An outstanding R&B singer from Atlanta, Chuck Willis became known as the ‘king of the stroll’, although he saw himself as a latter-day Johnny Ace.
Legendary Atlanta DJ Zenas Sears, a white man who played black music on Georgia Tech’s WGST-AM, spotted Willis in a talent contest and became his manager, helping to get him a recording contract with Columbia Records and its subsidiary, OKeh.
None of his OKeh releases enjoyed much crossover success, but he had hits on the black music charts in 1953 with Going To The River (#4), New Orleans-styled ballad You’re Still My Baby (#4) and Don’t Deceive Me (#6).
The next year, his My Story, a gorgeously blue lament reached #2. Then one of his most enduring songs, the Latin-tinged Feel So Bad, peaked at #8.
But then the hits stopped coming. OKeh tried changing bands, recording Willis with a sizzling orchestra directed by Freddy Jackson for Change My Mind, a strolling sequel to Going To The River and the gritty rocker Lawdy Miss Mary.
When they failed to chart, OKeh raised the heat another notch by bringing in a rising young orchestra leader named Quincy Jones.
The music that Willis made with Quincy was great but didn’t ring the cash registers and OKeh dropped Willis.
Atlantic Records picked him up and he hit the charts almost as soon as he signed in 1956. His fabulous updates of ancient blues like Betty and Dupree and CC Rider cemented his reputation as a hitmaker.
Tall, swaying and regally attired in a jewelled silk turban, he looked like a swarthy Oriental potentate, not an Atlanta homeboy.
Willis also wrote such hit tunes as What A Dream, recorded by Ruth Brown, From The Bottom Of My Heart recorded by Don Cornell and The Clovers, and Close Your Eyes recorded by The Five Keys.
Willis died on 10 April 1958 in Hugh Spaulding hospital in Baltimore from complications following an ulcer operation. It was ironic that his last two posthumous hits – recorded two months earlier – were What Am I Living For? and (I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.