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OKEH 6930; NOVEMBER 1952



After crucifying OKeh Records for squandering the follow-up release to Chuck Willis’s huge hit with a poorly chosen song for the top half of this single – a song he didn’t even write and whose shared stylistic attributes only made the comparative mediocrity of the composition stand out all the more – we’re here to tell you that to get the follow-up he was worthy of all you had to do was flip the record over.

For here’s where Chuck Willis gets to sing his own song in a much different style which showcases his versatility along with his storytelling wit, penchant for catchy hooks and with a top flight band matching him every step of the way.

Too bad his record company were all to predictable when it came to settling on the plug side as they chose the wrong song to catch a hit.


Never Be The Same Fool Twice
If we wanted to be overly generous we could say that Danny Kessler, the young and fairly respected head of OKeh Records who managed to build the label’s authenticity as a rock outlet under the always skeptical eye of parent label Columbia, was smartly hedging his bets by choosing this to pair with the underwhelming mournful ballad Salty Tears for this single.

That was the one song they had in their stockpile of cuts by Chuck Willis which sounded most like My Story which was still riding the charts in some places as we speak and thus was deemed the safest bet to elicit the same reaction from audiences.

But rock fans aren’t so easily manipulated, as they seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to evaluating artistic authenticity, whether or not they were even aware Willis had no hand in writing the song the label chose to push as his next single. Regardless they turned their nose up at it and rightly so.

The sad part of that however is in doing so they didn’t get exposed to the song on THIS side which was the polar opposite of it in intent as well as in style. Goodness knows we’ve preached how record companies should offer something much different on each side of a single, but considering our advice only started appearing on the internet these last few years, seven decades after Kessler was running OKeh, it’s a good bet he learned this valuable lesson from someone else.

But at least he learned it, because Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish has a sound that leaps out of the speakers like a trout out of the water, giving us a much different, more vibrant impression of Willis than we got on the other side, or on his likeminded anguished ballad hit that preceded it.

That he did both approaches equally well means that when the song was coming from his own fertile imagination, chances are you’d get a winner.

This one may just take the cake in that regard… just not commercially, which is the only way companies viewed success or failure.

Oh well, their loss… again!


Go Ahead, Throw In Your Line
One thing this silly project should have revealed by this point, five years into rock’s lifespan, is that music is a continuum and sounds from the past influence sounds of the present, no matter what past and present we’re talking about.

Whether it’s Dua Lipa perfectly channeling 80’s bangers in her recent hits or Chuck Willis’s studio band here quoting a horn riff made famous in Joe Liggins’ immortal 1945 pre-rock classic, The Honeydripper to start this record off in rousing fashion, the idea is the same. Familiarity may breed contempt in other walks of life, but a fleeting musical image from the recesses of your memory flashing across your sensory perception in the present is a surefire way to draw your attention… provided the artist then takes the new song in a direction which is more suited for the current landscape.

That’s precisely what Willis does here, giving this an effervescent rolling rhythm that sweeps you up in its wake, the horns and piano each providing you with a slightly different pattern that work perfectly in tandem, speeding along while still gripping the pavement.

As great a foundation as the instrumental track is, everything works as well as it does thanks to Chuck Willis who of course wrote the music as well as the lyrics, and whose performance is so hard-charging without losing its light touch that it makes your head swim.

The beauty of the composition is it’s a song about rejection… except HE’S the one rejecting a girl hitting on him rather than the other way around, which is more typical for these kinds of things. He’s not doing it cruelly, though she may take it that way, but merely saying that he sees her calculating efforts and doesn’t appreciate it, turning the mating ritual expectations on their head.

He admits she’s pretty and dresses nice, but he wants no part of her as he’s turned off by her persistence – and possibly her likeminded flings with other guys before him – and while he pulls no punches with her, he still manages to let her down easy by saying she’s just in the Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish rather than making it less about her shortcomings and more about his decision

The words flow effortlessly out of him, the clever rhymes not getting in the way of the narrative, and his voice has the perfect mixture of firm insistence and anxious strain to it, giving the performance a slight edge, as if there’s the faintest chance that if he doesn’t definitively state this right here and now he might buckle and take her up on her offer.

For such a rapid fire song there’s no shortage of emotional undercurrents to be found, as he hints at a much deeper backstory just enough to let you know he hooked up with her once before, but without giving away any details to muddy the waters any further. You’d think with all of this swirling around there’d be no room for him to pause long enough to let the musicians get their moment to shine, but not only does he do so, he doubles the length of the break to let them really cut loose with a torrid sax solo that never lets up.

By the time he reels you in, you’re not only relieved he caught you, but you’re actually honored to be grilled and slapped on his plate and served up for dinner.


You Bait Your Hook With A Kiss
There’s no shortage of great Chuck Willis records… though so far we’ve only scratched the surface.

He’ll have plenty of hits, a bunch of classic compositions of his own, both that he’d cut himself and give away to others, as well as reimagining old songs in ways that breathed new life into them and became the prototype for all of the interpretations which followed.

That’s a pretty big legacy and to have done so while barely reaching thirty years old when he died of a perforated ulcer makes it all the more remarkable.

Because it wasn’t a hit, wasn’t one of his many tunes to be covered by an equally big name down the road, and because it runs counter to his dominant image as a laid-back soulful balladeer, you wouldn’t think there’d be many who’d choose Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish as one of his towering achievements, but it’s by far Willis’s most played song on Spotify’s collection of his OKeh recordings and surpassed by just a scant few of his more enduring Atlantic hits as well.

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising because this record is everything that’s great about Chuck Willis in one adrenaline fueled package. The sly humor, the great melodic sense, the engaging vocal that reveals personality as it’s painting a vivid scene. A few other of his singles are just as well crafted and far more iconic, but arguably none of them are as vivaciously constructed and performed as this one.

Maybe what’s a little more surprising around here is that while 1952 has had plenty of (9)‘s handed out on these pages, denoting a perfect record, as befitting such a landmark year in rock’s evolution, there haven’t been all that many this year to get crowned with a ★ 10 ★, a score that is an entirely separate entity altogether, indicating merely which records are so personally hallowed by yours truly that they exist in their own separate world.

In the last week however we’ve gotten two of them and while I wasn’t entirely certain about the other one getting that number until I actually sat down and wrote about it, there was never any question what this one would earn. How could it not be among my favorite records ever when each time it plays the record has the same impact on me as the first time I heard it which is pure joy distilled into two and a half minutes of sheer musical ecstasy.

Right lake, right fish.


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