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OKEH 6905; AUGUST 1952



Every artist who ever had a song released to the public anxiously hopes for what’s best termed as a “breakthrough”.

This is often confused with a “hit”, but we’ve seen hits amount to little or nothing for that artist in the long run.

A breakthrough is different though as it signifies the broader public becoming aware of the overall qualities the artist brings to the table, as opposed to just the appeal of a single song, and appreciating them enough to want to seek them out again in the future.

Because it’s not something that can be definitively stated to have happened until after that hit is in the books and the follow-ups start rolling out, it’s only in retrospect that we know for sure when that breakthrough occurred.

This is the single that did it for Chuck Willis and he’d spend the rest of his career… actually, the rest of his life… as a verified hitmaking star.


My Luck Is Changing
To be honest, some breakthroughs we can sort of see coming.

Not that the listening audience at any given time is always reliable with their choices, but when a new artist consistently displays talents that go well beyond the average act of the day it’s kind of hard to imagine the public isn’t going to catch on eventually.

I know, sometimes they don’t and in rock we can start with Albennie Jones and go to Goree Carter and wind up with Kitty Stevenson and wonder all day why none of them broke through, but considering how many artists we’ve covered to date – nearly 250 – the number who had as much talent as anybody and never scored a hit at all is relatively small.

So the question in mid-1952 shouldn’t have been will Chuck Willis break through, but rather WHEN will he?

A good singer with a warmly inviting voice, good phrasing and a top notch band who was recording for a well-funded label with a sympathetic producer in Danny Kessler certainly put the odds in his favor and that’s before taking into account Willis’s skills as a songwriter which is where he’d tower above most of his contemporaries.

The closest comparison right now might be Percy Mayfield, who scored huge hits with downbeat state-of-the-world messages once he joined Specialty Records, but Willis was a singer with a more traditional – and versatile – delivery and a writer who didn’t always dwell on the sadness of life and love, but could delve into any topic with depth and sensitivity, plus a good melodic sense.

All of that is apparent on My Story which not surprisingly etched his name in the best sellers list, landing at #2 on the national charts.

In this instance he might be following the Mayfield game plan, detailing a breakup while ramping up the emotional stakes, but the difference is that Willis is living in the moment, giving us a snapshot of a specific point in his life where all seems lost, but he’s not resigned to living eternity in despair as a result.

Though he’s distraught, there’s an underlying hope found in the sneaky melody and when it was coupled with a vocal performance that swings between inwardly morose and outwardly anguished, means that this was one record that touched all of the bases.


Where Is My Baby?
Love can be a cruel and fickle thing at times, lifting you up with elation when you meet somebody who seems ideal, only to have it fall apart – or sometimes fail to get off the ground – due to the individual shortcomings of the involved parties.

When taking a step back from the situation this usually becomes obvious. Unless one of the lovebirds is a narcissist, a deceptive cheat, or a psychotically jealous loon, the problems that lead to most breakups are surprisingly simple and usually comes down to a lack of communication that lead to gradual overreactions.

Neither partner is necessarily in the wrong, but rather they do something wrong which incrementally builds up causing the fragile trust and mutual dependence they had to slowly crumble.

Though he promises to tell us the full unvarnished truth of the matter, we never DO learn what these issues were with Chuck Willis and his girl and my guess is it’s because he’s still too self-conscious of his own shortcomings to fully admit them to strangers like us. But you can tell by the way he presents the details of My Story that he’s willing to impart that deep down he knows it’s largely his fault.

Though he starts off in a rather measured tone, pretending to be befuddled by the turnabout in her affections, he quickly becomes tormented by these admissions, his voice rising and his pain bubbling to the surface in ways that hint at self-loathing. It’s a remarkable balancing act, as he needs to be able to convince you he is capable of holding his emotions in check when he lowers the volume, but the more he goes over the downfall he speaks of, the more unraveled he becomes.

In real life this is quite a natural mood swing to have, but within the confines of a song with its own melodic requirements thrown into the mix, it’s a harder feat to pull off but he never gives the impression he’s merely acting the part. His full-immersion into the character is essential in making this connect with listeners who naturally will have felt the same hurt at some point in their lives which this has to conjure up with just enough distance between you and the record to allow you to embrace it rather than shy away for fear of breaking down again yourself.

The piano trills that frame the narrative of My Story are ingenious as they symbolize the tension that seems ready to break loose at any time, building suspense without even the need for an explosive payoff. Willis himself comes closest to giving you that payoff when he lets his voice swell with grief, but pulls back before it overwhelms the recording, meaning it’s got no release to let you off the hook.

The whole track is so simply constructed, yet so perfectly chosen, utilizing few parts – crawling drums, creeping guitar and distant moaning horns with the guitar and piano slowly trading off during the break – that it allows you to stay riveted on Willis’s state of mind, sympathizing with him, yet glad that it’s not you this time who are dealing with such a fate.

He may get over it in time… they may even get back together, I wouldn’t doubt that… but in the time it takes to put this across Chuck Willis’s soul is laid bare and he makes sure you can’t possibly turn away.


The One I Love
There are some artists who seize you by the collar and refuse to let you go until you acknowledge them and are forcibly dragged into their wake.

Then there are those like Chuck Willis who gently guide you by the elbow or the small of your back and get you to go more willingly to the same destination, which is a prolonged relationship with them and their work.

The first few sides Willis released showed he had that ability – in a variety of ways no less – but they didn’t quite connect with enough people to get him on the map. Maybe it was a case of misfortune for coming along at a time when so many acts were breaking through themselves with more startling records.

Then again it could be that the rock fan was still wary of trusting a major label subsidiary like OKeh Records… or just weren’t hip to what some unknown Atlanta-based singer was up to quite yet.

But My Story is so compelling, both as a performance but also as a song that is highly personal yet undeniably universal in how it expresses a person’s romantic suffering, that it’d be hard to comprehend how it couldn’t connect provided enough people were able to hear it.

Hear it they did and with that not only did Chuck Willis break through to audiences who’d continually return to him for some of the deepest and most soulful rock tracks of the 1950’s, but he more or less singlehandedly gave OKeh Records the credibility it needed to compete in the rock market going forward.

Rock ‘n’ roll had a new star… an unassuming one for sure, but one who would from this point forward would never be off the audience’s radar and never fall short of giving them something special in the bargain.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Lula Reed (November, 1952)

Margie Day (November, 1952)