Chuck Willis

TrackSingle / Album
My StoryOKeh 4-6905
Don't Deceive MeOKeh 4-6985
You're Still My BabyOKeh 4-7015
I Feel So BadOKeh 4-7029
It's Too LateAtlantic 1098
C.C. RiderAtlantic 1130
Betty And DupreeAtlantic 1168
What Am I Living ForAtlantic 1179
Hang Up My Rock And Roll ShoesAtlantic 1179
Sugar SugarI Remember Chuck Willis

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Chuck Willis photo 1

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

Chuck is a term of endearment in the north of England and one that was used often by the recently deceased Liz Dawn in Coronation Street.

Chuck was also the forename of a very well known figure in rock and roll.

And, Chuck was the name adopted by one Harold Jerome Willis, though not so many people know that.

But for the fact that Chuck Willis died early – of peritonitis on 10th April 1958 at the age of 30 (but see Footnotes) – it’s likely that many more people would have been aware of the man. The pairing of tracks released as a single very shortly before his death, are by far his best known, though he’d been recording steadily for the best part of seven years before they were cut.

Those tracks were recorded just under two months before his death, in the Atlantic studios in New York with King Curtis and his trusty tenor sax on hand. Both titles now seem horribly prescient. What Am I Living For and Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes, the flip, have elements of finality about them, indeed What Am I Living For brings later songs to the mind, like Townes Van Zandt’s Waiting Round To Die and Dylan’s Not Dark Yet (But It’s Getting There), or if you’ve ever explored the depths of South Western Louisiana, some of those lugubrious swamp pop laments which the Cajun lads seemed to revel in.

And yet the song wasn’t really like that. The first line, “What am I living for, if not for you” immediately puts you in declaration of love territory, and the final line – “Nobody else, nobody else, will do” – confirms those thoughts. The treatment is warm and pleasing rather than melancholic: slow to medium tempo, mellow sax, high chiming effect and a chorale who emerge to sing the final lines. Chuck gets raspy at times but not from desperation. Unlike the bulk of his output, this wasn’t a Chuck Willis penned song. And most of his songs were blues, even if some were up-tempo. This wasn’t a blues. Melodically there were resemblances both to country, then called country & western, and to not-yet-invented-but-very-much-lurking-around, soul music. Indeed, there’s a good possibility that those clever folk at Atlantic, having spotted what Ivory Joe Hunter had done with Empty Arms a year earlier, were trying to extend that clever bit of genre mixing into something the world would eventually recognise, particularly with hindsight, as country soul. And to give credit to the pioneering Mr Hunter, even some of his earlier numbers had sufficient saccharin mixed in with the blue notes to extend such songs’ appeal well beyond the black ghettoes into those areas populated by white country listeners. I Almost Lost My Mind from 1950, is a good example.

Enough history, back to 1958. And it’s here I have to put my hand up and say that I didn’t become aware of Mr Willis when I should have. The only defence I can offer is that there seemed to be so many other new names popping up circa ’58, that Chuck didn’t get a look in. I did, however, pick up on the song. It seemed to become a pop standard almost overnight. Brit singers sang it on the radio and when versions emerged in the late fifties and early sixties from the rock-a-ballad men, Jack Scott (driving and raw), Conway Twitty (unexpectedly bouncy) and our own Billy Fury (complete with fresh arrangement, the most interesting of these three) I was well aware these were covers. What I didn’t hear then were the versions from Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells which were confirmation of the appeal of the song and performance in places like Nashville.

Apart from a typically throbbing and intense cut from Clyde McPhatter we weren’t to hear any of the big soul names tackle the song ˈtil the second half of the sixties. But we weren’t disappointed when they did – well I wasn’t, so perhaps I should switch from royal mode. Percy Sledge brought the level of soul intensity to the song that I’d been waiting for and Solomon Burke in ˈ69 took it to that special place that only he could access, with a faint acoustic guitar echoing those early sixties Bert Berns arrangements. Nor should I forget Ray Charles who went on a country stroll with the number in ’71 with a pedal steel in tow.

Is that a lot of time to spend on covers? Maybe. But bear in mind that there were other good ones I’ve not even mentioned and consider that none of them would have existed without Chuck’s original.

Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes, which Chuck did write, was the original A-side only it got flipped by DJs. For the record I should mention that this one got to #24 in the US National Chart while What Am I Living For hit #9 (and went on to sell a million). “R&R Shoes” was a paean to rock i.e. the sort of thing the record buyer should have tired of by 1958 but this one was delivered with wit and panache; the presence of those gents in the backdrop going shoop bop was a lovely touch and Chuck’s vocal motored along at a kind of doubled up beat to what the rhythm section were playing.

My mama told me she didn’t like that rock and roll
I said, “Please, Mama, please, Mama you just don’t know
I don’t want hang up my rock and roll shoes”
You know I get that feeling every time I hear those blues

His closing verse, “They say that rock and roll will soon fade away. No matter what they say, rock and roll is here to stay” was a rather belated recognition of rock; I don’t recall any earlier mention of it in Chuck’s oeuvre. Critic Dave Marsh has surmised that such lyrics were only written in order to sell records. He could be right but it still makes for an anthemic exit.

Chuck Willis only recorded for two labels in his all too short life, Columbia/OKeh and Atlantic, spending the best part of five years with the former and a little under two with the latter. I should explain the “/”. His first single came out on Columbia but subsequently he was switched to their subsidiary OKeh. Originally OKeh had been an independent label but it was taken over by Columbia and used for selling into the black market. Given the diverse nature of the white and black markets – white listeners typically didn’t listen to black music or race records as they were then termed, but black listeners took on board anything but with a preference, certainly for dancing, to race records – Chuck was black market. Of course.

One should remember that OKeh was part of a major while Atlantic was a young thrusting indie label which in part accounts for the change in Willis output between the two labels. In our exchange of mails on Mr Willis, Cal has put together a paragraph which explains it quite neatly:

“To me there is a distinct difference between the OKeh and Atlantic sides, which is not too surprising because of all the music and technical changes between 1951 and 1956, not counting Chuck’s own growth of confidence/experience and maybe better advice etc. Music was in a fantastic state of flux in this period. Over-simplifying things, Chuck would have only been aimed at the black market at OKeh whereas, with the many changes in the first half of the 1950s, Atlantic would have realised there was a burgeoning white market to be wooed and won over.”

(There’s another take on the difference between the OKeh and Atlantic sides in my closing paragraphs.)

To start to illustrate these words, take a listen to both sides of the debut single, released in May 1951. First, the A-side, It Ain’t Right To Do Me Wrong and secondly, the flip, Can’t You See. Both were composed by Willis. Both were listed as “Vocal with instrumental acc.”. In fact the accompaniment was from a small band led by sax player Freddy Jackson. The A-side was a medium tempo jump blues with some wordplay in the title to catch a potential buyer’s interest. The flip was slow and rather more of a grinder, with Chuck getting slightly more agonised – full blown hysterics along the lines of James Brown was never really his forte – with the band, particularly Fred, putting in some great work.

One could just imagine a teacher giving the pairing a nice fat tick in the exercise book along with the comment “Good work, keep it up”. And he did. One of the commentators in 45cat observed “This was Chuck’s first record, 2 good sides. I don’t think Chuck made a bad record in his all too short life.”

Chuck’s strength whilst at OKeh was the 32 bar blues, often referred to as a blues ballad. A good example is 1952’s My Story which gave him his initial breakthrough into the R&B Chart. A raft of horns, piano adding tension in the high register and Chuck in a mood of semi-restrained anguish. Simple lyrics but with a directness that cut right through to the listener.

Nobody cares
Nobody knows
I’m going to tell you
Just how my story goes
I lost my baby
Where is my baby?
She’s the one I love

It set a pattern for future releases. Arguably too many such releases although there’s no denying the elements of hand crafting that went into each one. But there were exceptions and they tended to stand out. Up there amongst them was I Feel So Bad, a song that was subsequently recorded by Elvis, largely utilising the Willis arrangement and vocal approach but also upping the urgency ante. This song, written by Chuck of course as were almost all his OKeh sides, was a twelve bar blues for a change and it was built on a latin rhythm with a pianist riffing on seventh chords (the so-called “blue chords”). The difference between the Willis and the Presley versions is almost the difference between blues and rock. The lighter tone of Willis and the slight hesitancy of his pianist adding a degree of intimacy and subtlety that’s missing in the more punchy and direct Presley cut.

A great composition regardless of which version you prefer.

I said “almost all” in relation to songs written by our man at OKeh. Going To The River was that relatively rare thing for Chuck, a cover version. The original was penned by Fats Domino and his record had come out the same year – 1953 – thus making Chuck’s version a deliberate attempt to steal sales from the Fat Man. The cover was almost more New Orleans than Fats in that a slow boogieing horn figure had been introduced, though Chuck’s pianist didn’t have the rolling Domino piano feel. Not an entirely artistically successful record but one that has sometimes been seen as an early prototype for Chuck’s much later C.C. Rider.

As a slight digression I’d add that when I first heard Chuck’s Can’t You See – the flip of the debut – I did get flashes of Domino slow blues though this was more in the arrangement than the vocal. From this distance it’s easy to forget the influence Domino had on many people, even early on in his career.

Moving on, I don’t want to give the impression that Chuck foreswore up-tempo jumpers after his first few OKeh singles. They still appeared but with slightly less frequency. And they were good examples of the late forties/early fifties jump blues style. It was at this point I was going to include one or maybe even a couple as examples and selections. But something stayed my hand and I went back to those blues ballads. Those were the records which defined him at OKeh. Those are the ones that have left their mark.

Don’t Deceive Me, sometimes known as Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go), was almost the archetypal blues ballad, a format/style that lent itself to the world-weary approach. You sort of knew that Chuck knew in his heart of hearts that she was going to leave. It was to become one of his most widely covered songs from the period. Probably the most remarkable version came from the remarkable James Brown who stretched the number out to eleven minutes 43 seconds, by means of a seriously extended two chord fade. Unfortunately, that track isn’t on YouTube, or at least not in the UK. However it is on Spotify, contained on the 1990 compilation Messing With The Blues. Definitely worth searching out. There were also versions from Ruth Brown, Little Richard and Solomon Burke.

Once again, one of the big attractions of the song was those deceptively simple lyrics, intoned or semi-sung in short couplets with plenty of space for them to just ease their way into one’s consciousness.

People are talking
All over town
They say you’re tired of me
Going to put me down
Please don’t leave me
Don’t deceive me
Please don’t go

Similar in approach was You’re Still My Baby from 1954. This one opened with more of a pleading approach but settled down into that familiar conversational mode. The pleading came back in the middle eight. The highly emotional middle eight was something that later found its apogee in Chuck’s Atlantic debut, It’s Too Late.

Again, this is a song that’s received the compliment of multiple covers, of which my favourite has to be the one from Otis Redding. It came with a striking new arrangement featuring loads of light and shade, and massive guitar flourishes from Steve Cropper. It’s a relatively little known track but can be found on Complete And Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul.

Need One More Chance was one of the rare songs on which Chuck maintained the high register pleading style most of the way through in the manner of some of the sixties soul singers – Percy Sledge and James Carr come to mind – though this was atypical for him.

This is as good a time as any to mention that Chuck was a pretty busy song writer. Not only did he turn out a high number of quality songs for himself, he also composed for others. For me, the most notable of the lot was The Door Is Still Open (To My Heart) written for the Cardinals. It gave them a #10 R&B Chart hit in 1955. Yes, it used that melody line and chordal structure that we’ve heard before but the vocal approach was entirely different featuring a much softer and delicate lead than Chuck plus attractive but restrained doowopping from the other lads in the background.

The best part of a decade later – 1964 to be precise – the same song cropped up again and got turned into a Top Ten pop hit by Dean Martin.

Another doo wop outfit, the Five Keys did a nice job on a song called Close Your Eyes and were followed promptly by the Admirals (who used to be the Sultans). The number also picked up an easy listening cover from Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence. Atlantic’s diva LaVern Baker recorded Chuck’s Of Course I Do which appeared on her first album, 1956’s La Vern. Joe Tex, or to be more precise, Joe Tex, The Rock And Roll Cowboy (that’s what it says on the record) cut Chuck’s Cut It Out – a rocker – as his first single on the Ace label.

One of Chuck’s biggest successes for another artist was Oh What A Dream which he wrote for Atlantic’s other leading lady, Ruth Brown. She recorded it with members of the Drifters backing her up and it cracked the #1 spot in the nation’s R&B Chart. It’s one that dates back to 1954 and is an early example of Atlantic using a slightly poppier approach to a Willis song.

All of which allows me to segue with some degree of neatness to the second phase of the Willis recording career, the two years or so spent with Atlantic. It might have seemed strange, moving Willis from a major label (or a subsidiary of one at least) to an indie but in the second half of the fifties there was a buzz about Atlantic. This was the label that was notching up hit after hit in the R&B Chart with artists like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, the Clovers and more.

Atlantic 1098, the first disc from Chuck at his new label, had a slow blues on one side and an up-tempo blues cum R&B number on the other. Both songs were written by Chuck. Familiar? It should be because I used very similar words about his debut at OKeh. But the comparison crumbles when you actually listen. Let’s deal with the speedy effort first. Kansas City Woman was a twelve bar blues which structurally and lyrically wasn’t very different from one of the OKeh jumpers. And it had a fiery sax solo from Gene “Daddy G” Barge rather than Freddy Jackson or another OKeh session guy. Where it differed was in having femme group, the Cookies, contributing a very entertaining near gobbledygook backing plus a stronger level of propulsion which immediately made the performance sound bang up to date.

The A-side, It’s Too Late, was something else again. Some readers, like myself, would have come to it via the Buddy Holly version which appeared on the album The “Chirping” Crickets. In the Holly Toppermost I made his version one of my selections but devoted a whacking two paragraphs to the Willis original prior to talking about what Holly did with the song. This is the second of those paras:

“The vocal on the Willis original is relatively restrained, even conversational at times, though there’s a lot of soaring and swooping. It gets louder in the middle eight where Willis is joined by one of those warm Atlantic saxes. Two features stand out: the backing vocal group who are almost in call and response mode, and the rather pretty usage of a keyboard instrument called a celeste, where normally the backing would go silent in effectively stop-time blues mode. Strip away all those rather nice embellishments and essentially this is a blues. Chuck could have, and really should have done more, but now it’s too late and she’s gone, and he does little more in that middle eight than let rip on those last three words. Every now and again the agony has to come out.”

This was easily the most subtle and complex thing that Chuck had done. What actually hits you more than anything else are those few moments of silent or celeste only backing where all the focus is on the Willis voice and those tumbling phrases. A couple of quotes from Wiki are in order in regard to Chuck’s songwriting in general and his approach to It’s Too Late:

“Willis approached songwriting with painstaking craftsmanship and the result was literate, soulful and melancholy. He did not introduce a song in the studio until it was a polished product and fully worked out in his mind.”

and, also in the Wiki piece, from Roy Gaines, Chuck’s on-the-road band leader during the Atlantic years:

“He’d lock up in a hotel room and wouldn’t see anyone for 3-4 days or a week. When he wrote ‘It’s Too Late,’ he was in his room for a week.”

Disappointingly, the record was only a hit in the R&B Chart. It didn’t cross over. But its reputation as a pre-soul masterpiece has gradually grown over the years, in a large part, due to a series of cover versions from major artists:

1956 Roy Orbison in his Sun period – not released at the time
1957 Buddy Holly as already mentioned
1962 Ruth Brown on an EP
1965 Otis Redding on the album The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads
1969 Ted Taylor on a single on Ronn Records
1969 Freddie King on the album Freddie King Is A Blues Master (but not on YouTube)

That’s a selective list of course but it does show how several of the greats have found something that resonates in this song.

If It’s Too Late was a slight disappointment in chart terms for Chuck and Atlantic, his third single for the label, C.C. Rider, was anything but, since it gave both label and artist a crossover hit that clambered up to #12 in the US Pop Chart having already hit the number one spot in the R&B Chart. Charlie Gillett has an excellent description of the track in “The Sound Of The City”:

“”C.C. Rider” was a triumph of production technique for Jerry Wexler. The band led by Jesse Stone, opened with marimba, while a girl group chanted gently in the background, “see … see … rider … see … see … rider …”. Almost lost, far away in the background, Chuck Willis came in with an easy rocking, high-wailing vocal, taking Ma Rainey’s song along a new melody, pausing a while for a beautifully restrained tenor solo from Gene Barge and then soaring back to finish the song. This was one of the best records of its time, not really rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues but an inspired mood that drew from both styles and also from conventional popular music.”

Undoubtedly helpful in the emergence of C.C. Rider in chart terms was the fact that it spawned a dance craze called The Stroll, which crossed rock ‘n’ roll/R&B race boundaries. Atlantic would appear to have been a little slow to capitalise on the popularity of the dance and didn’t record a similarly styled follow-up until a good six months later – there was even a single released in between. However, there was a three month gap until the record reached #12 in the Pop Chart and five months had elapsed before Chuck appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television show. To the credit of the label, the eventual soundalike, Betty And Dupree, was as good as its predecessor. Once again there was prominent sax support and a xylophone took the place of the marimba, adding lightness to the relatively fierce Willis vocal.

Not content with a Stroll Part 1 and a Stroll Part 2, Atlantic only went and recorded a Stroll Part 3, which went under the name of Keep A-Driving but it was recorded at the same session as What Am I Living For so only saw release posthumously. There’s an argument that it was the best of the three, Stroll-on-steroids even, and it’s only numbers that kept it out of my top ten. Atlantic didn’t bother to go back to the folk/jazz blues oldies this time; the record had “Willis” down as composer. Mind you, C.C. Rider and Betty And Dupree also had Willis listed as writer so maybe its presence on Keep A-Driving didn’t tell us anything.

I have a view, which I’ve not seen expressed elsewhere, that Willis was more relaxed and looser in his interpretation of lyrics as he progressed through the Atlantic period, though I admit that the higher proportion of up-tempo and sometimes upbeat numbers in this phase could be partially responsible for this conclusion. This is apparent on Keep A-Driving, from the February 14th ’58 session. It’s even more in evidence on the last session(s) held in Atlanta between February and March 1958. This is against a backdrop of increasing ill health. The Blackcat Rockabilly Europe feature on Chuck notes:

“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.”

Information on that last session (or sessions) is sparse with support listed only as Gene Barge or King Curtis on sax, plus organ, piano, bass and drums. Whoever these guys were they didn’t half gel well together. There’s an impression of enjoyment throughout and that very much includes Chuck. The man totally throws himself into the process with playfulness, a surprising degree of experimentation, and complete ownership of the songs. All six tracks are good. I’ve limited myself to one, Sugar Sugar, which the casual listener might ignore, that’s if he/she even gave it a listen given a title which smacks of trivia. I get the distinct feeling that this was a one-off take. The pianist sets one heck of a pace, the drummer picks it up, the other guys come in, instinctively allowing space for each other – note the intertwining of organ and sax – and Chuck belts out those lyrics which he has scribbled on a bit of paper, and when he gets to the end he signals and they stop. He forgot to stop singing to allow someone a solo but did anyone care? Less than one minute fifty. Onto the next number.

That same rapport is evident on all the numbers with improvisation everywhere but subordinate to the head arrangements these gents seemed to work on. There’s considerable variation in style but nothing daunts the team; it’s success after success. I’ll Be So Glad When Your Heart Is Mine (not on YT) and Stop And Think are slow blues but both have interesting melodic twists, From The Bottom Of My Heart (with a great unaccompanied intro) and Big Drops Of Rain (not on YT) are both light romantic soul-ish numbers with plenty of charm. Perhaps the most intriguing track is Love Of Loves, which unfortunately isn’t on YouTube (but it is on Spotify). The number is basically swingtime with a blues thrust and even hints of ska in the rhythm (though it’s probably more akin to New Orleans music which of course influenced what happened in Jamaica). In all of his history I can’t recall Chuck ever taking on this style of music before. Here, he does it superbly. And it was one of the last tracks he cut. Look it up on Spotify. It’s on the I Remember Chuck Willis album.

 

I’ve put off talking about Chuck’s vocal skills as long as I can because it’s not easy. You would think that the reference points would be the early soul singers – Brown, Cooke, Burke etc. – and the more uptown blues singers. But he wasn’t the sweetest, the loudest, the cryingest (that would have to Bobby Bland), the churchiest, or any “est”. For the OKeh period the nearest comparison would be Little Willie John but since Willie also often has “the forgotten” preceding his name, that’s of no help to other than existing fans. Both men recorded sophisticated blues and blues ballads in the mid fifties which was one of the tropes that soul music took on board.

Chuck Willis was his own man, vocally. He could do forceful, pleading, melismatic, agonised, etc. but he used such effects economically, unlike those singers with a deep background in the church from their early childhood. He had precision, control and warmth of tone, particularly in the Atlantic years. I’ve seen reports stating that his voice was distinctive. I don’t quite agree with that but I understand what they’re getting at.

His song writing ability was immense. In a way it recalled some of the old time blues men who wrote their own songs but supplemented them every now and again with whatever they picked up while travelling. It was the complete opposite to the Tin Pan Alley approach, wherein writers of songs were a different breed to performers, which practice held sway in popular music in the post war period and largely continued into the early sixties. I’ve already quoted from Charlie Gillett’s “The Sound Of The City” but I’m dipping in again for another of his bits of wisdom, wherein he refers to Chuck as “A songwriter with a flair for simple but evocative images comparable to the Arkansas country singer Charlie Rich”. And he went on to quote the starting lines of I Feel So Bad:

I feel so bad
Just like a ball game on a rainy day

I’m finishing with a couple more quotes, starting with Robert Christgau in an on-line feature headed Ahmet & Jerry’s Gold, in, I think, 1985. He talks about Atlantic and, specifically, names Wexler and the Erteguns as the pre-eminent studio men of their day, and goes on to say:

“Also, nobody got cleaner, brighter, better balanced sound than Atlantic’s master engineer Tom Dowd. This helps explain why Atlantic’s records sound so crisp and alive 30 years later, but make no mistake–like all studio perfectionists, Atlantic’s producer-owners risked letting crisp squeeze out alive. The upside of the risk becomes vivid if you compare Chuck Willis 1951-56 on Okeh (compiled as My Story, which–to put Atlantic in context–Columbia killed less than two years after its 1980 release) with his 1956-58 work for Atlantic. The gospel-tinged blues ballads Willis wrote foreshadowed soul, but like many Atlantic artists he was a subtle singer. And if in the ’50s the label’s production style–which featured not only the sharp songwriting that was Willis’s passion but also quickened tempos and just-right solos–were the difference between five hits in six years and eight hits in two, today they’re the difference between music you appreciate and music you might play when your piece is done.”

And finally, Greil Marcus from the pages of Rolling Stone in August, 1969:

“Every once in a while something happens that reminds one of the incalculable contribution Atlantic Records has made to rock and roll and rhythm and blues. From the intensely personal declaration of the album’s title to its fourteen graceful songs, all but one written by Willis himself, I Remember Chuck Willis illuminates once again the vision of the men who founded Atlantic Records and the taste and care they have shown in maintaining the spirit of their enterprise.”

 

FOOTNOTES

1. There’s no biography in the main text but, with a little repetition, it’s here:

There’s doubt about Chuck’s date of birth. While most reports have the day and month as 31st January, the year is given as either 1926 or 1928. What is known is that he was born and raised in Atlanta and, in an interview with Downbeat, said that he got his start in the music business leading a band for a YMCA teenage canteen (source: Blackcat Rockabilly Europe). He was discovered by white DJ Zenas “Daddy” Sears who went on to be “sort of Willis’ manager” according to the same source. It was Sears who got him his first recording contract and later, negotiated the deal with Atlantic.

He commenced recording for the Columbia label in 1951 but after one single switched to Columbia’s OKeh subsidiary. Much of Chuck’s music from these years could be classified as jump blues or blues ballads with a bias to the latter. During that time he hit #2 in the R&B Chart with the blues ballad My Story. Further success followed with tracks like a cover of Fats Domino’s blues Going To The River.

He moved to Atlantic in 1956 and achieved more success in the R&B Chart during his short spell there. Several of his tracks, notably, C.C. Rider, Betty And Dupree and What Am I Living For also achieved crossover success to the US National Chart. This was relatively new for Atlantic. Although other artists, including those I’ve mentioned in the main text, were regularly getting good placings in the R&B Chart, very few went on to hit the Pop Chart.

As stated in the main text, his death occurred on 10th April 1958. Some reports have stated that it could have been prevented had he not delayed the necessary stomach operation for so long.

Chuck could well have been a major performer in the soul arena but for his early death. Certainly, he was an influence on the likes of James Brown, Little Willie John and Jackie Wilson plus later artists like Otis Redding.

2. I came to Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes via the Jerry Lee Lewis version. I picked the single up as part of a buying spree aiming to collect all of the Killer’s London records. Jerry’s version released in 1960, was predictably good, but I subsequently switched my allegiance to Chuck. While I’ve featured a lot of covers in this Topper I can’t ignore the one of this little old song from the Band either. I bet this dates back to the Levon and the Hawks days.

3. In his book “The Heart Of Rock ‘N’ Soul: The 1001 Best Singles Ever Made”, Dave Marsh includes four Chuck Willis singles in his Top 1001. He gives What Am I Living For the highest rating, #384. He also uses the term “laconic melody” in relation to the song. I’ve often wondered what he meant by that.

4. Freddy Jackson, who provided band leading and individual tenor sax for Chuck for a goodly chunk of the man’s time with OKeh, started out as an R&B sax player working as a member of Little Richard’s band from ’51 to ’53. In the early sixties he dropped the “dy” from his name and moved to more of a jazz role, working in organ/sax bands. He recorded for Blue Note on albums featuring John Patton and Baby Face Willette. In 1952, he recorded an album as leader entitled Hootin’ An’ Tootin’. This is one of the tracks.

5. The Freddy Jackson band wasn’t the only one used for Chuck Willis sessions by OKeh. For several sessions he was backed by either Leroy Kirkland’s Orchestra or the Quincy Jones Orchestra.

6. When Chuck moved to Atlantic he almost completely dropped the 32 bar blues format completely moving to the more direct 12 bar version of the genre.

7 The Cookies came out of Brooklyn, New York. They were formed in 1954 and originally consisted of Dorothy Jones, Darlene McCrea and Dorothy’s cousin Beulah Robertson. Beulah was replaced by Margie Hendricks in 1956. They obtained session work at Atlantic, working with a number of artists including Ray Charles. In 1958, McCrea and Hendricks together with new member Pat Lyles formed the Raelettes in order to work with Charles on more than a session basis. However in ’61, Dorothy Jones formed a new version of the Cookies along with two more cousins, Earl-Jean McCrea and Margaret Ross. Confused? You probably should be by now. Anyway, it was this version of the Cookies that had the hits with Chains and Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby). They also supported Mel Tormé on his Comin’ Home Baby.

8. Roy Gaines is a Texas born blues guitarist, singer and songwriter who, by the age of 14, had performed on stage backing his hero T-Bone Walker (source: Wiki). During the second half of the sixties he was a member of the Ray Charles band. After working as a session man for many years he was “rediscovered” in the nineties and subsequently recorded and released several blues albums. This is Roy from back in ’55 with his version of Chuck’s Loud Mouth Lucy.

9. Roy was on several of Chuck’s Atlantic sessions but other “name” guitarists that were used included Mickey Baker, Al Caiola and Kenny Burrell. Tenor sax man duties got shared between Gene Barge and King Curtis. And on one session, held on 30th October 1957, Mike Stoller (of Leiber & Stoller) was seated at the piano stool.

10. I make mention of the song C.C. Rider, sometimes known as See See Rider or Easy Rider, in the Cyril Davies Toppermost. For an essay on its origins and the many covers, try Wiki under See See Rider.

11. I refer in the text to Charlie Gillett’s book “The Sound Of The City”. Its full title is “The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll”. The book started out as the thesis for Charlie’s Master’s Degree for Columbia University in NYC (though I should add that Charlie was English born and bred for those who weren’t aware). The thesis was on the history of rock and roll music. The resulting book, which was published in 1970, is the first such document to take our music seriously – many documents published in the mid/late sixties viewed “rock” as starting with Dylan and the Beatles. Charlie’s book is superbly researched, offers well informed and continually interesting opinions and remains relevant to this day. I’d recommend it to anyone.

12. Betty And Dupree is the tale of Betty Andrews and Frank DuPre and it’s an example of the genre “murder ballad” dating back to 1926 or before. For a lengthy but entertaining essay on the subject, please see this edition of Sing Out.

13. Another example of Chuck’s way with words came in his song Two Spoons Of Tears. The expanded title line was “I’m tired of drinking coffee with two spoons of tears”. Manufactured maybe, but it sticks in the brain.

14. In his Atlantic days and possibly earlier, Chuck took to wearing a turban on stage, leading to nicknames like “Sheik Of The Blues” or even “Sheik Of Shake”. It is reported (Blackcat Rockabilly Europe) that he was in possession of 54 turbans at the time of his death. Loss of hair was the likely reason for the unusual headgear but Cal speculates whether he fancied himself to look like the 1920’s matinée idol, Rudolph Valentino.

15. Chuck had a cousin called Chick Willis who also operated as a blues singer. He had something of a reputation for ribald blues. This is one: Stoop Down Baby … Let Your Daddy See.

16. Chuck Willis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran died in 1958, 1959 and 1960 respectively. For each artist, the last disc issued when alive was What Am I Living For / Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes (CW), It Doesn’t Matter Anymore (BH), Three Steps To Heaven (EC). All of these songs had titles which now sound prophetic. In fact none of them were death related. Spooky though. Cal came up with this nugget. He went on to hypothesise, “How much more might these artists have gone on to create, had all three not died prematurely, with still so much more to give?”

17. Bob Dylan has performed It’s Too Late at least three times on stage. He has also included Chuck Willis records in his Theme Time Radio Hour. The paragraph below is an extract from his introduction to Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes in Episode 42:

“As often as possible on Theme Time Radio Hour we try to feature artists who perform wearing turbans. Here’s one of my favorites.”

 

Chuck Willis photo 2

 

Chuck Willis at 45cat

Chuck Willis at Discogs

“The Songs of Chuck Willis – From The Bottom of My Heart: My Life, My Story, My Songs 1951-1961” (Jasmine CD)

Chuck Willis biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over forty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Little Willie John, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Billy Fury, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Little Willie John, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Charlie Rich, Townes Van Zandt, T-Bone Walker

TopperPost #671

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Oct 31, 2017

    Like most people of my vintage, I think, I first heard of Chuck though the Derek and the Dominoes version of ‘Its Too Late’. Only discovered the original later on – but what a magnificent record it is. This excellent piece fills in the rest of the story.

  2. Peter Viney
    Nov 4, 2017

    Good to see the link to the Band’s live Rock & Roll Shoes from Rock of Ages. They must have loved the original 45, because they also tried What Am I Living For (basically Levon Helm singing and playing double bass) and it’s an outtake on the remaster of Moondog Matinee. They also did C.C. Rider and Caldonia, though those have multiple sources. There are live tapes of Levon & The Hawks, and neither R&R Shoes nor What Am I Living For appear, but then they were said to be “a walking jukebox.” I’d surmise they did them too. The big Chuck Willis one though is “Southern Love” with the classic Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks version on Mr Dynamo. It was originally called Whatcha Gonna Do, not that I’ve heard the original.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 6, 2017

      I discovered an interesting 2 CD or MP3 set whilst doing the research for Chuck. It’s called “From the bottom of my heart, My story, My songs 1951-1961”. The second half consists entirely of covers of the man’s material and includes a couple of versions of “Southern love/Whatcha gonna do”, one from RH, and the other from Vince Taylor. One warning though: approx half way down the Amazon listing drops out of synch with the samples. It’s only by one number so isn’t too big an issue if you’re expecting it. Chuck’s original is included too.

  3. Cal Taylor
    Nov 6, 2017

    Dave and I had a great measure of consensus when choosing our Chuck Willis top 10. Eight of our respective selections were identical which, out of 70-odd recordings, was quite amazing.
    Peter, in his Comment above, mentioned ‘Whatcha Gonna Do’. This was one of my top 10 but we decided to omit it in the final joint selection. ‘Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You’ (to give it its full title) b/w ‘Juanita’ was Chuck’s second Atlantic single. Both sides sold well, reaching no.11 and no.7 respectively in the R&B charts at the end of 1956. This was the single after the fantastic ‘It’s Too Late’ and immediately before his first crossover hit ‘C. C. Rider’.
    In the UK ‘Whatcha Gonna Do’ was covered by Billie Davis on her 1964 Columbia single and Tom Jones did it on his 1965 debut album ‘Along Came Jones’ – both of those versions can be found on YouTube as can Chuck’s great original and here it is.

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