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OKEH 6810; AUGUST 1951



The earliest releases of any prominent artist are always far more interesting than exploring random nobodies simply because – being time travelers from the future – we know what they’ll achieve down the road and so there’s always some curiosity to see if that talent was apparent from the start.

Thus far with Chuck Willis the answer to that is sort of mixed. We can already tell he was a skilled singer with a good voice but he was never going to be someone who stopped you dead in your tracks with his voice alone. His songwriting, which would become his strongest attribute, was already pretty solid but thus far stuck to fairly standard themes and structures, impressive in their attention to detail but limited in their scope all the same.

Yet so far he hasn’t made any missteps either and given us any reason to seriously doubt his potential. Though this is another side which may not suggest he was a star in waiting, it also wasn’t anything to make his eventual rise to stardom something that you couldn’t at least envision being possible.

It might just be holding serve for now, but that’s a far more promising start than falling behind early and scrambling to make up for lost ground later on.


The Shape I’m In
Even though it’s very early in OKeh Records’ lifespan – at least this iteration – it’s not too early to see if this revived subsidiary of a major label attempting to elbow their way into the increasingly alluring rock market has any chance of paying off or if it will soon be deemed a failed experiment.

Granted this is awful soon to be passing judgment on them after just a handful of releases but considering the track record for all major labels when it comes to this brand of music you can understand our impatience. Why beat around the bush and drag this out longer than need be. If they’re not serious about actually granting creative autonomy to the artists they’ve signed, if they’re trying to hedge their bets to appeal to a more mature audience that doesn’t exist in any substantial numbers for this kind of music, if they’re merely hoping to present their old fashioned values in a new suit of clothes… well, we don’t have much time for that.

If on the other hand they’re going to try and pretend they’re players in this game to be taken seriously, then it shouldn’t be hard to discern that even after a couple of records.

To do this the first rule is to let the artist – encourage them is more like it – to contribute their own songs rather than hand them somebody else’s compositions to record.

Well, Chuck Willis wrote I Tried (To Get Along With You), just as he also wrote the top side of the single… and for that matter all of the songs they’ve recorded so far over the course of two sessions.

Secondly they’d have to make sure their vocalists had the right musicians behind them playing arrangements that were complimenting the songs, not detracting from them.

Okay, they’ve done that here as well, the band is clearly well versed in both the uptempo swagger of I Rule My House and the kind of halting tentative framework required for this more introspective song.

Which brings us to the third test of the company’s vision… do they take advantage of the two sides of a single to present their artists in different ways, thereby expanding his commercial possibilities in the future as well as ensuring he doesn’t become redundant by sticking to just one approach?

Damn, they do that here too.

Well whaddaya know, maybe OKeh Records actually knew what they were doing after all.


Haven’t I Been Good To You?
Just because all of the components are present to make this a quality B-side, it still clearly IS a B-side, even though the ads suggest it may have been thought of as the top side from the start.

If that’s the case we will give the company a demerit for their choice… not because I Tried is a bad record by any means, but because it’s not a record that’s constructed to grab your attention like the more boisterous flip was – and even that song was a unnecessary compromise after their first choice for a single was scuttled for some reason a few weeks earlier.

But in the long run – even in the short run for those paying attention to this new artist on this “new” label – the single accomplished its goal by showing two sides of Chuck Willis backed by a quality band on well crafted original material.

There’s nothing fancy about it though, it’s a downhearted ballad with a prominent tenor sax setting the despondent mood and Willis alternately moaning and wailing over it without ever losing control of his emotions. Those may not be a dime a dozen in rock, but they certainly are common enough that we know what to look for as soon as the record kicks off.

I Tried To Be A Good Man
More than anything it’s Chuck Willis’s confident performance which stands out here on the fairly standard material he put together. As with most self-pitying laments there’s not many places a writer can go with it since he’s recounting past events, usually in the form of generalities rather than specific colorful incidents. Like so many dealing with depression Willis takes each slight personally – no matter how small or unintentional it may have been – and feels as though he’s been neglected and has no one who truly cares about him.

In that way he’s more or less trying to elicit sympathy, stating these things matter-of-factly so as to seem he’s not bothered by it, yet by expressing his pain in this fashion he wants to be reassured that others are concerned about his well being.

He does a good job of it, he’s certainly convincing vocally anyway, selling you on the belief he’s wrestling with these emotions internally rather than merely singing about them without any real investment in their consequences. But songs like I Tried (To Get Along With You) are all about vocal subtlety and discretion, not dramatic turns and dynamic projection, so as solid as his performance is, there’s still a ceiling on how impressed you can be with something designed to be understated.

The band’s support is likewise effective but subdued by nature, the droning horns providing the right dejected atmosphere while the tickling piano gives it just enough of a pulse to keep it moving forward. The sax’s interjections are the high points here, bringing melodic variety to the proceedings even if there’s obviously no place for anything more rousing.

The record is a workmanlike effort by skilled craftsman even if what they’re building is hardly ambitious enough to grace the cover of Architectural Digest.


Get Along With You
Though there are plenty of examples of a record company moving well beyond what they attempted in their first months of existence, those labels – Atlantic, Imperial, King – were start-up independent companies, not the off-shoot of a major label who had much different, and much less realistic, commercial expectations.

Whereas those with no history in the business would be inclined to let the market and the specific talents of available artists dictate their direction, those connected with a major label were far more bound to established tradition. If something in this field they didn’t quite understand to begin with failed to elicit interest they’d be inclined to revert to old habits and conversely if something that wasn’t quite cutting edge nevertheless saw some action they’d double down on it even at the expense of limiting their potential for innovation.

OKeh initially seemed a prime candidate for that, as some of their first sides were looking backwards slightly even if that was due more to the band personnel than any big picture plan they had, but with Chuck Willis they seemed to be willing to let him choose his own path and it immediately became clear he was not looking backwards in the least.

Maybe they selected I Tried from among his first batch of songs because it was modestly familiar enough to placate their more conservative backgrounds, but because every aspect of the record was done right it gave you hope that they wouldn’t try and stifle their artists or steer them into something their bosses at Columbia would prefer.

Granted that’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but when it comes to the major labels and their minions, anything that was at least peering forward rather than being held back was cause for mild celebration.


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