BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of rock’s first great singer/songwriters, scoring hits as an artist as well writing hits for others, and one of just a handful of artists to have equal success in the pre and post crossover period of rock in the 1950’s before his untimely death in 1958.

Harold Willis was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1928 in one of the poorer sections of town and was singing and writing from a relatively young age, performing publicly at twenty years old , soon coming to the attention of popular local dee-jay, Zenas “Daddy” Sears, one of the first white disc jockeys to champion rock ‘n’ roll on the air who steered Willis to Columbia Records – after earlier interest showed by Savoy, who’d had hits with Billy Wright, another Atlanta native with Sears links.

A week before he turned 23 Chuck Willis, as he was calling himself professionally, cut a standard four song session for the major label before they switched him to their long dormant OKeh subsidiary to handle the company’s newfound interest in exploring – or exploiting – rock ‘n’ roll and other uncouth styles.

Over the next five years Willis was the greatest star on OKeh, releasing seventeen singles including five Top Ten national hits. His songwriting was strong from the start, featuring well crafted stories with intelligent lyrics, strong melodies, tight arrangements and a catalog fairly evenly split between uptempo rockers and sad or introspective ballads.

With his own songs regularly making the charts his songwriting began to attract attention for other artists, first through cover versions of his initial hit, “My Story”, and then by 1954 he began writing songs to order for big name artists who scored some of their biggest hits with his material – Ruth Brown’s #1 smash “Oh What A Dream”, The Cardinals’ #4 hit “The Door Is Still Open To My Heart” while The Five Keys recorded a bunch of his tunes, the most successful of which was “Close Your Eyes” which made it to #5. In addition he penned songs for The Drifters, The Cadillacs and The Clovers.

Soon after that productive stretch Willis signed with Atlantic Records just as they were watering down their productions in a misguided attempt to appeal to the white market by adding steel guitars, white female chorales and other pop touches. Though Willis couldn’t help but suffer from this artistically his singing and songwriting were strong enough to overcome even the most ham-fisted production and with rock ‘n’ roll now widely heard and accepted by white youths his records now were reaching a broader market which allowed him to make his first appearances on the pop charts.

Though Willis had occasionally recorded non-original material over the years – a take on Louis Jordan’s immortal “Caldonia” and a cover of Fats Domino’s yet to be released “Going To The River” that he’d heard on tour with Fats and asked him if he could cut it himself and then managed to beat Domino’s record to market – he was such a prolific writer that he didn’t need to look elsewhere for songs. Yet in 1957 he had an idea he presented to Jerry Wexler about cutting a “standard”. Expecting a white pop song Wexler was shocked when Willis brought in a re-worked version of the blues classic “C.C. Rider” which – finally with a strong arrangement, despite the female chorus, featuring vibes and a great sax solo by Daddy Gene Barge – became Willis’s biggest hit to date, his first #1 smash and his most enduring record as well as the template for virtually every version of the song since then. It also launched rock’s first huge dance craze, The Stroll, which its lurching tempo was perfect for.

Two physical ailments had come into play before this which would have significant impact on his life and career. The first was that he began wearing a turban on stage because he was self-conscious about losing his hair at such a young age, though the theatrical look helped to make him stand out as he embarked on multi-artist package shows where each act had just a short time and a few songs to make an impression.

The other, far more serious, issue came about when he was first treated for ulcers in 1955, something that was exacerbated by drinking. In 1957 he was operated on again for the problem but continued recording and touring, scoring another hit with a stroll-tempo tune, “Betty And Dupree” in early 1958.

In April 1958 Willis was back in the hospital for ulcers, having aggravated them eating barbecue. This time it was too late and as the trade papers were reviewing what would turn out to be his biggest record, a two-sided smash “What Am I Living For” b/w “Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes”, two eerily prophetic titles despite their content having nothing to do with death, Chuck Willis was gone, dying in his hometown of Atlanta at the age of thirty, leaving behind a wife and three kids.

When two subsequent singles of his both charted, Willis became just the second rock artist to have records released posthumously become hits (after Johnny Ace with “Anymore”). Willis’s death coming right on the heels of Elvis Presley’s induction into the Army was also the next – and least historically recognized – domino to fall in a series of events that severely cut into rock’s empire followed immediately by charges leveled against Alan Freed for a riot at a concert in Boston, Jerry Lee Lewis’s career being derailed by marrying a 13 year old cousin, a payola scandal that tried limiting rock’s power on radio and eventually the deaths of Buddy Holly, Jesse Belvin and Eddie Cochran among others, all of which happened in the span of just two years.

Long after Chuck Willis’s recognition would’ve been expected to fade his songwriting ensured his name would linger on as many of his compositions were revived by a wide array of artists from Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and James Brown to Solomon Burke, Eric Clapton and Charlie Rich in rock circles to old school pop legend Dean Martin who had a huge hit with one of his songs in the mid-1960’s despite his disdain for rock ‘n’ roll.

Despite one of the more successful dual threat careers of any rock act of the 1950’s, Willis has yet to be inducted to The Songwriters Hall Of Fame and though he’s received multiple nominations for The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame over the years he never got enough votes and remains one of their more glaring omissions.
 

CHUCK WILLIS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

IT AIN’T RIGHT TO TREAT ME WRONG
(Columbia 30238; May, 1950)
A remarkably confident debut highlighting Willis’s songwriting abilities with a well crafted, lyrically interesting story plus that along with his well judged vocals and a tight, if slightly underpowered, arrangement makes him someone to watch. (6)

CAN’T YOU SEE
(Columbia 30238; May, 1950)
More of a generic record by Willis, yet one that shows good faculty for assembling a new song from recycled parts without ripping anything off in the process as he adds a decent story, effective arrangement and solid vocal delivery making this easy to take. (5)

I RULE MY HOUSE
(OKeh 6810; August, 1951)
A much more nuanced song despite limited opportunity to reveal that through lyrics alone, Willis perfectly embodies the conflicted insecurity of the character over a vibrant rolling arrangement that never lets up. (6)

I TRIED
(OKeh 6810; August, 1951)
A nice change of pace from the top side as this downhearted lament may not break any new ground but is typically well crafted with a sturdy if subdued arrangement to back Willis’s emotionally measured vocals. (5)

LET’S JUMP TONIGHT
(OKeh 6841; November, 1951)
A rousing uptempo track whose intentionally vague lyrics may suggest different scenarios to different listeners, but whose overall impression is unmistakable which is that a good time will be had by all as the tight band and an enthusiastic Willis work hard to ensure. (8)

IT’S TOO LATE BABY
(OKeh 6841; November, 1951)
Well written with a subtly self-incriminating view of Willis’s own need for retribution over the one who dumped him by using his new girlfriend as a form of revenge… the music compliments the cloaked attacks and if the message it sends is questionable, the record is effective. (7)