Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chick Willis: "The Blues is the Only Thing That's Going to Soothe Your Soul"

Chick Willis has always been known for exploring the good-natured, playful side of the blues.
Born in Cabiness, Georgia, Willis learned to sing in church as a youth and taught himself how to play guitar. During his late teens, he performed professionally at Atlanta’s old Royal Peacock Club, crossing paths with Jackie Wilson, the Five Royals, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Nappy Brown, Sam Cooke and Jimmy Reed, among others.
Willis made his first recording, “You’re Mine,” for Ebb Records in 1956. He toured with his cousin, rhythm and blues player Chuck Willis during the 50’s until Chuck Willis’ death in 1958. He then worked with slide guitar legend Elmore James.
Willis then started fronting his own bands, developing a reputation as an entertaining and energetic bluesman who was not shy about delving into raucous humor. During the 1960’s he gigged with comedian Rudy Ray Moore, later known for the film character of “Dolemite.”
In 1972, he released what many consider to be his signature song, “Stoop Down Baby.” The song became a hit even though sexually-explicit lyrics kept it from receiving radio play.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Willis made several albums for Inchiban records, starting with a 1985 tribute album to his cousin, Chuck. He continued to make albums for numerous labels afterwards. His latest, Hit & Run Blues, was released last year.
The 73-year-old Willis continues to perform publically. Beldon’s Blues Point caught up with him after he played the Pocono Blues Festival late last month:
BBP: So what are you up to these days?
Willis: Well, I’m playing everywhere right now. I just came back from the U.K. I was there, I did ten dates in five days, you know. I’ll go on home I’ll play around home for a couple of weeks, then I’m gone again.
BBP: Home’s Atlanta, right?
Willis: No, home is Forsyth, Georgia. That’s about 60 miles south of Atlanta. I’m a country boy, I live down in them woods.
BBP: You know what, I remember years ago I saw you in Atlanta—this is the third time I’ve seen you-- I saw you in Atlanta at a club called the..you go down in the basement.
Willis: Blues in the Alley.
BBP: Blues in the Alley. Yeah, that’s it.
Willis: Well I’ll be at Blind Willies next. In fact I’ll be there Saturday night.
Willis: Next Saturday night.
BBP: And I saw you in D.C. I guess about a couple of years ago at a place called the Westminister Church?
Willis: Oh Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! We had a good time over there! I was surprised they were having blues in church.
BBP: Yeah I was too. Tell me about some of the people you admired most when you were a young musician coming along.
Willis; Well some of the people I admired nobody knows them but me. One was my grandmother, she played the organ, the pedal organ—she played organ and sang in the church and my father was a harmonica player, but the people that was recording back then that I admired was Lightnin’ Hopkins…
BBP: What did you take from Lightnin’ Hopkins, who do you think taught you the most in terms of guitar, who do you reflect the most?
Willis: Well, the person who taught me most at guitar, listening to the guitar was Guitar Slim. Now Lightnin’ Hopkins taught me more about the audience, about taking your time and making sure that your audience understand what you’re saying, and singing songs that the audience can relate to.
BBP: Now that song “Stoop Down, “what does that mean?
Willis: (laughs) “Stoop Down” was a song that we originated years back when we were working on a sideshow on carnivals. We used to have a sideshow, all of the carnivals that used to come to town, they’d have a sideshow that only grown-ups could go to see, and it always was after twelve o’clock at night. So we used to use that song, as a come-on song so people would want to know what else you’re going to say when you get inside. So they would buy a ticket to come inside just to hear that song, see what else you’re going to say.
BBP: What else did you say?
Willis: OOOOO, we said a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. I mean grown up stuff. I mean it wasn’t a song that you could do in the presence of adolescent kids, but it was a grown-up song. It was a song that you do after hours, after everybody had something to drink and everybody was feeling good and then you did that song and they really had a good time.
BBP: That song was kind of controversial I remember.
Willis: When I first put that song out they wouldn’t play it on the radio. But the radio’s playing it now because, hey listen to rap. So it’s no big thing. You know people just enjoy it, that’s all.
BBP: As a guitar player, what advice would you give to other guitar players out there on how to improve their technique, what to look for when they’re playing, what kinds of things to watch?
Willis: The first place, fall in love with your guitar. Once you fall in love with your guitar, your guitar will teach you things. So what you’ve really got to do, what you have to do if you’re going to be a guitar player that people are going to understand, you’ve got to make your guitar an extension of yourself. You got to make your guitar say what you want to say. You got to make your guitar feel out and get the people and make the people feel what the guitar is saying. You got to let the people understand what you’re playing, you know. And that’s the blues and I can’t tell anybody how to play anything else. So if you want to play rock or jazz or pop or whatever. When you play the blues your guitar needs to be a communication tool.
BBP: How do you do that. Does it just happen?
Willis: You reach down inside of yourself and you have to start telling a story in your mind and the story usually is an experience that you had yourself, whether it be a bad feeling, or whether it be a good feeling, you know, because blues is not all about bad, it’s not all about sad. Blues is about experiences. So if you had a good experience, you play a good experience song, you play a song that makes people happy. If you had a bad experience, then you play that kind of song. So whatever the song is you play in blues, somebody in your audience has had the same type of experience and can understand where you’re coming from.
BBP: You said you just came back from Europe, how are the European audiences when compared to the American audiences?
Willis: They love it. They love the blues and the blues is apparently new to the European people. I mean we’re perceived great over there so when you say blues, oh man, they love it. And most people in America love the blues. Even the young people. Now at the colleges and things, I’ve been to a lot of colleges and stuff and they understand the blues. The blues is the beginning, the blues is where all of the other music came from.
BBP: Can you tell me just a little bit about your background?
Willis: I was born way back in the woods in a little place called Cabiness, Georgia. They had two stores in town, and I was raised in the church environment. My grandfather, he was the head deacon.
We were just raised up in the country, where you plow the mules and you chop the cotton and you milk the cows and just really country life. And you went to church every Sunday. Only time you didn’t go to church, you had to be sick. If you were well you went to church if you were in my grandmother’s house.
BBP: Let me ask you something else, when you first picked up a guitar, what attracted you to it, what made you decide that you wanted to play?
Willis: Guitar Slim. I listened to Guitar Slim and I really wanted to play guitar and that’s how I started playing guitar. The first song I ever learned how to play though was “Honky-tonk.” The second song I learned how to play was Jimmy Reed, you know “What Are You Going to Do.” So I learned that. I just loved guitar.
BBP: And Guitar Slim, when did you first meet him?
Willis: Oh God, I met Guitar Slim back in 1954. I was on the road with my cousin, Chuck Willis and they was all on the show together, so I got a chance to meet Guitar Slim, Big Joe Turner, Faye Adams, Ruth Brown, Wynona Harris, Etta James, the Five Royals, the Midnighters, Hank Ballard, Otis Redding, James Brown. You name it, I played with them.
BBP: Which of them was the most fun to work with and which of them was the most problematic to work with?
Willis: Well, the hardest man I ever worked with and for was Elmore James. Now he was a nice guy but Elmore James didn’t allow anybody to do any soloing but him. He had you just play background. The most fun man I ever worked with was Guitar Slim and the easiest man I ever worked with was my cousin Chuck.
BBP: Did Guitar Slim actually sit you down and say…
Willis: On nonononono. I just bought his 78 records and his 45 records and I watched him. Cause we used to go on tours together so we’d be together for a month, you know, three weeks, and I would just watch him. I would watch him and see what he was doing. And he used to have like a 50-foot cord. He used to drag the cord behind him and walk through the audience. So nowadays you know we got wireless.”
BBP: I saw Guitar Shorty one time and he walked all the way down the block, I mean two blocks.
Willis: I have too, I’ve got on buses and stuff and everything. I’ve done all kinds of stuff. In fact in the UK, I played in a place that had escalators going up. I played up the escalators and back down the escalators.I had a crowd right behind me, they followed me up the escalator and followed me down. Had a great time.
BBP: Where do you think the blues are going?
Willis: The blues are going to be here. And the blues is back real strong. And the reason that the blues is back real strong is, because the whole world’s got the blues now. We have so many problems going on now and they have nothing to turn to but the blues. You know. The blues is the only thing that’s going to soothe your soul now.

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