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OKEH 6873; APRIL 1952



One of the inevitable pieces of advice you’ll get while growing up is that you should always try new things while you still can.

For most people this opportunity represents a very small window in life… one that is only applicable after they’re old enough to make their own decisions without being reined in by parents or teachers and on their own so they don’t have to answer for those decisions.

On the opposite end of the spectrum those opportunities generally dry up a few years later, or more accurately are given up voluntarily by people when they decide to “mature” and take on responsibility and become a boring person whose idea of trying new things from that point forward is usually to jump on a trend only after it has long since become passé.

In other words, you have about six or seven years – late teens to mid-20’s – to really experiment, explore uncharted territory and have fun seeing what is out there beyond your doorstep before settling into whoever you are and will be for eternity.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on those who blandly accept – and even precipitate – the loss of their own freedom, because while it seems to those of us still railing against this to be the ultimate form of capitulation, the fact remains that most new things you try don’t turn out so well, as Chuck Willis found out with this record.

Then again, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them anyway.


Give Me Back My Lover
Normally we ignore, if not belittle, record label’s attempts to classify their own music. If you were to look closely at a lot of the small print – be it in ads or on the labels themselves – in the early 1950’s on rock releases, you’d see words like “Sepia”, “Rhythm & Blues” or “Hot Jazz” or “Blues” as the genre classification… misleading for our purposes but making perfect sense for their own alternative reasoning.

Remember, record companies were in the business of selling music, not understanding it. They were using marketing terms to ensure that their product was picked up by the “right” distributors, retailers or promoters and in the early Fifties much of that was determined primarily by race.

Hence you’d have substitute words being used to indicate a) who made the music and b) who that music was for.

Even the term “rhythm & blues” was never meant to describe the MUSICAL attributes of a song, only the skin pigmentation of the artists and audiences in question. R&B music doesn’t exist – not then, not now. It’d be the same as if Billboard magazine conceived a chart to determine which records had the most appeal to women and then called those records “Ladies Music”.

Blues was another matter however in that it was a musical genre with specific traits that distanced it from jazz or pop, gospel or rock ‘n’ roll, yet because it was – at least in these days – performed entirely by black artists and had very few white patrons, it was ALSO used as shorthand for black music as a whole.

You’ll note that on Here I Come, underneath the title, and above Willis’s name in the songwriting credits, OKeh Records has indicated this is Blues, whereas on the other side they told you that was “Rhythm”.

Obviously both songs were written and performed by the same person with the same genetic makeup, yet here’s one instance where the use of those respective terms was designed to differentiate between audiences within the black community based on the style of the music within.

Though this song may not be pure blues the way that blues fans of the day were conditioned to think of that music, it was a lot closer to that ideal than Chuck Willis would ever come again.


The Blues I Could Lose
Like most of his songs, this one was written by Chuck Willis himself (the H. in the credits stands for Harold, his real first name in case you were wondering) and it shows him to be venturing into territory a bit outside the usual rock format he specialized in.

Oddly enough his most well-remembered song is one he didn’t write which was a remake of a true blues standard, C.C. Rider, although it was rearranged and sung in such a way to all but eliminate the blues sensibilities from the composition and with its stroll-tempo and soulful vocals made it a rock standard from that point forward.

Anyway, on Here I Come the blues elements in Willis’s vocals are maintained and accentuated, alebeit in a more uptown vernacular, giving this an almost haunting feel, like it was the doctor coming out of the operating room to tell you the patient didn’t make it.

The story itself is a weird sort of lament as Willis is angry at the city of New Orleans – ironically the birthplace of rock, which he also refers to in the lyrics as the home of the blues – though the reason for his disapproval isn’t musical, but rather stems from the fact that his girl left him to make her home in that city.

He throws in some autobiographical information as says that Atlanta is his home (as it was in real life) and that he’s swallowing his pride to go down to Louisiana to get her back.

There’s not much more to say about the story because he gives us nothing more than that basic flimsy premise. No reason why she left, if she was from there originally herself or found somebody else, or maybe just took work there, and he gives no indication as to why he didn’t go with her in the first place or if they remained in touch with one another. For a Chuck Willis song this is about as stark lyrically as they get.

He masks this by dragging out each line to its breaking point, singing over a modulated piano line that builds tension without any real payoff. His voice is clearly pained but is lacking the more rigid technical characteristics of most seasoned blues singers which along with the faint droning horns bumping against some intermittent guitar licks places this in sort of no man’s land stylistically.

It’s far too downcast and barren for widespread rock acceptance, yet not quite conforming to the exact sonic requirements of dominant blues styles – be it Delta blues, urban electric blues or cocktail blues. It’s got traces of them, but mixed together with horn charts and topped off by a dramatic vocal that sends it to another galaxy altogether. It’s biggest sins however are the fact it’s boring both lyrically and musically, no matter what genre you want to house it in.


Now I’m Done
Needless to say this was not a commercial success, nor an artistic success and naturally Willis avoided such pursuits in the future.

But while it’s one of his least appealing songs – melodically, thematically, you name it – that doesn’t mean the decision to try it in the first place was a mistake.

Success is built on the residue of failure. To really achieve something meaningful you have to try – and discard – things that are meaningless, or at least whose meaning is less relevant to those you are trying to reach.

Here I Come tried something that failed to connect with either of the two dominant singles-based audiences for black music at the time – rock and blues. It was made by the former and perhaps intended to entice fans of the latter, but wasn’t a good fit in either.

On the surface that may not seem like it was worth the effort, other than maybe to get such ideas out of his head so he could focus exclusively on what worked. But it also may have served to let the record companies know that the dividing lines were no longer built entirely on racial lines, but stylistic ones and increasingly partisans of one brand of music were unlikely to be swayed by an attempt to cross over into another.

They knew this already of course, that’s why so many were actively seeking out rock acts and why OKeh Records in particular were largely avoiding any pure blues artists this time around, but sometimes you need more tangible evidence that a certain things are worth pursuing if you’re a rock act and others are not.

Chuck Willis found that out firsthand and we all were better off for that discovery.


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