Born Harold Jerome Willis, 31 January 1926, Atlanta, Georgia
Chuck Willis was a somewhat underrated Afro-American singer, with a strong, distinctive voice, whose career was, alas, all too brief. He started out as an exponent of the gospel-based blues ballad style, but adjusted well to the changing musical tastes of the 1950s and recorded some fine rock 'n' roll sides during the last two years of his life.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Willis lived close to Decatur Street, one of the city's black strips. His early years are cloudy ; interviewed by Downbeat in 1954, he said he got his start leading a band for a YMCA teenage canteen. Chuck was discovered by Zenas 'Daddy' Sears, a powerful white deejay on WGST in Atlanta, who introduced him to Danny Kessler, head of OKeh Records (an R&B subsidiary of Columbia, reactivated in 1951). His first release, "It Ain't Right To Treat Me Wrong"/"Can't You See" came out on on Columbia (30238, early 1951), but over the next five years his singles would appear on OKeh. Willis scored R&B hits with "My Story" (# 2, 1952), "Goin' To the River" (# 4, 1953, a Fats Domino cover), "Don't Deceive Me" (# 6, 1953), "You're Still My Baby" (# 4, 1954) and - probably his best known song from this period - "I Feel So Bad" (# 8, 1954, copied note for note by E.A. Presley in 1961).
Zenas Sears ("sort of Willis's manager", in his own words) landed Chuck a regular television show, which ran for a year, around 1953. The next year Willis formed a band, led for several years by Roy Gaines, and hit the black one-night circuit. Chuck was also a masterful songwriter. The great majority of his recordings are his own compositions, but he wrote for other artists as well. During his OKeh period, there were R&B hits for Ruth Brown with "Oh What A Dream" (# 1, 1954, also a # 10 pop hit for Patti Page), The Cardinals with "The Door Is Still Open" (# 4, 1955, later a Top 10 pop hit for Dean Martin) and The Five Keys with "Close Your Eyes" (# 5, 1955). Other artists who recorded his songs include the Clovers, Lula Reed, Floyd Dixon, the Cadillacs and Margie Day.
Chuck stayed with OKeh until 1956, when Sears brought him to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. It was there that Willis developed his full potential. The arrangements of Jesse Stone were more imaginative and commercial than those of Leroy Kirkland at OKeh. His first Atlantic 45, the beautiful ballad "It's Too Late", peaked at # 3 R&B and is now considered a classic, having been recorded by Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty and others. But the real breakthrough on Atlantic came with the third single, "C.C. Rider". It is ironic that such an accomplished writer should have his most resounding success with a blues that had been around for over fifty years, but it was Chuck's own idea. Jerry Wexler writes in his autobiography : "Soon after (...) 'It's Too Late', he proposed to record a standard. I expected something like 'Body And Soul' or 'Tenderly', but got 'C.C. Rider' instead and was delighted that Chuck viewed the old Ma Rainey blues as a standard".
The record (featuring a classic sax solo by Gene Barge) topped the R&B charts for two weeks in June 1957 and went to # 12 on the pop charts. "Betty And Dupree" was a similar standard and reached # 15 R&B, # 33 pop. Dick Clark plugged the record as being perfect for the stroll, then the latest dance craze. That was how Chuck Willis came to be featured on American Bandstand and how he came to be crowned King Of the Stroll. He joined rock n roll package shows and was now wearing a huge turban (probably because he was losing his hair). By the time of his death he had allegedly collected 54 turbans. "The Sheik Of the Blues" (or Sheik Of the Shake) was his other nickname.
Meanwhile, the ulcer troubles which had been interrupting his touring schedule since 1955 were aggravated by his serious drinking. For this reason, Chuck had to cancel another appearance on American Bandstand in early 1958.
Too much has been made of the fact that two of the last songs he recorded were "What Am I Living For" and "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" (from his final session, February 14, 1958). Neither of Chuck's songs portended death. They were released back to back a few days before Chuck Willis died of peritonitis on April 10, 1958. He passed away on the operating table at the Hugh Spaulding Hospital in Atlanta. His death was a real tragedy. It could have been prevented if Willis had not delayed the necessary stomach operation for so long.
Both sides charted posthumously. "What Am I Living For" peaked at # 9 pop and # 1 R&B, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" at # 24 pop and # 9 R&B. Later in 1958, there were chart entries for "My Life" (# 12 R&B, # 46 pop, a leftover from the first Atlantic session in April 1956) and the powerful "Keep A-Driving" (# 19 R&B, recorded during the last session of February 1958). But most of the proceeds from these posthumous hits went to the IRS, as Willis died owing unpaid taxes on his band members' salaries.
"They said that rock and roll would soon fade away No matter what they say, rock and roll is here to stay!"
If Chuck Willis was alive today, he'd be amazed how prophetic those lyrics (from "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes") have turned out to be.
Both the OKeh and Atlantic recordings deserve a place in your collection.
There is at present no satisfactory discography of Chuck Willis on the web.
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Peter Guralnick
Dik, October 2012
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