Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chuck Willis

The truth is that I’ve never come across a Chuck Willis collection. So I don’t have one really. I put together my own collection, the tracks all taken from Atlantic Rhythm And Blues 1947 – 1974. That nets me 4 out of 5 of his hits, which isn’t all that bad, considering.

Collections are available, though they seem to have “discontinued by the manufacturer” according to Amazon.

All his hits hit in 1957 and 1958, and he died of ulcer-related illness in April, 1958. That didn’t give him a very long career. While he lived he was one of a legion of Atlantic R & B singers, together with Clyde McPhatter, LaVerne Baker, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown etc etc. His trademark was the stroll, which was a dance, and somehow his music is meant to evoke the dance, through it’s rhythm or something, and I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound much to me like The Diamonds’ The Stroll. Maybe I’m the philistine…

Chuck Willis:

C. C. Rider – This seems to have been the original hit version of this song in the rock and roll era, for what that’s worth. It seems to have been written by Ma Rainey, in the 20s, and she may even have gotten songwriting royalties for a time, though her name isn’t always the one you see on songwriting credits. This has kind of a shuffle rhythm, supposedly though it’s the stroll for which Willis was celebrated. The female chorus is undoubtedly white, a fact which has given rise to the claim, not denied by those in the know, that this was a blatant attempt to “whiten” Atlantic’s R & B sound and thereby reach a wider audience. I don’t know whether it worked, but this song did reach number 12 on the pop chart in the summer of 1957. There are a million versions out there, from Elvis Presley to Gary Lewis & The Playboys, the most notable for my money being the hit versions by Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels (it’s actually labeled Jenny Take A Ride and exists as part of a medley with Jenny Jenny Jenny) and the no-holds-barred-totally-rocked-out version by The Animals. But no other vesion, as far as I know, has a marimba.
It’s Too Late – Another one that got covered a lot. This is not the Carole King song. In this case not only is the relationship over, but she is gone.
Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes – The anti-protest song. “You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more” yelled the parent in Yakety Yak. In this one Chuck promises to do all those things that the parent wanted the kid to do in The Coasters song, that the kid didn’t want to do. Underlying it all, there is the fear of being left behind. “Rock and roll is here to stay…” A hit in the spring of 1958. The Band covered this; it seems to have been their standard encore, and there’s a few versions kicking around, most notably perhaps on Rock Of Ages.
Betty And Dupree – This was a shaggy dog story in song, but Chuck cut most of it out, getting rid of all the violence and drama. Listen to Harry Belafonte do it. From the winter of 1958.
What Am I Living For – I Cried A Tear with different words. The A side of Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes, and a hit in the summer of 1958, Willis’ biggest. But by the time he was asking what he was living for, he was dead. Also a hit for Conway Twitty.

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