Chuck Willis!

Lets look at one of the early pioneers of Rhythm and Blues.  Unfortunately he lived only 30 years and died when his last songs where going up the Charts. 

I do not remember his early work; what I remember was a dance called “The Stroll” and the first time I saw it (American Bandstand) it was done to “C.C. Rider”.  

His song “It’s Too Late She’s Gone” was recorded by a lot of people, but of course by my favourite “Buddy Holly”.  I have no idea how many times C.C. Rider (or See See Rider) has been recorded, but it was a remake of a Twelve Bar Blues song by Ma Rainey before he was born.  Let’s take a look at the brief life of —

Chuck Willis
Harold “Chuck” Willis (January 31, 1928 – April 10, 1958)


His Cousin Chick Willis in 2010 with “Stoop down Baby”

1.   My Story/ Okeh/ October 1952/ #2 R&B

2.   Going to the River (Fats Domino song)/ Okeh/ May 1953/ #3 R&B

3.   It’s Too Late/ Atlantic/ June 1956/ #4 R&B

4.   C. C. Rider (the original Stroll)/ Atlantic 1130/ May 1957/ #12 Billboard  # 1 R&B

5.   Betty and Dupree/ Atlantic 1168/ March 1958/ # 33 Billboard  #15 R&B

6.   What Am I Living For/ Atlantic 1179/ May 1958/ #9 Billboard  # 1 R&B

7.   Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes/ B-Side/ May 1958/ Billboard #24 R&B #9

8.   My Life / Atlantic/ August 1958/ #56 Billboard  #12 R&B

There were two distinct sides to Chuck Willis. In addition to being a convincing blues shouter, the Atlanta-born Willis harbored a vulnerable blues balladeer side. He was also a masterful songwriter who penned some of the most distinctive R&B numbers of the 1950s.

Early years:

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,” success on the Pop charts 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.”

But the turban-wearing crooner’s time was growing short. Much has been made of the ironic title of his last hit, the touching “What Am I Living For,” but it was no more a clue to his impending demise than its flip, the joyous “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.


4 responses to “Chuck Willis!

  1. “The Stroll” by Chuck Willis, yes do recall CC Rider, loved that sound.
    The Stroll was made popular by Toronto’s “Diamonds” with Dave Somerville and the dance hit American Bandstand with “The Diamonds”
    and the cool kids doin’ that dance. Do not wish to ever put down the original, but credit must be given to our own “Diamonds”!

  2. Good stuff, guys ! The female vocal harmony on “It’s Too Late’ has always endeared me to the song. Dick Clark really got behind ‘Betty And Dupree’ and put it on the Banstand chart. I remember Chuck Willis as one of the hip (or should I say ‘hep’) cats of the 50’s. Cheers……..Ron.

  3. Chuck was hep for sure, Daddy-O. In “It’s Too Late” I also love the brief sax section break and the use of what sounds like a Celesta keyboard.

  4. Pingback: Chuck Willis | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

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