Claims to fame:
- Known as "The King of the Stroll" for his slow R&B groove, which fit the dance of the same name
- An important bridge between R&B and soul
- Brought the sound of New Orleans Soul, specifically Fats Domino, to Atlanta
- Popularized the blues standard "See See Rider" for the rock generation
- His anguished croon was an important influence on the later "soul-blues" genre
Born: Harold Willis
, January 31, 1928 in Atlanta, GA; died April 10, 1958, Chicago, IL
Styles: R&B, Blues, Rock and Roll
Chuck Willis got his start in his native Atlanta, singing at YMCA youth dances; by his early twenties, he was a fixture on the local scene, fronting not one but two local bands. Local DJ Zenas "Daddy" Sears discovered him quickly, and just as quickly got him signed to Columbia, but success was not immediate: it took a year before the label's subsidiary Okeh found a hit for Willis with the ballad "My Story." Though he made inroads on the national R&B charts with singles like "Goin' to the River," "Don't Deceive Me," "You're Still My Baby," "I Feel So Bad" and "Oh What a Dream," pop success eluded him.
That all changed in 1956, when Atlantic, always with an excellent ear for R&B trends, picked him up. Soon, he'd made the pop charts with "It's Too Late," which became a standard of the genre. But it was in 1957 when Chuck made his name for good by reviving the blues standard "See See Rider," which had been a hit for Ma Rainey in 1924. The song's slow, New Orleans-inspired ballad beat became the perfect fit for a new dance known as "The Stroll," and in between more standard bluesy raveups, Willis repeated the formula with the '58 double-sided smash "What Am I living For?" and "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes."
Unfortunately, both titles would soon prove prophetic. Willis had been suffering from stomach ulcers for some time before he entered a Chicago hospital in 1958 for surgery. Accounts differ as to why he put off the appointment: some maintain that as a family man he couldn't afford to miss a paycheck, while others claimed he was afraid of the operation. Whatever the reason, peritonitis had already set in, and he died a few days later at the tragically young age of 30. However, Northern Soul enthusiasts kept his name alive, and when the English blues phenomenon hit a few years later, he was assured immortality.
Chuck Willis on video:
"The Saturday Night Dick Clark Show" (1958)
Other Chuck Willis facts and trivia:
- Owned 54 of his signature turbans for use onstage
- Elvis Presley scored a hit in 1961 with a cover of Willis' "I Feel So Bad," and Ruth Brown turned his "Oh What A Dream" into a smash in 1954
- Dick Clark was the first to realize that "C.C. Rider" worked with the Stroll dance; Willis' one and only TV appearance was on Dick's weekend show
Derek and the Dominoes, Otis Redding, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Clyde McPhatter, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Animals, Conway Twitty, Ruth Brown, Little Milton, Otis Rush, Jerry Garcia Band, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, Solomon Burke, Ernest Tubb, Tracy Nelson, Ike and Tina Turner, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, The Everly Brothers, King Curtis, Z.Z. Hill, Jimmy Clanton, Sleepy LaBeef, Barbara Lynn, Clifton Chenier, Millie Small, Billy Fury, Charlie Rich
Chuck Willis hit singles and albums:
#1 R&B singles:
"C.C. Rider" (1957)
"What Am I Living For?" (1958)
Top 10 Pop singles:
"What Am I Living For?" (1958)
Top 10 R&B singles:
"It's Too Late" (1956)
"Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes" (1958)
Other important songs by Chuck Willis: "Betty and Dupree," "Be Good Or Be Gone," "Let's Jump Tonight," "Can't You See," "I Rule My House," "My Baby's On My Mind," "Loud Mouth Lucy," "My Story," "Wrong Lake To Catch A Fish," "Don't Deceive Me (Please Don't Go)," "My Baby's Coming Home," "I Feel So Bad," "You're Still My Baby," "What's Your Name," "If I Had A Million," "My Heart's Been Broken Again," "I Don't Mind If I Do," "If I Were You," "Search My Heart," "One More Break," "Bless Her Heart," "Charged With Cheating," "Kansas City Woman," "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You," "Ease The Pain," "The Train Has Gone," "My Crying Eyes"