His biggest hit, “Bacon Fat” (1956), recorded for Fortune Records, a shoestring operation in Detroit, detailed a dance performed in Tennessee by “cotton pickers with their sacks on their backs.” Featuring off-kilter rhymes, Southern colloquialisms and a recited delivery, it rose to No. 9 on the R&B charts and is sometimes described as a precursor to hip-hop.
Mr. Williams’s other Fortune records from the late 1950s, including “Pulling Time” (a reference to prison), “The Greasy Chicken” and “Put a Chain On It” (recorded with Gino Parks) proved too rough — sonically or lyrically — for the national charts. His song “Jailbait” warned men against statutory rape (“17 and a half is still jailbait”) and ended with Mr. Williams’s protagonist pleading for leniency before a judge.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Williams met Motown record label founder Berry Gordy in a Detroit barber shop and went to work for the label as a producer and songwriter. Mr. Williams often butted heads with Gordy, and he said he was fired and rehired at least five times in four years.
“You had to maintain the Motown image 24 hours a day or you’d lose your job,” Mr. Williams recalled in 1996. “I got fired for things I did when I wasn’t even working.”
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Returning to Chicago, Mr. Williams became an independent producer. He co-wrote and produced “Shake a Tail Feather” (1963) for the Five Du-Tones, and the song was covered by Ray Charles in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers.”
Mr. Williams also produced records, including the dance single “Twine Time” (1965) by Alvin Cash & the Crawlers and “The Funky Judge” (1968) by Bull & the Matadors. He ended the 1960s with another hit of his own, “Cadillac Jack,” about an aspiring street hustler who always wanted a Cadillac — and rode to one in his funeral.
In later years, Mr. Williams struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. He said Ike Turner introduced him to cocaine during a stay in Los Angeles, and by the late 1980s he was working as a cook in homeless shelters.
“I was in a state of depression,” he told the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 1996. “I felt that I had contributed a lot to the business and it hadn’t been given back to me.”
In time, his Fortune recordings acquired a cult following among musicians. In the 1990s, after some years on the street, Mr. Williams reemerged, often performing and recording with blistering loud punk and garage-rock bands such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Dirtbombs.
He remained busy into his 80s, releasing the album, “Don’t Ever Give Up” in 2016.
Zephire Andre Williams was born in Bessemer, Ala., on Nov. 1, 1936. The family moved to Chicago when he was 5, and his father worked at steel mills. By his own account, Mr. Williams was a miscreant while in high school.
“The teachers and truant officers said I was headed for reform school if I didn’t change my ways,” he told the magazine Blues & Rhythm, the Gospel Truth in 1998. Street-corner harmonizing with fledgling vocal groups gave the youngster something for which to strive.
“Every neighborhood had its group or groups,” he said. “You would strut your stuff for the girls, but many groups were serious about actually being a group and making records. . . . The chicks would come around, and before you knew it you had three to four more girlfriends.”
Mr. Williams performed in Chicago clubs with two groups, the Cavaliers and the Five Thrills. He said that after being drafted into the Navy, he frequently went AWOL to make gigs. “I ran in with Navy blues or whites and the fellas had my stage clothes waitin’. Then I’d run out the before the Navy could drag me back.”
When his hitch ended in the mid-1950s, Mr. Williams decamped to Detroit. He won an amateur show that brought him to the attention of Fortune. The label’s tiny studio was the backroom of a record store; stacked boxes of records served as sound baffles.
Mr. Williams’s wife, the former Yvonne Jarman, died in 2004. Survivors include five children; a brother; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
“You don’t have to be a perfect vocalist in order to be an artist,” he once said. “You just have to have a good story.”