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COLUMBIA 30238; MAY 1951



In many ways generic records in any style are a sign the style itself is going well. After all, few artists or record companies would try and replicate an unsuccessful approach.

Furthermore, just because a song is generic in its construction doesn’t mean it can’t be rewarding as a record in its own right, even if there’s not much original to be found among its individual components.

In some cases even when the overall sound is derivative there are artists who manage to bring a spark of creativity to the performance that allows it to reside comfortably alongside the very records it appropriates its sounds from.


When I See You Comin’, Baby
Though Chuck Willis would go down in history as much for his songwriting as his singing, excelling at both equally, no songwriter emerges from a sterile bubble, immune from any outside influences.

In Willis, still days away from his twenty third birthday, we get to see someone for whom rock ‘n’ roll, not earlier pre-rock styles, had formed virtually the entire basis of his musical upbringing.

Though Can’t You See isn’t a straight lift from any one source, it’s got the fingerprints of a number of different rock approaches over the past few years, making this a good place to start if you were interested in analyzing the music’s DNA as it nears its fourth birthday.

What’s more interesting than that however is something sure to escape most people’s notice entirely, and that’s how for a kid who’d never been in a recording studio before, who may never have been outside of the state of Georgia for that matter, was far more hip than many – if not most – of his contemporaries ever would be when it came to the lucrative field of publishing.

According to the promo release of this single, the credited publisher is none other than Harold “Chuck” Willis himself. Talk about a shocker!

Here’s the one instance where a rock act being on a major label had its benefits, not that Columbia would be so magnanimous to inform Willis of such things themselves, but if he already knew about the fact that he could place his songs with whatever publisher he chose, or start his own entity to handle it rather than hand over those rights to the company, then they weren’t going to stand in his way.

Had he signed with one of the independent labels who were after him, Savoy Records being the one who were actually reported to have locked him up at one point, he would’ve been physically tortured had he tried claiming his own publishing. Herman Lubinsky’s head would’ve exploded and his dismembered tongue would’ve crawled across his office floor STILL yelling about how ungrateful Willis was for wanting to collect the publishing royalties he legally had coming to him.

That being said, I’m sure some executive at Columbia was out of a job for not dissuading Willis from pursuing this on his own.



Think For What You’ve Learned
When you listen to this record, what do you hear first? More to the point, what sinks in the most and recalls something else you’ve heard before?

Is it the drawn out horn arrangement that so many companies, from King to Regal, all adapted as their go-to first page of the playbook set up for mid-tempo rock songs?

Or the piano triplets that Little Willie Littlefield made a cornerstone of his – and seemingly half of all of rock’s – output for the next decade?

Is it the Fats Domino-derived melodic pattern taken from Every Night About This Time with its yearning vocals suggesting hope and uncertainty mixing together like bourbon and water, all of it going down easy even if it leaves you with a burn in your chest as you contemplate the ramifications of the words they’re singing?

Maybe it’s the way he doubles up on certain syllables almost as if he had a barely discernible stutter and how he rides them with a strained emphasis like Amos Milburn was fond of doing?

In truth it might be any of these and in some ways that’s the beauty of Can’t You See, the song is a patchwork quilt of influences, most of which probably weren’t even foremost in Willis’s mind when he wrote or sung it, but rather they’d been so thoroughly absorbed through osmosis that it came out naturally.

Of course all of that also means that even if he doesn’t get so brazen as to strip any song for all of its parts, this is probably not going to be the most memorable song on its own merits unless he crafts some exceptional lyrics to almost make you forget the other records it vaguely recalls.

If anyone could do it maybe Chuck Willis could, but an older, more experienced Willis, not the novice who was still figuring out how these things worked.

You’re Gonna Need My Help Some Day
What he does instead is focus on presenting just a simple plot that fulfills certain basic requirements – setting himself up as someone wronged in love to play on your sympathy, then he slowly drags out the accusations without making them too pointed to let the listener transpose their own romantic complaints on the song and finally he shows enough stoic determination in how he deals with this to earn your respect for not bawling about it and degrading himself in an effort to make her treat him kinder.

It’s a reliable formula because it doesn’t put the singer out on a limb, as long as he hits his marks at the right time and doesn’t throw in any crazy plot twists he’s halfway home provided his voice carries with it the right amount of pathos which Willis’s certainly does on Can’t You See.

As with the other side his vocal judgement is first rate, holding back until the last possible second before releasing each line, building tension and revealing no nervous apprehension about his singing as so many newcomers tend to do, especially those in the studio for the first time.

Willis is the picture of self-control here, adding more depth to this song via his performance than it probably deserves otherwise.

It’s not a bad composition or anything and it features some perfectly good playing with a sax part that has the elasticity of a wad of chewing gum left in the hot sun for an hour or two, but it’s hardly anything that would turn your head if not for the fact you already know all the parts he’s using so well that it sounds like something you should be paying attention to for that reason alone.


What You’re Doing To Me
Hearing this record in the spring of 1951 might leave you with a few somewhat conflicting thoughts.

The first is the shock that Columbia Records of all companies are releasing a genuine rock song that isn’t in any way watered down by their usual outdated production ideas or disdain for rock in general. The fact that Chuck Willis was just a young kid without a track record also bodes well for the label’s prospects going forward, since usually Columbia wouldn’t think of signing artists to serve as their designated rock entries who hadn’t been around the block awhile.

A rookie artist who was writing – and publishing – his own material and performing it with casual grace with a band that was in lockstep with him, all of them sounding perfectly comfortable with the task at hand is something you’d have to admire.

But would you ever guess he was going to be a star based on the song itself or even the performance, as fundamentally solid as they both are? Probably not.

Can’t You See is a good song without trying to be anything more than that. Too polished to be called only serviceable, yet not distinctive enough to lead you to believe that Willis could be relied on to constantly come up with strong material. He was certainly more than competent at each facet of his game, yet didn’t quite seem to have any latent star quality under the surface based on this.

But sometimes an artist needs to just put their time in, build a solid foundation through what they’ve picked up from others, and then when they get a few reps under their belt they can let their own creativity flourish and walk on their own two feet.

Let’s just say he’s someone to keep an eye on at this point, not anyone to get excited about… Yet.


(Visit the Artist page of Chuck Willis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)