release of the album Mr. Rhythm, that revived his career.
Most recently, he recorded an album with the Toronto alternative country rockers, and Dawson City festival alumni, The Sadies.
“Those are some great kids,” said Williams. “They told me that I’d love it here.”
And they were right.
The landscape, the food, the people, even the sunlight were impressive, said Williams.
“That was a trip for me, seeing the sun up at 3:30 in the morning,” he said. “I’m going to write a song about this whole thing.”
Contact Josh Kerr at