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OKEH 6841; NOVEMBER 1951



Image is often based on first impressions.

The casually self-assured guy seen from a distance… the cooly beautiful femme fatale who sets her sights on him… the image is set with just a few shots and usually what follows is predictable if those images are to be trusted.

But if you come into the scene late there’s always a chance the play unfolded in unexpected fashion for them both causing you to have a different impression of the characters altogether. Maybe she’s not as experienced as she first appears and perhaps his actions aren’t following the script and the whole plot changes as a result.

Looking back at 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll from any time over the past half century, the prevailing image of Chuck Willis is one based on his later work with Atlantic Records… good songs and some great performances and yet prone to aiming for crossover appeal at times which tends to classify him as an engaging but hardly rousing artist.

If you’re familiar with that image and then decide to go further back and unearth his OKeh material there’s a good chance it will catch you off guard because it tended to be a lot more unrestrained than you’re used to hearing from him. Yet for those coming of age in the moment, this earlier rendition was the real Chuck Willis and what later followed was a Chuck Willis who had been slightly tamed for the masses.

Same artist, but a much different image.


I Feel Alright
The OKeh subsidiary of Columbia Records had been around for a long time in various short-lived stages, always designed to highlight the best Black music of the time, whether blues, jazz or now rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet as we’ve seen already – and will continue to see over the next few years – the major labels who turned to these subsidiaries in order to try and tap into rock’s commercial potential without negatively affecting the parent company’s prim and proper image in the process, rarely succeeded creatively because they were still being operated with the same conservative mindset that defined their mainstream pop acts.

Yes, the artists had slightly more credibility, but generally speaking the approach the producers took was to use that credibility against them by trying to force their “round” music into the square holes of the pop mindset.

OKeh Records though managed to avoid this fate more than most, in large part because producer Danny Kessler was not a veteran record man who was set in his ways. In fact he’d never produced anything before, he was merely a sales rep with a knack for pushing rocking material better than his co-workers and given the job to oversee their rock acts on the newly revived OKeh imprint because Columbia had no other viable options.

But the other reason he succeeded where others in the industry failed was because he had the good fortune to sign Chuck Willis who with his songwriting ability ensured that his own releases were authentic rockers like the unambiguous anthem, Let’s Jump Tonight.

With his confident yet laid-back vocal approach, a top flight band at his disposal and airtight arrangements, his records met with immediate respect from all corners in rock ‘n’ roll and as such it gave the OKeh label the stamp of approval needed to pursue this music free from overbearing control of their handlers in the front office.


Don’t Get Mad If I Go Too Far
Everything about this record is designed to leap off the turntable and hit you between the eyes without actually being violently aggressive about it as a lot of uptempo rock tracks were.

It’s controlled anarchy, maybe simulated anarchy if you want to be cynical about it, but effective in its aims nevertheless.

The rousing banked horns with their stuttering intro that trade off with the piano employing the same technique shows a creativity that is hard to miss, yet it’s totally organic rather than appearing contrived which allows it to go down easy.

When Chuck Willis comes into the picture he’s straining at the seams with his enthusiasm, yet remains fully under control with his delivery, never appearing overeager for the wild night that he and his baby are about to embark on.

You’re free to read into Let’s Jump Tonight any interpretation of the activities on the schedule that you’d like. Maybe it’s just a night on the town, dinner, drinks and dancing. Maybe it’s something a little more untamed, like a house party across the tracks. Or it could be a night of endless debauchery behind closed doors.

Willis’s writing allows it to work equally well in all three scenarios without force feeding you any extraneous details that would limit your imagination in any way. The lines are intentionally vague, yet all-encompassing just the same. The way his voice rises and falls at certain junctures certainly suggest alternative meanings, but aren’t reliant on everyone agreeing on what those entail in order to pay off.

The band is locked in tightly behind him, yet are still playing with uninhibited freedom within that arrangement giving this a sense of being fueled on nitroglycerin. The blending of the parts, how one lead instrument gives way to another, is done so seamlessly that you marvel at its cohesiveness.

We get tight riffing horns behind Willis in the verses, overlapping horns in the break with a tenor and baritone each contributing equally to the pandemonium, while the drummer is hyper-kinetic on the skins. In spite of their energy however you never get the sense they’re on the verge of losing control. Everything falls into place beautifully and even with all the moving pieces there’s not a single moment where something feels out of place.

Maybe the song’s content falls just short of being memorable without more specific references to recall, but the feeling it elicits as it plays will stick with you long after the record stops spinning.


Lots Of Money And A Cadillac Car
Of the artists who made the transition as stars from the pre-integration years of rock and were just as popular in the crossover period, Chuck Willis is second only to Fats Domino in terms of the scope of his success.

He scored eight national hits on the segregated charts before 1957 after which he wracked up five Pop Hits before his death at age thirty in early 1958.

Let’s Jump Tonight was not one of those early hits on the R&B Charts, yet for those who heard it at the time it announced his future stardom as well as any big seller could.

For those who only became aware of him through his later work (and who have been led to believe that rock ‘n’ roll only existed once white kids knew of it), it’s the discovery of songs of this nature that not only showed how much more diverse an artist Chuck Willis was, but also reveals that the rock ‘n’ roll they missed out on the first time around was something special from the very start.

The image may not fit your preconceptions, but there’s no doubting the results.


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