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OKEH 6810; AUGUST 1951



When Atlanta disc jockey Zenas Sears was having dinner with Columbia A&R man Danny Kessler in early 1951 and Kessler was expressing interest in signing local talent Sears put on an act, telling him about a kid painting his house who was always singing and sounded really good.

In truth the kid was Chuck Willis, a young local act who’d gotten an early start in theater gigs and traveling shows while still a teen and whom Sears was unofficially managing. The ploy worked and Kessler, probably intrigued by the chance of “discovering” an untapped talent, signed Willis to Columbia in the months before OKeh Records was to be re-launched as a subsidiary for their move into rock ‘n’ roll.

Knowing Columbia’s dim view on rock ‘n’ roll and the precarious position he was in as its champion at the company before the hits started piling up, Kessler might’ve asked Willis for tips on house painting… just to have something to fall back on in case none of this worked out for either of them.


As Long As I Pay The Rent
Give Danny Kessler credit, though he’d lucked into his position thanks to his good fortune of working in Philadelphia where one of Columbia’s few black rock acts was from – Chris Powell & His Five Blue Flames – which translated to strong local sales for which Kessler got undue credit, he definitely made the most of his opportunity when given the chance to run the revived OKeh label while barely in his mid-20’s.

His youth may have helped, as he wasn’t beholden to outdated views on “quality” music like everyone else at Columbia, but he also genuinely seemed to like the artists he signed and appreciated their music.

Being a novice in the studio he made the wisest move on his career by not insisting on overseeing the music himself, nor did he turn to the established white producers and arrangers in Columbia’s employ, among them the notorious Mitch Miller, the top producer in all of music at the time who mirrored the company’s distaste for rock.

Instead Kessler ensured his new roster would have music suited to them by hiring such black musicians as Leroy Kirkland to act as arrangers and de facto producers, thereby distancing it from the stench of major label “sweetening”.

Though Chuck Willis had cut sides with this mindset back in January while they were finalizing the plans for OKeh but before it was “officially” launched which resulted in his debut on Columbia in May as well as their planned first release for Willis on OKeh in August to be on OKeh 6805, which was pulled back at the last minute (only one of which would get issued later), they turned to a more recent session from late June for his first entry on the new label with I Rule My House.

This pushed back the release until the first week of August, but as soon as it hit the streets it was obvious that this guy – and thus this label – might be around awhile.


A Man And Not A Mouse
There’s a recurring character in many domestic stories over the years of an insecure blowhard heading up a household.

Think Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners and go from there.

The premise in these stories is that a guy channels all of his everyday frustrations and insecurity into his relationships at home, trying to be the unquestioned King Of The Castle to compensate for his insignificance in the larger world and who will declare I Rule My House with the kind of confidence that he never dares show people outside those four walls.

Chuck Willis was, by all accounts, an incredibly nice, soft-spoken human being, the complete opposite of the guy he’s portraying here, but it’s a testament to his writing ability that he manages to make this role believable and yet still not risk the ire of those listening who may have to deal with the real thing in their own lives.

The key is who he’s telling this to… You’ll notice it’s NOT the women he lives with. There are no direct demands being made, no insults being tossed around, no exchange with the woman in question at all.

That’s because she’s not around. He’s telling it to someone else, or more likely he’s telling this to himself in the empty room after she’s gone to the beauty shop or out with her friends for lunch.

As such, all of the Neanderthal views he’s spouting here only confirm that premise of this all being a way to deal with his own insecurities… and in his case even more so because he’s not risking blowing up the relationship to act on these wild thoughts, he’s merely saying them aloud to vent and get them off his chest and when she returns he’ll be as docile as ever.

The fact that he kicks off by criticizing OTHER men for letting their women walk all over them shows how desperate he is to deflect these charges against himself. While on the surface the song contains lyrics that no decent person would endorse, if you take them at face value you miss the point of the entire record, not to mention disrespecting Willis’s conscious attempts to embody a more realistic and conflicted character.

That being said the lines themselves, while good for the story and accurate in his depiction of this guy, are somewhat mundane. He does switch the details up admirably but because the scene he paints is of someone ranting to himself there’s not going to be much variation and no resolution unless he has her come in the door at the end of the song at which point he’d mumble an excuse and sheepishly ask if he could take in the groceries or something.

If he did THAT then we’d really have to sing his praises as a writer, but for now we’ll just acknowledge that he fashions a good story out of a fairly basic concept with a lot more nuance than it appears on the surface, and leave it at that.


I’m Gonna Be The Boss When I Get Home
But while this record may not give too much indication of his greatest strength – that of a lyricist – it does show him to be a very good singer with a vibrant warm tone who alrady had a knack for crafting good melodic rock, as this song rolls along at a brisk pace with a really strong arrangement.

The highlight of I Rule My House is the instrumental break which features a blistering saxophone rattling off single note bursts in succession before seguing into more traditional riffs. With the drummer never letting up – both bass drum and cymbals – and Willis’s voice acting almost as another rhythm instrument through the bulk of the song, this is an easy record to get caught up in just due to the sheer energy of the entire performance.

Was it as good as the songs they’d originally picked out from last January for his aborted first OKeh single?

No, but it’s still good enough to get this artist-label pairing off on the right foot and show that far from being something of an easily dismissed afterthought with nothing much to differentiate it from the parent major label (like say Coral Records was to Decca at this point), the path OKeh Records was taking was bound to be much different, much more interesting and, with Chuck Willis as a potential cornerstone for the entire line, a much more legitimate rock label.

In other words, already it was shaping up that Willis would rule THAT house, artistically at least, for quite some time.


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