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  Chuck Willis


By Marv Goldberg

© 2019 by Marv Goldberg



Chuck Willis



"Juanita", "C. C. Rider" and "Betty And Dupree" were three of my favorite songs when I was a callow youth. In fact, the Stroll was the only line dance I ever learned (and I'll still dance it on occasion). Quite honestly, I never heard of Chuck Willis before 1956's "Juanita" and never heard a single one of his Okeh songs until decades later. (I'll tell you now: they're very good.)

Chuck was a prolific songwriter and wrote most of his own material. Other than the ones he recorded himself, songs he wrote include "Close Your Eyes" (5 Keys, Admirals), "The Door Is Still Open" (Cardinals), "From The Bottom Of My Heart" (Clovers, 5 Keys), "Sugar-Sugar" (Cadillacs), "Let Me Explain" (Cadillacs [although the lyric "Yes I was seen with somebody new / I was holding her hand thinking of you" is so lame it's hard to believe Chuck wrote it]), "Oh What A Dream" (Ruth Brown, backed by the Drifters), and "Souvenirs" (Drifters). And yes, I know he recorded "From The Bottom Of My Heart" and "Sugar-Sugar", but they weren't released until after his death. Cynic that I am, I can see how attractive Chuck would be to a record company. They were always looking for the singer/songwriter combination, since most companies had their own in-house publishing companies and stood to make a lot of additional money if a song was a hit.


He was born Harold Willis (something I didn't know until I started this project) on January 31, 1928 in Atlanta (some sources incorrectly say 1926), the son of Willie James Willis and Rosa Lee Wyatt. Harold had three older siblings: Dorothy Mae Willis, Nathaniel "Pit" Willis, and Willie James "Pete" Willis Jr. (You can't believe how many people have been named "Willie James Willis".) Another relative was cousin Robert "Chick" Willis, who toured with Chuck for a while as his valet and chauffeur; he went on to have a successful singing career of his own.

Soon after Harold was born, the family split up and I can't find any of them in 1930. In 1940, Nathaniel and Dorothy were living with their grandmother, Hattie Wyatt; and Willie Jr was living with Willie Sr. But where was Harold? I have no idea; he doesn't appear in either the 1930 or 1940 census. Actually, the only place Harold Willis shows up is in the 1956 Atlanta City Directory (he's an "entertainer" living in a house at 75 Anderson Avenue NW with his wife, Dorothy; brother Willie was living there too).

Around 1953, Chuck married Dorothy Sadler and had three children: twins Wanda Jean and Ralph, born in 1954, and Cynthia, born in 1955.

Now comes the hard part (for me). I can't find a single trace of either Harold Willis or Chuck Willis prior to 1951. Therefore, I have to rely on what others have written, something I hate to do if I can't check the information. (So blame any errors in the next two paragraphs on others; I refuse to take responsibility.)

Chuck spent his whole life in Atlanta, growing up near the Decatur Street section of town, where there were many night clubs. Passionate about the music he heard, he began writing and performing. Supposedly he appeared with bandleader Red McAllister, but the only ads I could find for McAllister were in March 1946 (and, by September 1947, McAllister was selling the band's bus). After that, it was with trumpeter Roy Mays' band (but there are no mentions of them appearing anywhere).

Zenas Sears Somewhere along the way, he was seen by deejay Zenas "Daddy" Sears (WGST), who supposedly got him a lot of local work. However, other than his radio show, there are barely any mentions of Sears in the Atlanta Constitution between 1947 and 1950.

Was he appearing as Harold Willis or Chuck Willis? I have no idea. Where did the name "Chuck" come from? I initially thought it might be his middle name, but there's no proof of that. However, Zenas Sears had a son named Chuck, so it's possible that was the inspiration.

Finally, I can start my research.

The February 3, 1951 Billboard has the first mention of Chuck Willis (who by now had definitely dropped "Harold" in his public life): "Herman Lubinsky, Savoy diskery topper, and his artists and repertoire man, Lee Magid, left for an extended tour of the South. First stop will be at Atlanta, where they will record a group of newly inked artists for the first time. Talent includes Chuck Willis, Zilla Mayes [sic] and vet disk artist, Billy Wright."

Danny Kessler However, Zenas Sears knew Danny Kessler, an a&r man at Columbia, and that's where Chuck ended up. Therefore, by the time that blurb was printed in Billboard, Chuck had already signed with Columbia and, on January 26, 1951, had recorded four songs for them: "Can't You See", "Be Good Or Be Gone", "It Ain't Right To Treat Me Wrong", and "Let's Jump Tonight".

But Columbia wasn't in a hurry to do anything. It took until the May 19, 1951 edition of Cash Box (nearly four months later) for them to even mention Chuck. The blurb said: "Danny Kessler, new director of rhythm and blues for Columbia Records announced the signing of the following artists: Maurice King and his band; Earl Williams, new vocalist; Al Russell and the Do Re Me Trio; the Royals, a vocal group; Chuck Willis, blues singer; the RSB Gospel Singers; the Melotones; and Ruby Jackson."

Columbia 30238 Columbia issued "It Ain't Right To Treat Me Wrong" and "Can't You See" that same month and they were reviewed in the May 26 Billboard: "Can't You See" was rated a 70: "Warbler shows a sincere warm blues style with combo chording effectively in back. Material is ordinary slow blues stuff." The flip got a 66: "Same story - okay rendition, thin material." (Translation: they didn't think too highly of the songs Chuck had written.)

On June 27, Chuck had a second session, recording "It's Too Late Baby", "I Rule My House", "My Baby's On My Mind", and "I Tried (To Get Along With You)". By the time "I Rule My House" and "I Tried (To Get Along With You)" were released in July, Columbia had switched its R&B artists over to its newly-reactivated Okeh subsidiary.

Okeh 6810 ad for I Tried Cash Box reviewed them in its August 25 issue: "A slow and draggy blues item is dished up by Chuck Willis on the upper half ["I Tried"]. It's a typical blues number that gets a satisfactory going over by Chuck. The lower lid is a loud, driving blues tune that gets a strong orchestrational [sic] backing. Ops might have a peek." Again, "ops" or "operators" are those who own juke boxes and buy the records that go into them. I don't know how "I Rule My House" was greeted by female listeners at the time, but he'd probably be ridden out of town on a rail if he tried to sing it today.

Never a national hit, "I Tried (To Get Along With You)" was on the New Orleans charts for four weeks, rising to #6.

Okeh 6841 In November, Okeh released "Let's Jump Tonight", backed with "It's Too Late Baby". Billboard (December 1) gave both sides a "69", praising the orchestra; Chuck's participation was seen as an afterthought.

The December 1 Cash Box was kinder: "A hard driving jump tune is belted across by Chuck Willis on the top level ["Let's Jump Tonight"]. The orchestra offers a strong backdrop and Chuck makes good use of it Flip is a wild and low down blues number that's given the full treatment by Chuck. Ops have two similar sides to choose from here."

Okeh 6873 On February 2, 1952, Chuck had another session, resulting in "Here I Come", "Caldonia", "Loud Mouth Lucy", and "Salty Tears". Okeh released "Here I Come" and "Loud Mouth Lucy" in April.

Chuck Willis A strange blurb, but one clearly written by a press agent. The Pittsburgh Courier of April 26, 1952 had a photo of Chuck with this caption: "Recording Star Open For Dates - Popular Chuck Willis' latest recording, 'Big Mouth Lucy' [sic] is rapidly sweeping the country. It looms as one of the biggest sellers on the O. K. label [sic]. Willis' recordings of 'I Tried' and 'I Rule My House' are among the best modern blues to come from the heart of the South. Willis can be secured for dates by writing Mrs. Anne Durrah at 239 Auburn Ave., N. E., Atlanta, or telephoning Atlanta CY. 5202."

Who was Anne Durrah? In the 1948 Atlanta City Directory, Fred Q. Durrah (wife Annie) was the manager of the Silas Green Show (a touring tent show that had been around since 1904). In 1950, Annie was the office secretary of Morris Brown (whoever he might have been). The next year she was a clerk at the Savoy Hotel. By 1957, she was the hotel's manager. What any of this has to do with Chuck is beyond me (and only proves that I need to get out more). What it reminded me of, however, is that I haven't yet come across a single appearance that Chuck made. That was about to change.

Auditorium ad On May 1, 1952, Chuck Willis appeared at the Auditorium in Atlanta for the Third Annual Safety Patrol Show! As lame as that sounds, the bill also included the Ravens, Errol Garner, Percy Mayfield, Sonny Thompson, and B.B. King.

"Here I Come" and "Loud Mouth Lucy" were reviewed in the May 3 Cash Box: "Chuck Willis comes up with a slow blues tune and carries the mellow melody and sad lyrics [of "Here I Come"] with warmth and feeling. Chuck's strong vocal backed flowingly by the ork, makes this a likely side. The second side is a fast moving novelty and Willis gives it a powerhouse treatment as the ork comes through with rollicking support. We like both sides."

Another session; another four songs. On June 26, 1952, Chuck recorded "Take It Like A Man", "Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish", "My Story", and "I've Been Treated Wrong Too Long" (the last one with Okeh's Royals doing backup work, although they're so far in the background that I don't even understand why they bothered).

Okeh 6905 In September, Okeh released "My Story" and Chuck's version of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia". On "Caldonia", Chuck shares the lead with "J.W" (the label says "Vocal By C. Willis, J.W."). The mysterious "J.W." is most probably drummer J.W. Simpson. Interestingly, Chuck throws in "Hey Richard, open the door / Caldonia's been there, an' that's why she's got to go." This reference to "Open The Door, Richard" makes no particular sense in itself, nor does it relate to the rest of the song.

Okeh ad Okeh ad The sides were reviewed in the September 20, 1952 Cash Box with "My Story" receiving a "C+" ("Chuck Willis sings a slow low down blues with feeling. Musical backing is light and soft.") "Caldonia" was rated "B" ("Flip is a fast beat version of the ever popular 'Caldonia'. Willis chants aggressively and is backed in potent style by the musical group.")

"My Story" became Chuck's first hit, reaching #2 on the national R&B charts. It was covered by Margie Day (with the Griffin Brothers Orchestra) and Lula Reed.

Another appearance. The November 15 Cash Box said: "Allan [sic] (Moon-Dog) Freed (WJW-Cleveland) personally presented the first northern appearance of Okeh artist Chuck Willis, a native Atlantan, along with another Okeh star, Annie Laurie, at Canton and Youngstown, Ohio. Both stints were outstanding successes, due in a large measure to Moon-Dog's huge personal following." Outstanding successes or not, I can't find a single mention of either show anywhere else.

On November 19, 1952, Chuck had another Okeh session, recording "Don't Deceive Me", "My Baby's Coming Home", "You Broke My Heart", and "When My Day Is Over".

Okeh 6930 In December, Okeh released "Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish", backed by "Salty Tears". They were reviewed in the January 10, 1953 Cash Box, both receiving a "B": Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish ("Chuck Willis and orchestra dish up a quick beat novelty with excitement. Orking moves but stays sufficiently in the background so as not to steal Willis' thunder"). Salty Tears ("A change of pace is the Willis coupling. The chanter sings a slow blues with potent lyrics.").

Okeh 6952 There was another Okeh session on February 5, 1953. Only two songs this time: a cover of Fats Domino's "Going To The River" and the grammatically-questionable "Baby Have Left Me Again"; both were released in April. Actually, now that I think about it, even though "Going To The River" was written by Fats and Dave Bartholomew, Fats' Imperial version wasn't released until March, so how did Chuck get to record it in February? Beats me.

The record was reviewed in the April 11, 1953 Billboard (although as a Columbia release, not as Okeh): Going To The River ("Here's a good one by the warbler. Tune is a slow, melodic blues, and Willis sings it with heart and feeling as he tells of his plans to do away with himself. The band supports him with a beat. A strong side that could grab coin with exposure." - 78). Baby Has [sic] Left Me Again ("Willis sings this ballad effectively, crying over the fact that his girl has left him one more time. Material is close to pop, tho the backing is r.&b." - 75). Chuck's version of "Going To The River" rose to #4 nationally. (Fats' version beat him out at #2.)

Jack's Musical Bar ad Ebony Lounge ad In early March, Chuck, along with Choker Campbell's band, appeared at the Ebony Lounge in Cleveland. On June 15, Chuck was at Jack's Musical Bar in Cleveland for a week. He shared the stage with the Tune Twisters ("Cleveland's Favorite Combo").

Okeh 6985 Also in June. Okeh released "I've Been Treated Wrong Too Long", backed with "Don't Deceive Me". They were reviewed in the June 27 Cash Box: Don't Deceive Me got a "B" ("Chuck Willis comes up with warm reading in which he pleads with his gal not to put him down. Willis handling of the slow blues is strong.") I've Been Treated Wrong Too Long received a "B+" ("Willis is supported by the Royals on this end as he sings a slow blues in tormented style. Orchestral backing is easy and the general mood of the record is in the sad vein.")

"Don't Deceive Me" was the hit side, climbing to #6 nationally.

Sparrow's Beach ad Carver Community Center ad On August 14, 1953, Chuck and the Griffin Brothers Orchestra appeared at the Carver Community Center in Anniston, Alabama. Later that month (the 30th), they all appeared at Sparrow's Beach in Annapolis, Maryland.

Chuck recorded another four songs for Okeh on September 9: "You're Still My Baby", "What's Your Name?", "Make Up Your Mind", and "I Feel So Bad".

Okeh 7004 Also in September, Okeh released "My Baby's Coming Home" and "When My Day Is Over". They were reviewed in the September 12 Billboard: Why [sic] My Day Is Over ("Slow blues opus gets a typical Willis reading, which usually means it'll catch plenty of coin." - 78). My Baby's Coming Home ("Riff-built bluesy item in faster tempo gets a good go from Willis and the crew." - 75).

Ritz Theater ad On September 22, "Chuck Willis And His Great Show" appeared at the Ritz Theater in Akron, Ohio. The rest of the show included trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page and his orchestra, the Spence Twins, dancer Leon Collins (husband of singer Tina Dixon), Anita Nichols, Billy Gamble, and Pauline McPherson.

On November 26, Chuck appeared as part of a show at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom. He shared the stage with the 5 Keys, Milt Buckner, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and San Juan's Mambo Band.

Okeh 7015 With no chart action on the prior release, Okeh issued "What's Your Name?", backed with "You're Still My Baby" in December. They were reviewed in the December 12 Billboard: You're Still My Baby ("This is Willis in the chanting style and mood which has done well for him - blues ballad stuff. He handles the material smartly, and it's good material too." - 80). What's Your Name? ("Willis shouts up a storm here with a slight twist on the current interest in fem name songs. It rocks." - 75). "You're Still My Baby" climbed the national R&B charts to #4.

Radiotorium ad On December 27, 1953, Chuck and the Griffin Brothers Orchestra appeared at the Radiotorium in Danville, Virginia.

Club Ebony ad Chuck started off 1954 with a January 12 week-long appearance at the Club Ebony in Lincoln Heights, Ohio. Also on the bill was Eddie Chamblee and his orchestra.

When that engagement was over, Chuck had a scrape with the law. He tried to cash some traveler's checks at a local Western Union office, but they wouldn't believe that the checks belonged to him. (Daddy, what's a traveler's check? Daddy, what's a Western Union office?) Western Union called the police who searched him. As he told the Cleveland Call And Post (printed in their January 30, 1954 edition):

When I returned from the hotel police seemed to come from everywhere. They searched me all over and even made me open my mouth. Finally, after satisfying themselves that I was legitimate and really owned the checks, I cashed three, amounting to $60. I have contacted A. L. Saunders, attorney for Shaw Artists Corporation, 565 5th Ave,. New York and asked him to file a suit against Western Union. Not only was I publicly embarrassed but several people witnessed the affair and reported that I had stolen something and had been locked up.

A few days later (February 5), there was another recording session for Okeh: "Need One More Chance", "You Win This Time", "Keep A-Knockin'", and "If I Had A Million".

Apollo ad Then, it was off to the Apollo Theater, the week of February 26. Others on the bill were Tiny Bradshaw's Band, featuring Tiny Kennedy, Scatman Crothers, Billy & Eleanor Byrd, and comedian George Williams.

Circle Theater ad Right after that, it was the Circle Theater in Cleveland for a show (March 7), which also starred the 5 Keys, the Jimmy Saunders Orchestra, and local talent Bill Holliday & Jo-Jo ("something different"), Prince DuMarr & Maria ("exotic dancing team"), and Smiling Kid Williams ("dancing comedian & emcee").

Ritz Theater ad That entire show appeared at the Ritz Theater in Akron on March 9 and then at the Palace Theater in Dayton on March 12.

Later that month, Chuck, Illinois Jacquet, and the 5 C's appeared at the Pershing Ballroom in Chicago.

The April 10, 1954 Cash Box reported that, starting April 11, Chuck would be on a Midwest tour, along with Guitar Slim,. No locations were named.

Okeh 7029 In May, Okeh released "I Feel So Bad", coupled with "Need One More Chance". The May 22 Cash Box rated them both "B+".

Need One More Chance ("Willies [sic] does a belty plea for one more chance. A slow beaty item sold solidly by the chanter. An emotional vocal.") Don't you just love when trade papers invent new words? I Feel So Bad ("Chuck's chin is dragging on this one as he sings a quick beat sad blues. Chuck portrays his dejection with a potent vocal reading of good lyrics. This deck comes through to you. You can feel it. Could make lots of noise.")

It did. "I Feel So Bad" rose to #8 on the R&B charts. (And, in 1961, Elvis Presley would have a #5 hit with his version of the song.)

Ebony Lounge ad On June 4, Chuck, and Eddie Chamblee's Orchestra, appeared at the Ebony Lounge in Cleveland for a week. Both were held over for an additional week. The June 12 Cleveland Call And Post had this to say:

As for Chuck Willis, the recording star with the million dollar smile came on stage to tremendous applause . . . then he went on to earn it.

His great "feeling", the moving "spirit" of his songs had his femme fans screaming Monday night and his male adherents beating on the tables.

Chuck did a whole roomful of songs: "Kiss Me Baby," "Going To The River," "Ain't Got Nobody," "Bye, Bye Baby," "What's Your Name" . . . then topped it off with the piece which most recently added to his national fame, "My Story."

I sat there with the rest of the people, beating my hands and patting my feet. The guy is good.

In the June 19, 1954 issue of Cash Box, he was voted the fourth Most Promising Up And Coming Male Vocalist. (Behind Roy Hamilton, Guitar Slim, and Little Junior Parker; and right ahead of Al Savage.)

Freddy Jackson Another recording session on June 6 gave us Change My Mind", "My Heart's Been Broke Again", "I Don't Mind If I Do", and "Blow Freddy Jackson". This last song is essentially an instrumental by saxophonist Freddy Jackson and his band, with Chuck adding a few barely-discernable words. Jackson's band would also back Chuck on his next two Okeh sessions.

Probably around March 1954, Zenas Sears, now busy with an Atlanta radio station that he'd purchased (WATL, renamed WAOK), turned management of Chuck Willis over to Danny Kessler, who had left Columbia/Okeh to become head of A&R for RCA's Groove subsidiary. However, he left Groove in July 1954 to set up his own management and publishing firms (Berkshire Music and Rush Music). After Chuck switched over to Atlantic Records, all his songs were published by Rush. However, Rush wasn't a new company; "Don't Deceive Me" had been published by Rush in the prior year.

Okeh 7041 In August 1954, Okeh released "Change My Mind" (an answer to "Going To The River"; he actually says "changed my mind", which makes more sense), backed with "My Heart's Been Broke Again". They were reviewed (kind of) in the September 4 Billboard, with both sides rated 83. Other than the rating, all the reviews said was "A Billboard 'Spotlight' 8-28-'54." However, these were not among the songs that were spotlighted in the August 28 issue. Beats me.

On October 5, 1954, there was another Okeh session: "Welcome Home", "Give And Take", "I've Been Away Too Long", and "Peace And Love". Although Chuck's "Peace And Love" wasn't released as a single, the 5 Keys would record it for Capitol.

Tallahassee Skating Rink ad Chuck and Joe Turner appeared at the Tallahassee Skating Rink (opposite the Capital City Ice Plant) on November 6, 1954. The occasion was the FAMU-A & T Victory Ball, which, I suppose, meant something to someone.

Okeh 7048 Later that month, Okeh released "I've Been Away Too Long", backed with "Give And Take". "I've Been Away Too Long" was a spotlight item in the December 4 Billboard: "Chuck Willis sings this one with all the feeling he has and so smoothly that it could become a juke box favorite." The actual ratings came the following week (December 11): "I've Been Away Too Long" got an 86. In spite of that stratospheric rating, the song never made the charts. "Give And Take" got a 78 ("Moody sentiment of flip is well contrasted in this quick beat blues. Another fine effort due for many spins").

In the December 4, 1954 Cash Box Chuck was voted the #10 Best R&B Male Artist Of 1954. Ahead of him were Joe Turner, Johnny Ace, Roy Hamilton, Amos Milburn, B. B. King, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles.

1954's final Okeh session was held on December 17. Only three songs were recorded: "Love-Struck", the grammatically-challenged "It Were You", and "Lawdy Miss Mary", a song the 5 Keys had already recorded in their July 1, 1954 Groove session.

The December 24, 1954 Cash Box told us Chuck Willis was the #3 Most Promising New R&B Artist Of 1954, behind Roy Hamilton and the Chords, and right ahead of the Spaniels and the Spiders.

Epic EG 7070 There's a Chuck Willis EP (EG 7070) on Epic that's difficult to date; I'd place it in December 1954. Titled Chuck Willis Sings The Blues, it contained "Don't Deceive Me", "You're Still My Baby", "I Feel So Bad", and "Need One More Chance", all songs from 1953-4. Epic was another subsidiary of Columbia, set up in late 1953 to take Pop artists away from Okeh. Victor Pearlin informs me that all EPs by Okeh artists were issued on Epic; Okeh didn't produce any at all.

Okeh 7051 In February 1955, Okeh issued "Lawdy Miss Mary", coupled with "Love-Struck" (both published by Danny Kessler's Berkshire Music). The record received Cash Box's Award O' The Week in their February 19 issue:

Chuck Willis may have his strongest deck yet in "Love Struck," an original slow tempo ballad blues. Willis gives the tune everything he's got and the deck has lots of potential. Has pop appeal and with the current trend in that direction, the item bears watching. The flip, "Lawdy Miss Mary," is a fast beat bouncer which Willis handles with drive.

Convention Hall ad Elks Auditorium ad On February 20, Chuck appeared at the White Eagle Club in Opelousas, Louisiana. April 10 found him at the Twin-City Elks Auditorium (Farrell, Pennsylvania) along with "his great new orchestra, featuring 'the hurricane of the sax', Freddie Jackson". (And girls, you might want to note that there's a $25 cash award to the best dressed lady!) The next night, he was at Convention Hall (Asbury Park, New Jersey), along with Tito Puente's mambo band, Gene & Eunice, and the Chords.

There were two more Okeh sessions in April 1955. At the first (April 15), he recorded "Search My Heart" and "Come On Home". At the second (April 21), he laid down "One More Break", I Can Tell" (backed up by the Sandmen), and a re-recording of "Search My Heart" (the one that was ultimately released).

Ebony Lounge ad On April 25, he opened for a week at Cleveland's Ebony Lounge. His band, at the time, consisted of Freddy Jackson (sax), Ike Alexander (bass), Joe Lawson (piano), John Hunt (trumpet), and Carlos Bermuda (sax).

No specific dates, but in early May, Chuck was at the Crown Propeller Lounge in Chicago.

Okeh 7055 Also in May, Okeh released "I Can Tell" and "One More Break". The May 28, 1955 Cash Box reviewed them: One More Break got a "B" ("Chuck Willis sings a middle tempo jump ditty highly 'Tweedle Dee' flavored. Tho a good side it is not up to the usual Willis quality.") I Can Tell got a "B+" ("Willis sings a slow rhythmic blues that comes off the better side. Chuck puts heart into his reading of a good tune with a strong melody line. Like it.")

On July 15, Chuck recorded a single song for Okeh: "Rang-Tang-Doo". It was one of those "new dance" songs that could never be learned by listening to the instructions given in the lyrics.

The August 8 Cash Box said: "Shaw Artists this week announced the signing of five artists. Muddy Waters, Chess artist; Gene Ammons, Benny Green, Earl Gains, vocalist with Louis Brooks on Excello's hit 'It's Love Baby'; and the Hearts, Baton youngsters. Jack Archer, Shaw v.p., noted that Gaines will be sent out as a single beginning about August 15 with the Chuck Willis band." I'm not sure that they got that right (or I don't understand it at all); there's no further mention of Earl Gaines, just Louis Brooks. The August 20 Cleveland Call And Post had this:

Ebony Lounge ad Yep, it's Chuck Willis and he's coming back into the Ebony Lounge this Monday, August 22. Chuck, recording star of "Don't Deceive Me" and of a dozen other hit tunes is one of the most popular of the entertainers playing the circuits that come through Cleveland and you can bet your Bermuda shorts that he'll get a warm welcome home into the Ebony.

Chuck, of course has his own band now, and he is featuring Louis Brooks, the recording star of "It's Love Baby".

Okeh 7062 "Search My Heart" and "Rang-Tang-Doo" became Chuck's next Okeh release in October 1955. However, by the time the labels were printed, "Rang-Tang-Doo" had become "Ring-Ding-Doo".

The songs were reviewed in the October 15 Cash Box, with both sides rated "B+". Ring-Ding-Doo ("Chuck Willis chants a middle beat bouncer description of a new dance titled 'Ring-Ding-Doo.' Ok platter.") Not sure why they gave it a "B+" if all they could say was "Ok platter", but I guess that's why I'm not a record reviewer. Search My Heart ("Willis jumps with a middle beat handclapper. A romantic effort exuberantly rocked. Willis shouts with excitement - the ork gets in the mood - and the resulting effects are good. Watch it.")

State Theater ad On November 19-20, Chuck was part of the Rhythm & Blues Revue at the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut. He shared the stage with Boyd Bennett & the Rockets, the Paul Williams Band, the Cardinals, the Flamingos, the Nutmegs, the Spaniels, the Leaders, Charlie & Ray, and Etta James & the Peaches. Unfortunately, when it was time for the ad to be printed, there were so many stars that Chuck was lumped into "and others".

The November 26, 1955 Cash Box reported that "Chuck Willis suffered a relapse with his bad case of ulcers and is now recuperating at the Hotel Teresa in Harlem. Chuck may have to go back into the hospital. . . . Chuck's latest tune 'Loud Mouth Lucy' has been recorded by Roy Gaines on Chart. Roy is also Chuck's accompanist." Considering that Cash Box was a weekly magazine, there would be a lag between the time the story was submitted and when it was printed, so there's a chance that Chuck didn't actually appear at the State Theater (however, there was no subsequent review of the show).

Chuck's last Okeh session was held on January 26, 1956, five years, to the day, after his first. The four songs were "Two Spoons Of Tears", "Charged With Cheating", "Bless Her Heart", and "Night Of Misery".

Gleasons ad On March 5, Chuck, along with Little Walking Willie's Orchestra, opened at Gleason's Musical Bar in Cleveland.

Okeh 7067 Also in March, Okeh released "Come On Home", coupled with "It Were You".


When his 5-year Okeh contract expired, Chuck signed with Atlantic Records, under the tutelage of arranger Jesse Stone; the deal was announced in the April 7 Cash Box. Chuck, who had been a great R&B singer up to this point, was about to achieve an all-too-brief stardom.

His first Atlantic session was held on April 13,1956, with a female group behind him. The four songs were: "There’s Got To Be A Way", "It’s Too Late", "My Life", and "Kansas City Woman". Other than the group, none of these seemed to be any different from the material he'd been recording up until now. (Strangely, his signing with Atlantic was announced before he'd actually recorded anything; that went against industry practice.)

Atlantic 1098 It's Too Late ad In May, Atlantic released "It's Too Late", backed by "Kansas City Woman".


The May 18, 1956 Cash Box reviewed Okeh's "Come On Home" and "It Were You", both rated "B+". Come On Home ("Chuck Willis sings the sorrowful tale of the girl who left him. He pleads with her to come home. It is a slow, melodic blues emotionally performed. Good Willis wax.") It Were You ("Willis rocks on the flip. He chants a quick beat jump with a driving reading that excites. Good two sider.")

Cash Box reviewed Atlantic's "It's Too Late" and "Kansas City Woman" in their June 2 edition:

Chuck Willis comes up with one of his strongest pieces of material on his first Atlantic release. "It's Too Late." Willis, always a threat who somehow never made it beyond territorial success, is riding with a beautiful, slow paced melodious offering that will move listeners of any market. It is a lacelike drifter further embroidered by the use of the celesta. We think Willis has his first national hit - and we think it is of the type that will make its impact on the pop market. The flip, "Kansas City Woman" is a fast beat rhythm piece that Willis belts with enthusiasm. Infectious and happy piece of wax. Willis pulls out all the stops and rocks. Good deck not to be overlooked, but for the long pull we look to "It's Too Late."

While I agree with their assessment of the song, I have no idea why they didn't think he'd had national hits before. At any rate, "It's Too Late" climbed to #3 in the national R&B charts.

Memorial Auditorium ad On July 2, Chuck was at Memorial Auditorium in Fayetteville, West Virginia, along with the Clovers, Little Esther, and the Joe Morris Orchestra.

On July 24, he, the 5 Keys, and Ivory Joe Hunter were guests on Alan Freed's Rock 'N Roll Dance Party TV show.

There was another Atlantic session on August 30, 1956 with some strange results. The three songs recorded were "Juanita" (with a chorus), "Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You" (with a steel guitar, but no chorus), and "Ease The Pain" (with an odd rhythm, bongos, a steel guitar, and a chorus). "Juanita" was the first song I ever heard by Chuck Willis; I loved it then and I still do. "Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You" doesn't do anything for me at all, and, although it hurts to say it, I highly dislike "Ease The Pain". It's an experimental sound for Chuck and (in my opinion) fails miserably.

In early September, he was part of a Sam "Jam With Sam" Evans show in Chicago. Also present were J.B. Lenoir, the Calvaes, and the Flamingos.

Atlantic 1112 Okeh 7070 Atlantic released "Juanita" and "Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You" in October. That same month, Okeh issued "Two Spoons Of Tears", backed with "Charged With Cheating". If you were a Chuck Willis fan, this was the month for you.

ad for Juanita In their October 10, 1956 issue, the Atlantic release got the Cash Box Award O' The Week (along with Little Willie John's "Suffering With The Blues" and Ruth Brown's "Smooth Operator"): "Chuck Willis has a powerhouse two-sider that gives him two solid shots at the elusive chart listing. Willis sings a slow, rhythmic pretty love tune, 'Juanita', digging into the meat of it and lends it a feelingful reading. Delightful and moving. We loved 'Juanita' - but then we turned it over and heard 'Watcha' [sic] Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You'. In 'Watcha' [sic] Willis has a rhythmic middle beat pulsater that he wails to a fare-thee-well. Deck bounces with stirring excitement. Like both decks so strong we can't make a choice. Be sure to give both a good long listen."

Billboard reviewed the Okeh release in their October 27 issue: Charged With Cheating ("This idea is full of the court and jury angle. 'Don't sentence my heart', he bleats. Okay on delivery but the sentiment isn't new. From the label's can." - 78). Two Spoons Of Tears ("Willis grinds out this slow blues job in a weepy 'deep-hurt' style. A nice rendition; fans may flip." - 73).

"Juanita" rose to #7 on the R&B charts; "Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You" (in spite of my opinion and the fact that I don't remember ever hearing it at the time) made it to #11.

Chuck Willis & Roy Gaines - 1956 Riverside Ballroom ad On November 9, Chuck, Roy Gaines, and the Coasters were at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix. On December 1, they were both part of a Barry Kaye show at the Leona Theater in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The other acts were Otis Williams & the Charms, the Cadillacs, Dakota Staton, Bo Diddley, the Heartbeats, the Johnny Burnett Trio, the El Dorados, the El Venos, Faye Adams, Johnnie & Joe, and the Del Vikings.

From there, Chuck and Roy traveled to sunny Florida to appear at the Manhattan Casino (Tampa) on December 7, 1956. A blurb about the show informed us that Chuck was a "Specialty Records artist".

Daddy G. Back in New York, Chuck had another Atlantic session on January 31, 1957. Only three songs were recorded: "See See Rider", the first attempt at "My Baby", and "Just One Kiss". These have the Dread Chorus (which, amazingly, managed not to kill "See See Rider"). The catchy sax playing was by Gene "Daddy G." Barge, who'd go on to play on U.S. Bonds records; there was also a vibraphone.

Apollo ad On February 22, Chuck appeared at the Apollo Theater as part of a Dr. Jive show starring Mickey & Sylvia, Big Maybelle, the Flamingos, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords, Little Joe & the Thrillers, and the Reuben Phillips Band.

Atlantic 1130 Chuck Willis "See See Rider" and "Ease The Pain" were released in March 1957. It's unclear how far back "See See Rider" went, but it seems to have first been recorded in 1924 by Ma Rainey (and probably should be titled "See, See Rider"). In 1943, Bea Booze gave us "See See Rider Blues". In spite of this history, Chuck's name appeared on the label as the writer. Speaking of labels, for reasons that no one's ever told me, the label had "C. C. Rider", although it was in the master book as "See See Rider". (And, for those of you who don't know, a "rider" is a sex partner.) You can tell how old the song was from the line "See, see rider where'd you stay last night / shoes unbuttoned, clothes don't fit you right". When was the last time you wore high-button shoes?

Sometime in late March, Chuck was at the Municipal Auditorium in Atlanta along with Ruth Brown, Eddie Bo, and Choker Campbell.

"C. C. Rider" and "Ease The Pain" received Cash Box's Award O' The Week in their April 6 issue.

Chuck Willis, who has risen to stardom on the Atlantic label, issues another powerful side that should place him in the charts again. Chuck sings the slow rhythmic "C. C. Rider" in good voice, milking the tune for all it's worth against a catchy background. Arrangement works in some interesting sounds, instrumentally and vocally. Should make a big dent in the lists. The flip, "Ease The Pain," is another excellent side that portrays Willis at his best. Similarly, tune, arrangement and delivery are good. Personally prefer "C. C. Rider" by just a shade.

"C. C. Rider" climbed all the way to the top, peaking at #1 (and #12 on the Pop charts). Played endlessly on American Bandstand, the kids on the show made up their own dance to it; something they called The Stroll. Note that the Diamonds wouldn't release their Stroll record until early December.

Another Atlantic session took place on April 11, 1957. (It was held before the full effects of "C. C. Rider" were known. This was important, because he probably would have followed up with another Stroll-beat tune.) This time, Chuck recorded "That Train Has Gone", "My Baby", "Love Me Cherry", and "One Kiss" (presumably another try at "Just One Kiss", done at the prior session, but it was the first one that was ultimately released).

Sometime in April, Chuck appeared at Barbara's Playhouse in Gary, Indiana.

The April 27 Pittsburgh Courier reported that

A couple of East Coast deejays decided to ban Chuck Willis' "C. C. Rider" recording from their programs when they looked up the title and found that "C. C. Rider" means a "dirty, old, low-down pimp."

Since this wasn't reported anywhere else, my feeling is that it was invented by a "dirty, old, low-down press agent".

The May 16 Tampa Bay Times had this bewildering article.

America's latest blues singing sensation, Chuck Willis, accompanied by his orchestra which features guitarist Roy Gaines, will play at Manhattan Casino Friday [May 17]. His recording, "See, See Rider," is currently the hottest disk on area jukeboxes. Both men hail from Atlanta [except for Gaines, who was from Texas] and are coming into their own after a hard struggle. Other Willis recordings include "What You Gonna Do?", "It's Too Late", "Give And Take" and "Ease The Pain." Willis, a former King Records artist, recently signed a long term contract with Mercury. Dancing starts at 9:30 p.m.

King? Mercury? Who wrote that?

Chuck Willis Chuck Willis & Roy Gaines - 1957 By this time, Chuck had started sporting a turban. Possibly, he was losing his hair and this was a gimmicky way of hiding that. Chuck wasn't alone; sax player Lynn Hope wore one, presumably as a result of his 1952 conversion to Islam (he was still wearing one in 1957). Of course, the Turbans wore them and so did Screamin' Jay Hawkins on occasion.

Howard Theater ad Uptown Theater ad Sparrow's Beach ad On July 6, 1957, Chuck and Roy Gaines appeared at Sparrow's Beach in Annapolis, Maryland. July 10 found Chuck and starting a week at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. Also on the bill were Johnnie & Joe and an "outstanding cast of 50 stars". Right after that (July 19), they appeared at the Howard Theater in Washington, DC for a week. Also on that bill were Ann Cole, the Cookies, the Velours, Charlie & Ray, and Ocie Smith.

Atlantic 1148 Atlantic ad Also in July, Atlantic issued "That Train Has Gone", backed with "Love Me Cherry". The record received Cash Box's Award O' The Week in their August 3 edition:

Chuck Willis, one of the trade's leading song writers and vocal talents, offers a twosome that will make it difficult for the jockeys who have to decide which one to play. Both sides are powerful entries. "That Train Has Gone" is a slow, rhythmic blues wailed to a fare-thee-well by Willis, who tells the story of the abandoned lover. Moving wax that could be really high in the charts before it finishes its run. The coupling, "Love Me Cherry," is a love chant very much in the same moody feeling as "Train." It is a slow, drifty melodic wax that Willis sings with great feeling. Either or both for the action.

Great review; no chart action at all.

Circle Theater ad On August 11, Chuck and Roy Gaines appeared at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. Also on the bill were the Cadillacs, Ann Cole, Charlie & Ray, the Flamingos, and the 5 Keys. Earlier that year, the Cadillacs had recorded Chuck's "Sugar-Sugar"; the prior year, the 5 Keys had recorded Chuck's "From The Bottom Of My Heart" and "Peace And Love".

Atlantic EP591 Sometime in August, Atlantic issued an EP with four of Chuck's tunes: "Juanita", "Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You", "Kansas City Woman", and "It's Too Late". EPs were really for the consumer market only. They weren't placed in jukeboxes and DJs didn't like them because of cueing problems: if you played the first track, you could forget and the second track would start; if you wanted to play the second track, it was more difficult to locate it on the disc.

On September 27, a merger of mediums: Chuck sang "C. C. Rider" on American Bandstand, while the kids did the Stroll.

The October 5, 1957 Cleveland Call And Post had a big headline: "Chuck Willis Felled By Ulcers".

Singer Chuck Willis was confined to Pine View hospital here [Valdosta, in southern Georgia, near the Florida border] for five days when he was felled by a severe stomach attack that medics diagnosed as "bleeding ulcers".

This cut short his one-night tour in which he was setting box office and attendance records throughout the south.

Willis, who's best known for his Atlantic record hit, "See See Rider," complained of feeling ill in Tampa, Fla, and upon his road manager's advice checked into Pine View.

He was given medical treatment and operated upon and then released with the warning to "take it easy" until they healed.

Mirador Ballroom ad East End Roller Rink ad He was back on the road soon after and appeared at a dance at the East-End Roller Rink in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 25. Two nights later, he ("The Sheik Of The Blues") was at the Mirador Ballroom in Phoenix, Arizona.

And three days after that, he was back in New York for another Atlantic recording session, once again featuring the Dread Chorus. The three songs were: "Betty And Dupree" (another Stroll-beat tune), "My Crying Eyes", and "Thunder And Lightning".


the real Betty & DuPre "Betty And Dupree" was very loosely based on a sensational real-life story that had taken place in Atlanta on December 15, 1921. Here's a summary, from the January 16, 1922 Montgomery [Alabama] Times:

It was believed probable today that Frank DuPre, suspected of being the desperado who recently stole a diamond ring from a Peachtree Street [Atlanta] jeweler and fled, killing one man and seriously wounding another, would go to trial on a charge of murder this week. [He killed a Pinkerton guard who tried to stop his getaway. He later told detectives that he'd stolen the ring to give to a woman named Betty Andrews.]

The January 14, 1922 Atlanta Constitution managed to interview Betty. Parts of that interview were:

Betty Andrews is my real name and I am only 18 years of age. [One report said she was a chorus girl who'd come to Atlanta with the Chu Chin Chow company and remained behind after she'd met DuPre. It turned out that she was actually the wife of an Atlanta barber named Anderson.]

I registered at the Childs hotel December 7, one day before DuPre came there. I knew him exactly four days and four days only. These were the four days immediately preceding the Five Points holdup.

He fell in love with me, but it was not my fault and I did nothing to encourage him to do so. God knows I am sorry for the boy, but I cannot make myself feel that I am in any way, directly or indirectly, responsible for his crimes.

Any intimation from any source that I encouraged DuPre to steal the diamond is absolutely false. I did not love him, and knowing him only four days, I scarcely felt in a position to aid or influence him in the commission of any crime.

He wrote me only one letter, and this I was forced to turn over to the police. I never attempted to communicate with him in any way after the shooting and robbery, and before he robbed the jewelry store, I had absolutely no intimation that he was a criminal.

Reports said to have been started by DuPre himself that he stole the ring to give it to me may be true, but if they are, I knew nothing of his intention. I was with him on the streets only one time, and then we went to a theater. I positively never was with him on the streets looking in jewelry windows and admiring rings.

Considering some of the language in Betty's quotes, there's no doubt in my mind that they were written by the reporter (or, possibly, her lawyer).

Frank DuPre, probably only 17 at the time, was part of a gang responsible for many robberies. It's unclear whether Betty was part of the gang also, since DuPre kept changing his story. However, on January 20, she was arrested as an accessory. Frank DuPre was sentenced to death and was hanged on September 1, 1922. Betty received a 12-month probationary sentence, but her probation was later revoked and she was sent to the state farm for the full 12 months.

Songs about Betty and DuPre went back to at least 1930, when both Willie Walker and Kingfish Bill Tomlin recorded "Dupree Blues", both released in 1931. There were other versions over the years.

Because of his intended audience, Chuck's version changed all but the first stanza. With few people outside of Atlanta remembering that it was based on a true story, it rose to #15 nationally; #33 Pop. Chuck was now, truly, the King Of The Stroll.

Salinas Armory ad On November 7, Chuck and Roy (plus Don & Dewey) were at the Armory in Salinas, California. The advertisement said of Roy Gaines: "and his orchestra, the same orchestra that belonged to Little Richard".

Atlantic 1168 Atlantic EP609 ad for Betty And Dupree ad for Betty And Dupree Also in November, Atlantic issued "Betty And Dupree", backed with "My Crying Eyes". Additionally, that month, there was an Atlantic EP that contained his prior four songs: "C. C. Rider", "Ease The Pain", "That Train Has Gone", and "Love Me Cherry".

The single was reviewed in the December 2 Billboard: "Willis presents 'Betty And Dupree' in the style of his hit 'C. C. Rider.' The blues is solidly belted with fine ork support. His rendition of 'My Crying Eyes,' a bluesy weeper-ballad, also could find favor. A contender in both pop and r.&b. marts."

In the December 7, 1957 Cash Box, "C. C. Rider" was listed as the #2 Best R&B Record Of 1957 ("Searchin'" was #1).

Epic LN 3425 1958 began with Epic (a Columbia subsidiary) issuing an LP (Chuck Willis Wails The Blues) featuring a dozen of his Okeh sides.

Atlantic held another session on February 14, 1958. The four songs (all backed up by the Ospreys) were: "You'll Be My Love", "What Am I Living For", "Hang Up My Rock 'N' Roll Shoes", and "Keep A-Driving".

Mention has to be made of six Atlantic sides that don't quite fit in anywhere: "From The Bottom Of My Heart", "Big Drops Of Rain", "Stop And Think", "Sugar, Sugar", "I'll Be So Glad When Your Heart Is Mine", and "Love Of Loves". We really don't know when they were recorded, but in the 1960s they were somehow re-worked and assigned new master numbers before being included in the I Remember Chuck Willis LP. While a common enough practice, this time, it's confusing. The new master numbers are almost contiguous with the Drifters' May 21, 1964 session that produced "Under The Boardwalk", but the LP came out in July 1963. "From The Bottom Of My Heart" features a Coasters-style sax (possibly by "Daddy G" Barge); all the others have an organ.

Considering that Chuck was termed "King Of The Stroll", the only Stroll-beat songs he recorded were "C. C. Rider", "Betty And Dupree", "Keep A-Driving", and "I'll Be So Glad When Your Heart Is Mine".

Chuck Willis with Mrs Bill Doggett On February 15, 1958, Chuck performed "Betty And Dupree" on the very first Dick Clark Saturday night show, broadcast on ABC-TV. [Since it wasn't yet sponsored by Beech-Nut gum, you're forgiven if you don't sport your IFIC button.] Chuck was squeezed in among such R&B powerhouses as Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone, Connie Francis, Johnnie Ray, and the Royal Teens. (To add insult to injury, it was followed by the Lawrence Welk Show.)

The February 17 Knickerbocker News (Albany, New York) reviewed the show. Here are some relevant quotes:

Although some elements of my young readers will most certainly disagree, the show is neither entertaining, nor television. It is cheap and artificial and in some aspects, offensive to good taste.

For "talent," Clark assembled five acts with records currently the rage among the bobbysox brigade. In most cases, the performers merely went through the motions of singing while their record was spinning off-camera. We are told by Clark that this pantomime device is to be preferred over a live performance to preserve THE SOUND. Inasmuch as Clark's guests included Pat Boone, who is known to sing with orchestras regularly on his own and other shows, it would appear that the true story is that it is cheaper to play records than to hire musicians.

The only "live" music - and the word is used advisedly here - in evidence was provided by a trio headed by a musician-maniac named Jerry Lee Lewis, a cat with hot tin hoofs [that, kiddies, is great writing], decked out in a sackcloth coat with leopard-skin labels, pockets and cuffs. Lewis, who worked his predominantly teen-age studio audience into a frenzy as he pounded on the piano and shouted out a bunch of indistinguishable words, has all the objectionable mannerisms of Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Gorgeous George.

Everyone's a critic! But what, you ask, did he have to say about Chuck? Here it is in its entirety (the squeamish among you may want to leave for the duration): "... Chuck Willis, his head swathed in a turban and his body draped in a suit made of luminescent fabric...". Sorry, that's it.

Atlantic 1179 ad for Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes In late March, Atlantic released "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes", coupled with "What Am I Living For". They were reviewed in the April 5, 1958 Cash Box:

What Am I Living For ad Chuck Willis sights both barrels at that teenage market and lets go with a middle beat r & r item, "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes", that bears all the marks of a winner. Willis rocks this timely lyric with the salesmanship of a real pro. The tune bounces energetically and the lyric is bound to hit the kids where they live. This should be a real big one for Willis and Atlantic. The coupling, "What Am I Loving For", is another goodie. A slow beat ballad-blues given a sincere and warm reading. Willis is strong here - but we lean to "Rock And Roll Shoes" for quick and decisive action.

We should note here, based on future events, that "What Am I Living For" isn't about dying; he's telling his woman (who hasn't left him), that his life revolves around her. It's simply a love song.

Atlantic LP 8018 Also in March, Atlantic issued an LP: Chuck Willis The King Of The Stroll. It contained both sides of his first five Atlantic singles, plus "My Life" and "Thunder And Lightning". The LP got a great review in the April 7, 1958 Billboard:

There's only one way to describe this. It's a gas! Chuck (C. C. Rider) Willis performs a group of great blues and they are blues right from the Heart. "That Train is Gone" is especially effective, tho all bands [tracks], with interesting, almost ethereal choral backings are highly effective. Great for the slow lindy terpers [dancers], but even better for just listening. This is the stuff that can make a man want to jump and shout!

And then Chuck died.

It was due to those ulcers again. Unfortunately, Chuck drank. Not a good idea when you have ulcers. He'd also been at a barbecue, which isn't too friendly to ulcers either. On April 10, 1958, after another operation, he died.

There were many, many obituaries. Most of them said nothing in particular and all had more or less true facts. Let me start with the strangest one, from the April 11 Baltimore Sun.

Harold Willis Dies, Rock 'N' Roll Singer

Atlanta, April 10 (AP) - Harold Willis, Negro rock 'n' roll entertainer, died yesterday in an Atlanta hospital following an abdominal operation.

He had recorded songs for Atlantic, Okeh and Epic record companies. His most recent record was "Betty And Dupree" and perhaps his best known one was "Oh What A Dream."

In all he composed more than 100 songs. A member of his family said he was not a musician but could write the notes of a musical strain.

A native of Atlanta, he began his career about 1948 in Negro clubs in and near the city.

Did you notice that they never mentioned "Chuck"? How many people knew that his real name was Harold? I certainly didn't.

I'll just give some interesting snippets from other papers.

There was an obituary:
Husband of Mrs. Dorothy S. Willis, father of Little Wanda Jean and Cynthia Willis and Master Ralph Willis; son of Mr. Willis [sic] James Willis Sr.; the brother of Mr. Willis [sic] James (Pete) Willis Jr., and Mr. Daniel [sic; should be Nathaniel] Willis.... [There's no mention of his sister, Dorothy.]

As well as a little blurb:
Survivors include his wife and a daughter, Miss Wanda Jean Willis.

Rock 'n' roll recording star Chuck Willis, 30, died in Hugh Spalding Hospital here [Atlanta] Thursday while apparently recuperating from an intestinal operation.

Writer-singer Chuck Willis hung up his rock and roll shoes for the last time last week....

Willis started his career in Atlanta and was "discovered" by Daddy Zenas Sears, famed deejay from WAOK in that city. Sears took him to Danny Kessler, who signed him for Okeh records. Kessler made Willis' first hits and later became Willis' manager after he left Okeh and also published his songs. The friendship between Kessler and Willis was strong and firm. Kessler felt that Chuck was "the rhythm and blues Hank Williams."

Willis was known as a nice guy in the trade, a "sincere and temperate" person, according to one executive. He was married to an Atlanta girl, Dorothy [Sadler], formerly an exotic dancer. He often compared his singing style to that of Johnny Ace, another singer cut off at the height of his career. One of Willis' motivating drives to become a top singer was to show his mother he could be successful, but his mother passed away before he hit the big time. [Rosa Lee Wyatt Willis died on May 15, 1950.]....

Chuck Willis is survived by, in addition to his wife, Dorothy, two girls, Wanda Jean, and Cynthia, and another child, Ralph. [Somehow the word "son" never occurred to them?]....

A turban similar to the type he wore in life graced the head of the body of Harold "Chuck" Willis, nationally known recording artist who died Thursday morning in a local hospital, where he had been confined for several days for treatment of an ulcer.

The headpiece was a cream-colored, pleated satin, with a center ornament of pearls inlaid in gold; a gold stickpin in his tie; and a brown silk and Dacron jacket. [Do you think the woman who wrote this normally penned sludge like "the bride looked stunning in orange burlap"? It's true; she was their social columnist who happened to be in Atlanta at the time.]....

Survivors include: wife, Mrs. Dorothy Sadler Willis; two daughters, Wanda and Cynthia Willis; father, Willie J. Willis, Sr. of Detroit; a sister, Mrs. Dorothy Lewis; two brothers, Willie, Jr. and Nathaniel Willis.

Willis, it was known in the trade, was suffering from an advanced case of bleeding ulcers. About one and one-half years ago he was hospitalized and the ulcers were brought under control. Willis resisted urgent pleas from his doctor and Danny Kessler and Murray Sporn, his managers and publishers, to undergo an operation at that time.

About three months ago, while working in Washington, D.C., Willis suffered another severe attack and he returned to his home in Atlanta, Ga., to recuperate. A few weeks back he was finally convinced of the seriousness of his condition and he went under [I guess they meant "underwent"] a long operation. Three days before he died, Willis was rushed into emergency to alleviate a congested lung condition. He seemed to have rallied but suffered a relapse early Thursday morning and passed away at 2:30 A.M.....

Ironically enough, his latest release, issued only last week, is titled "What Am I Living For" and "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes." [They seem to have been the first to put that in print.]....

Willis was not only recognized for his singing talents, but was greatly respected as a song writer. He not only wrote his own material but was successful as a writer for others....

Surviving are wife, Dorothy, and three children, Ralph 4, Wanda Jean 4, and Cynthia 2.

Chuck was one of those mild guys who had nothing but friends and a lot of people in this business are going to miss him as a man.

Surviving are his wife, Dorothy, and three children, four year old twins, Ralph and Wanda Jean, and two year old Cynthia.

Some barbecue he ate two weeks ago reportedly aggravated the ulcer and he was ordered to the hospital. Murray Sporn, one of Willis' personal managers, said 70 per cent of the singer's stomach was taken out.

He is survived by his widow, Dorothy, and a son and a daughter.

So, to recap, reports were very confused about his children:

1. Survivors include a wife and a daughter, Miss Wanda Jean Willis. (Atlanta Constitution April 11, 1958)

2. He is survived by his widow, Dorothy, and a son and daughter. (Pittsburgh Courier April 19, 1958)

3. Chuck is survived by, in addition to his wife, Dorothy, two girls, Wanda Jean and Cynthia, and another child, Ralph. (Billboard April 14, 1958)

4. Surviving are his wife, Dorothy, and three children, four year old twins, Ralph and Wanda Jean, and two year old Cynthia. (The Ottawa Citizen April 19, 1958)

Only one account said that his father was still alive (and living in Detroit). Several accounts mentioned that he was fondly remembered as a genuinely nice person.

Talk about being clueless, the June 8, 1958 Niagara Falls Gazette had this record review: "A prince of rhythm and blues, Chuck Willis joins the neurotic set with 'What Am I Living For.' The arrangement for this disc is novel, well-rounded and full, for which Reggie Obrecht takes the bows. [Obrecht was the orchestral and choral director.] Chuck is in fine fettle as he laconically tells his troubles." [Sounds to me like he's got a brilliant career ahead of him.]

"What Am I Living For" went straight to #1 on the R&B charts (#9 Pop). "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes" wasn't far behind at #9 (#24 Pop).

Atlantic 1192 ad for My Life There were still some items in the can that Atlantic thought worthy of release. In July 1958, they issued "My Life, backed with "Thunder And Lightning" (both taken from the King Of The Stroll LP). These received the Award O' The Week in the August 9 Cash Box:

Atlantic issues the first release by Chuck Willis since the chanter's untimely death a few months back. And it's a powerful, two-sided entry that could follows [sic] in the footsteps of what was probably his biggest coupling to date, "What Am I Living For" and "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes". One end, labeled "Thunder And Lightning", is a tantalizing, steady, up-beat blues opus while "My Life", on the flip, falls into the heartfelt, slow-paced romantic-ballad category. Excellent choral [the Dread Chorus] and instrumental work on both ends of this dual-mart [R&B and Pop] Willis 'special'.

"My Life" rose to #12 on the R&B charts and #46 Pop.

Atlantic EP612 Also in August, Atlantic put out another EP, this one with "What Am I Living For", "Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes", "Betty And Dupree", and "My Crying Eyes".

Atlantic 2005 Atlantic issued "Keep A-Driving" and "You'll Be My Love" in October 1958. It was one of Billboard's Spotlight Winners Of The Week in their November 3 edition (another was Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee"). They said (of "Keep A-Driving"): "Another great side by the late artist. It's a strong, bluesy tune with an insistent tempo. It should score heavily in both pop and r.&b. marts. Flip is a rockaballad, 'You'll Be My Love'." "Keep A-Driving" rose to #19 on the R&B charts.

In the December 27, 1958 Cash Box, "What Am I Living For" was the #4 top R&B single of the year, behind "Yackety Yak", "Tequila", and "Little Star".

Atlantic 2029 ad for Just One Kiss There was one more Atlantic single. In June 1959, they issued "Just One Kiss", backed with "My Baby". They were reviewed (both "B+") in the June 20 Cash Box: My Baby ("Infectious, up-tempo testimonial to the gal is the vehicle for the late Willis' frenzied delivery. Good ork-chorus support enhances disk's potential."). Just One Kiss ("Willis calms down here for a sincere reading of a touching rock-a-ballad. Either end can make the move").

Epic LN 3728 It took over two years after his death for Columbia to issue a tribute album. A Tribute To Chuck Willis came out in August 1960 on Epic. It received three stars in the September 19 Billboard: "This album contains a collection of single sides cut by the late Chuck Willis when he was with the label in the early 1950s. The tunes include 'Salty Tears,' 'Loud Mouth Lucy,' 'When My Day Is Over' and 'Here I Come.' Willis wrote practically all of the tunes in the set, and they represent a good part of his career. For the many followers of the late singer."

Atlantic LP 8079 An Atlantic LP, I Remember Chuck Willis, came out in July 1963. While not reviewed, it received four stars in the July 20 Billboard.

Atco SD 33-373 The last Chuck Willis release was on Atlantic's Atco subsidiary in November 1971. Part of the Greatest Recordings series (the Coasters, Lavern Baker, the Clovers, the Drifters, and Joe Turner were the others), it received four stars in the December 4, 1971 Billboard (although no review).

not Chuck Willis Note that a recent Chuck Willis CD mistakenly uses a 1952 photo of Joe Williams, who'd become Count Basie's vocalist.

As for the rest of Chuck's family:

After Chuck's passing, there was never another word about his son, Ralph Willis.

Chuck's sister, Dorothy Willis Micken, died in 1961. Chuck wasn't mentioned in the obituary, but her brothers, Nathaniel and W. J. ("Pete") were.

Chuck's mother-in-law died in 1983. Her obituary said her daughter was Dorothy Willis, and her granddaughters were now Mrs. Wanda W. Barkley and Mrs. Cynthia G. Hunter.

Chuck's brother, Nathaniel "Pit" Willis, died in 1988. His obituary mentioned his brother Willie James "Pete" Willis.

Chuck's brother, Willie James "Pete" Willis, died in 2011. His obituary mentioned that he was Chuck's brother and that Chuck's wife, Dorothy Willis, was still alive.


Chuck Willis gave us the best of R&B and some of the best of R&R. I wish his output had been a lot larger.


Special thanks to Victor Pearlin.



CHUCK WILLIS

COLUMBIA
4-30238 It Ain't Right To Treat Me Wrong / Can't You See - 5/51

OKEH
6810 I Rule My House / I Tried (To Get Along With You) - 7/51
6841 Let's Jump Tonight / It's Too Late Baby - 11/51
6873 Here I Come / Loud Mouth Lucy - 4/52
6905 My Story / Caldonia - 9/52
6930 Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish / Salty Tears - 12/52
6952 Going To The River / Baby Have Left Me Again - 4/53
6985 I've Been Treated Wrong Too Long (with the Royals) / Don't Deceive Me - 6/53
7004 My Baby's Coming Home / When My Day Is Over - 9/53
7015 What's Your Name? / You're Still My Baby - 12/53
7029 I Feel So Bad / Need One More Chance - 5/54
7041 Change My Mind / My Heart's Been Broke Again - 8/54
7048 I've Been Away Too Long / Give And Take - 11/54
7051 Lawdy Miss Mary / Love-Struck - 2/55
7055 I Can Tell (with the Sandmen) / One More Break - 5/55
7062 Search My Heart / Ring-Ding-Doo - 10/55
7067 Come On Home / It Were You - 3/56
7070 Two Spoons Of Tears / Charged With Cheating - 10/56

EPIC (Okeh masters)
EG 7070 Chuck Willis Sings the Blues
      Don't Deceive Me / You're Still My Baby // I Feel So Bad / Need One More Chance - ca. 12/54

EPIC (Columbia/Okeh masters)
LN 3425 Chuck Willis Wails The Blues - 1/58
      My Story
      I Feel So Bad
      You're Still My Baby
      Lawdy Miss Mary
      Need One More Chance
      Caldonia
      Don't Deceive Me
      One More Break
      I Can Tell
      Search My Heart
      Love-Struck
      Charged With Cheating

LN 3728 A Tribute To Chuck Willis - 8/60
      Here I Come
      Come On Home
      Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish
      When My Day Is Over
      Loud Mouth Lucy
      It Ain't Right To Treat Me Wrong
      Take It Like A Man
      Salty Tears
      Night Of Misery
      Welcome Home
      I Rule My House
      Change My Mind

   UNRELEASED OKEH
      Be Good Or Be Gone (rec 1/26/51)
      My Baby's On My Mind (rec 6/27/51)
      Take It Like A Man (rec 6/26/52)
      You Broke My Heart (rec 11/19/52)
      Make Up Your Mind (rec 9/17/53)
      You Win This Time (rec 2/5/54)
      Keep A-Knockin' (rec 2/5/54)
      If I Had A Million (rec 2/5/54)
      I Don't Mind If I Do (rec 6/24/54)
      Blow Freddy Jackson (rec 6/24/54)
      Welcome Home (rec 10/5/54)
      Peace And Love (rec 10/5/54)
      Search My Heart (rec 4/15/55)
      Bless Her Heart (rec 1/26/56)
      Night Of Misery (rec 1/26/56)


ATLANTIC
1098 It's Too Late / Kansas City Woman - 5/56
1112 Juanita / Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You - 10/56
1130 C. C. Rider / Ease The Pain - 3/57
1148 That Train Has Gone / Love Me Cherry - 7/57
1168 Betty And Dupree / My Crying Eyes - 11/57
1179 Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes / What Am I Living For (both with the Ospreys) - 3/58
1192 My Life / Thunder And Lightning - 7/58
2005 Keep A-Driving / You'll Be My Love (both with the Ospreys) - 10/58
2029 Just One Kiss / My Baby - 6/59

EP 591 Chuck Willis
      Juanita / Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You // Kansas City Woman / It's Too Late - 8/57
EP 609 Rock With Chuck Willis
      C. C. Rider / Ease The Pain // That Train Has Gone / Love Me Cherry - 11/57
EP 612 What Am I Living For
      What Am I Living For / Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes // Betty And Dupree / My Crying Eyes - 8/58

LP 8018 Chuck Willis The King Of The Stroll - 3/58
      Betty And Dupree
      That Train Has Gone
      Love Me Cherry
      Juanita
      It's Too Late
      C. C. Rider
      My Life
      Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You
      Kansas City Woman
      There's Got To Be A Way
      Ease The Pain
      Thunder And Lightning
      My Crying Eyes

LP 8079 I Remember Chuck Willis - 7/63
      What Am I Living For
      Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes
      Stop And Think
      From The Bottom Of My Heart
      Just One Kiss
      You'll Be My Love
      Keep A-Driving
      C. C. Rider
      Betty And Dupree
      I'll Be So Glad When Your Heart Is Mine
      Big Drops Of Rain
      Sugar Sugar
      Love Of Loves
      My Baby

ATCO (Atlantic subsidiary)
SD 33-373 Chuck Willis - His Greatest Recordings - 11/71
      Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes
      Ease the Pain
      C.C. Rider
      What Am I Living For
      That Train Has Gone
      Love Me Cherry
      Betty and Dupree
      It's Too Late
      From the Bottom of My Heart
      Kansas City Woman
      Thunder and Lightning
      My Crying Eyes

   UNRELEASED ATLANTIC
      There’s Got To Be A Way (rec 4/13/56)
      My Baby (first attempt; rec 1/31/57)
      One Kiss (rec 4/11/57)
      From The Bottom Of My Heart
      Big Drops Of Rain
      Stop And Think
      Sugar, Sugar
      I'll Be So Glad When Your Heart Is Mine
      Love Of Loves




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