Chuck Willis (Born 31/01/1928, Died 10/04/1958)
|Unfortunately dubbed the King Of Stroll after the release of 'C.C. Rider', which was used to promote the latest dance craze, Willis was a talented performer and one of the finest R&B writers around.
He was actually discovered by disc jockey and future manager Zenas Shears at a talent show. After a stint as a big band singer in the late 40s (which helped to develop his ability to adapt his style to a variety of arrangements) he signed with the Columbia label, releasing all but his first recording on the subsidiary label Okeh. Over the next five years he had a string of R&B successes, including 'My Story', 'Going To The River', 'You're Still My Baby' and his version of the blues standard 'Feel So Bad'. Most of this material can be found on "Let's Jump Tonight! The Best Of Chuck Willis" on Legacy but I've never been able to find it in the UK.
After the hits started to try up Okeh rather unwisely let his contract lapse and Atlantic snapped him up in 1956. Atlantic accentuated Willis' subtle and poignant vocals with a much slicker sound than before. His comeback hit was 'It's Too Late, a lament of self pity which perfectly suited his soulful style, followed by the reworking of 'C.C. Rider' which forever linked him within the Stroll dance craze of the time. Other wonderful Atlantic recordings included the follow-up 'Betty And Dupree', 'What Am I Living For', and 'Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes'. The last two tracks are particularly poignant; given Willis' death before these songs hit the charts they both appear with hindsight to be an intimation of mortality.
Two posthumous singles were released ('My Life' and 'Keep-A-Drivin') but Chuck's avoidable and senseless death (from stomach ulcers when he refused surgery until it was too late) robbed the world of a great talent still capable of producing its greatest work. Over the years, Willis' reputation as a writer has deservedly grown through the recording of his songs by the likes of the Band, Ruth Brown, Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Derek And The Dominoes and Lavern Baker.
You can find all of the essential Atlantic material on the Razor and Tie Anthology "Stroll On: The Chuck Willis Collection". This is a superbly put together collection and it's a real shame that in the UK it is not currently available - Willis deserves better. You can get a Collectables Records release ("I Remember Chuck Willis") that picks up most of the good stuff.