Chuck Willis

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Chuck Willis
Birth name Harold Willis
Born (1928-01-31)January 31, 1928
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Died April 10, 1958(1958-04-10) (aged 30)
Chicago, Illinois
Genres R&B, rock and roll
Occupation(s) Singer, songwriter
Years active 1950–58
Labels OKeh, Atlantic

Harold "Chuck" Willis (January 31, 1928 – April 10, 1958)[1] was an American blues, rhythm and blues,[2] and rock and roll singer and songwriter. His biggest hits, "C. C. Rider" (1957) and "What Am I Living For" (1958), both reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart. He was known as The King of the Stroll for his performance of the 1950s dance the stroll.[3]


Willis was born in Atlanta, Georgia.[4] Willis was spotted at a talent contest by Atlanta radio disc jockey Zenas Sears, who became his manager and helped him to sign with Columbia Records in 1951.[3] After one single, Willis began recording on a Columbia subsidiary, Okeh. During his stay at Okeh, he established himself as a popular R&B singer and songwriter, performing material that he wrote himself. In 1956, he moved to Atlantic Records where he had immediate success with "It's Too Late (She's Gone)", "Juanita" and "Love Me Cherry".

His most successful recording was "C.C. Rider", which topped the US Billboard R&B chart in 1957 and also crossed over and sold well in the pop market. Jerry Wexler said it was Willis's surprising idea to "do an old standard" instead of one of his own songs.[5] "C.C. Rider" was a remake of a twelve-bar blues, performed by Ma Rainey in Atlanta before Willis was born.[3] Its relaxed beat, combined with a mellow vibraphone backing and chorus, inspired the emergence of the popular dance, The Stroll. Dick Clark played "C. C. Rider" on American Bandstand, and "The Stroll" became a popular dance. [6]Willis's follow-up was "Betty and Dupree", another "stroll" song and a similar "old standard", which also did well. Wexler said that Dick Clark used "Betty and Dupree" on American Bandstand to accompany "The Stroll," and that is how Willis became known as "King of The Stroll."[5] Willis' single "Going to the River", a song by Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, was a prototype for his "stroll" sound, reaching No.4 on the R&B chart.[3]

Willis performed wearing a turban (a gimmick suggested to him by his friend Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and was also known as the "Sheik of Shake." In the early 1950s he hosted and performed on a weekly Saturday night television show in Atlanta, which featured guest artists such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke who were passing through town. Zenas Sears said that Willis was a better songwriter than a performer, but also said, "On the TV show ... Chuck would do five or six different numbers every week. He moved very well, he handled himself very well and put everyone at ease." He was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on the road as well, and "was one of the few artists who would treat a band properly," according to Roy Gaines, who was Willis's bandleader and guitarist. [5]


Willis approached songwriting with painstaking craftsmanship and the result was literate, soulful and melancholy. He did not introduce a song in the studio until it was a polished product and fully worked out in his mind. He used a variety of methods. Zenas Sears said Willis would drive around in the car singing into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Sears said, "If he'd lived he would have been recognized for that [his songwriting]." Roy Gaines recalled, "He'd lock up in a hotel room and wouldn't see anyone for 3-4 days or a week. When he wrote 'It's Too Late,' he was in his room for a week."[5]

Ruth Brown, who toured with Willis, said he would write on yellow ledger pads.[5] Brown said, "I asked him, because he had such a good song going, I said, 'Chuck, why don't you write me a tune? And he did. He wrote, Oh What a Dream.'"[6] Jerry Wexler said Willis would bring a full set of lyrics into the studio and then work out the arrangements with the band. Zenas Sears said, "[N]o one helped him with his songs. He always wrote a great deal."[5]


Willis had suffered from stomach ulcers for many years. He was known to drink a lot.[5] During surgery in Chicago, Willis died of peritonitis on April 10, 1958 at the age of 30. His untimely death occurred while at the peak of his career, just after the release of his last single, "What Am I Living For?", backed by "Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes".

"Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes" was actually the A side of the single but upon his death "What Am I Living For" became the most popular of the two songs.[4] "What Am I Living For?" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[1] It was also the top R&B disc of 1958.[1]

When Willis died, he owed a lot of money to the US government, because, according to Zenas Sears, "he paid the band out of his own pocket without ever deducting taxes. ... When he died, his wife had the house, she had the fur coats and the Cadillac, but there was no money."[5]


His hit, the blues ballad "It's Too Late (She's Gone)" was covered by other artists, including Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ted Taylor (1969 single), Freddie King, Derek and the Dominos and the Jerry Garcia Band. In 2005, it was heavily sampled by Kanye West on Late Registration's "Gone". Elvis Presley covered "I Feel So Bad" and "C. C. Rider" and Ruth Brown and Conway Twitty had hits with "Oh What a Dream".

Willis's cousin is Chick Willis.


Chart singles[edit]

Year A-side Label Chart Positions
US Pop[7] US
1952 "My Story" OKeh 4-6905 2
1953 "Going to the River" OKeh 4-6952 4
"Don't Deceive Me" OKeh 4-6985 6
1954 "You're Still My Baby" OKeh 4-7015 4
"I Feel So Bad" OKeh 4-7029 8
1956 "It's Too Late" Atlantic 1098 3
"Juanita" /
"Whatcha' Gonna Do When Your Baby Leaves You"
Atlantic 1112 7
1957 "C. C. Rider" Atlantic 1130 12 1
1958 "Betty and Dupree" Atlantic 1168 33 15
"What Am I Living For" /
"Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes"
Atlantic 1179 9
"My Life" Atlantic 1192 46 12
"Keep A-Driving" Atlantic 2005 19

Compilation Albums[edit]

Year Title Label
1980 "Chuck Willis -- My Story" CBS JC36389 (re-released by Sony on CD in 1990)
1994 "Let's Jump Tonight -- The Best of Chuck Willis from 1951 -'56" Sony 53619
2006 "C.C. Rider" Atlantic Collectables [sic] COL-CD-9973


  1. ^ a b c Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 109. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. 
  2. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 
  3. ^ a b c d Windham, Ben (February 15, 2003). "New release digs deep into Chuck Willis' background". The Tuscaloosa News. p. 16.
  4. ^ a b Accessed March 2010
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Guralnick, Peter (1990). Liner notes for the CD "Chuck Willis -- My Story", Sony Music WK 75061, Previously released as CBS Records Inc. JC 36389 (1980)
  6. ^ a b Dahl, Bill (1994). Liner notes for the CD "Let's Jump Tonight -- The Best of Chuck Willis from 1951 -'56", Sony Music Entertainment. Inc. 53619, [Legacy's Rhythm and Soul Series]
  7. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955–2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 769. ISBN 0-89820-155-1. 
  8. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–1995. Record Research. p. 485.