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COLUMBIA 30238; MAY 1951



By 1951 rock ‘n’ roll was an unstoppable force, no longer just a musical trend but a cultural marker for a generation. The sporadic chart action it began with in late 1947 and into 1948 had quickly grown that second year and by the end of the Nineteen Forties it was on par commercially with any form of black performed music.

Its widespread appeal only intensified at the start of the next decade and by the time last winter rolled around it was inarguable that rock was the dominant form of music in the community that gave birth to it and each month it seemed to be getting stronger with a deeper and more versatile cast of characters being added to the rolls all the time.

So far the star-studded newcomers in rock over the past six or seven months have predominantly been vocal groups, including some all time greats who would go on to shape the music over the next decade in ways that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

Today however marks the first appearance of a new solo star who will arguably outshine them all.


I’d Rather Be Dead And In My Grave
As we’ve stated many times before, Columbia Records viewed rock ‘n’ roll’s arrival in 1947 as something akin to the plague… a musical monstrosity that they all hoped was a temporary fad signifying absolutely nothing other than the poor tastes and low standards of a segment of society they did not know, nor cared to understand.

When it proved stubbornly popular however it became harder for them to completely ignore and so the company disingenuously began to try and encroach upon it with older acts still in search of their big break who might reasonably replicate the more authentic sounds emanating from this field.

When some of those artists had the audacity to reveal some genuine enthusiasm for this kind of music and tap into previously unknown abilities to convincingly perform it the executives at Columbia surely wondered what demons they had unleashed by opening this Pandora’s Box, quickly slamming the lid back down and hoping they wouldn’t be held responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization.

Don’t worry, your secret is safe with us.

But when the world didn’t end despite the handful of sides released on their label which actually added to the music’s growing lore they took stock in the unsettling reality that such forces of evil could be profitable and decided that maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to push it aside and try to deny its existence.

So in 1951 they took a big step towards legitimizing rock ‘n’ roll in their eyes by signing untested new rock artists such as Chuck Willis and held their collective breath as they released It Ain’t Right To Treat Me Wrong, his only single on Columbia before they had the good sense to revive a dormant label on which to place these musical renegades so as to not besmirch their own hallowed reputation.

Surely this is a sign that the apocalypse is upon us.


I Can Beat You Doin’ What You’re Tryin’ To Do
The one thing that would help to ensure that Chuck Willis wouldn’t fall prey to meddling Columbia producers and A&R men trying to get him to conform to their outdated ideals, was the fact that Willis was on track to become one of the greatest singer/songwriters in rock history, thereby eliminating the ill-suited hand-me-down songs he might otherwise be compelled to record.

In fact the mountain of songs that Willis wrote – because they’re open for constant re-interpretation over the years by artists in all kinds of styles – probably will outlive his own records in the end, thereby ensuring his legacy in a way that even all his hits might not be able to do.

He wasted no time in this regard either, for at his first session a week before his 23rd birthday, he came to the studio armed with his own compositions and his own ideas of how they should be arranged. With It Ain’t Right To Treat Me Wrong, he gives notice with the title of the song that he was someone for whom lyrical inventiveness would be a cornerstone of his persona.

As he steps to the microphone three balding middle-aged white men behind the control room glass look out at him with a curious mix of bewilderment, anxiety and condescending paternal patience, hoping he doesn’t sing anything that might get them all in trouble. Willis smiles back at them with a knowing look in his eye and then eases into the song with a confidence that belies his youth and inexperience.

His voice is warm, distinctive and completely in control of each vocal inflection. Though he’d had been singing around Atlanta for the last year or two, coming to the attention of dee-jay Daddy Sears who used his connections to tip off Columbia’s Danny Kessler about him, this was still Willis’s first time in a studio and yet he sounds as comfortable in his surroundings as any veteran performer.

The song is a simple romantic plea on its surface, but unique in that it comes with a backbone and a sense of intelligence, as the character Willis creates doesn’t simply follow his heart or his loins when dealing with a woman whose interest in him seems to fluctuate with the weather, but instead he shows he understands the big picture and plays his hand accordingly.

His delivery manages to effectively balance a sense of hurt at the way he’s been treated, a still flickering interest in the girl he’s addressing while at the same time maintaining his confidence and self-respect… no easy task.

Without either resorting to anger or begging for her approval he states his case and then flatly tells her what it will require of her to keep him, rightly assessing that if she’s aware of what her actions are doing and continues to behave the same then she’s not worth the trouble. Though the concept itself is nothing unusual, a few lines sparkle with the images he uses or the way he frames it which helps to makes the record stand out as a step above the run-of-the-mill cuts so many lesser lights on the scene were issuing.


When You See Me Havin’ Fun
Not knowing what was to follow from Willis, we might temper our expectations some by pointing to the somewhat modest accompaniment he gets here.

Nothing is out of place mind you, the piano opening is assertive enough, the bass and drummer are in the pocket throughout the song while the horns are swinging lightly with a nice tone and good rhythmic sense and even the solo doesn’t veer into pop sensibilities but instead maintains the slowly churning urgency of the groove they’ve set, but it’s all designed to be essentially just scenery… nice scenery perhaps, but nothing that jumps out at you.

Maybe It Ain’t Right To Treat Me Wrong isn’t quite startling enough on its own to herald the arrival of a future star, but it’s also the first time that a major label had unearthed a newcomer who clearly understood this music, loved this music and had the ability to write and perform this music properly.

That he didn’t allow himself to be watered down in his first session, when it was most likely to happen, was another positive sign and while we couldn’t have known that even better cuts had been laid down that day, this one is still good enough to pass muster with even the most skeptical rock fan who was prone to dismissing anything on this label without a second thought.

If nothing else it shows that maybe there was a crack in the establishment’s wall of resistance to rock ‘n’ roll after all. And we all know once the cracks appear it’s not long before the whole wall comes tumbling down.


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