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Sun, 01.31.1926

Chuck Willis, Singer born

Chuck Willis

*On this date, in 1926, Chuck Willis was born.  He was a Black blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll singer and songwriter.

Harold "Chuck" Willis was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1926.  He 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.  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 he wrote himself. In 1956, he moved to Atlantic Records, where he had immediate success with "It's Too Late," "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 songs.  "C.C. Rider" was a remake of a twelve-bar blues, performed by Ma Rainey in Atlanta before Willis was born.  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.  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."  

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.  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 was 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. He was known as The King of the Stroll for his performance of the 1950s dance the stroll.  Willis had suffered from stomach ulcers for many years. He was known to drink a lot.  During surgery in Chicago, Willis died of peritonitis on April 10, 1958, at 32. His untimely death occurred 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". 

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