CHUCK WILEY (Revised version)
Born Charles Estel Wiley, 24 December 1937, Cattlesburg, Kentucky
Until recently, Chuck Wiley was one of the genuine mysteries of the original 1950's rock and roll scene. No photograph of him had ever surfaced and after making some great records in the late fifties, he suddenly disappeared without a trace. Nobody seemed to know if he was still alive.
Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from him. He had found an earlier version of this biography on the Blackcat Rockabilly website and pointed out that it contained some incorrect information. We exchanged some e-mails in November/December 2009 and though he did not answer all of my questions, I think I can now present a much more extensive sketch of his life. Born in Kentucky, Wiley was the son of a Baptist minister and a piano playing mother. Chuck is self-taught on piano. "I sang in church when I was five years old. Been singing ever since." In the 1950s Wiley was bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug. His rasping voice was just right for the times and that, combined with his hot booge piano playing, ensured him a healthy living as a musician. It's not easy to classify his style ; he was clearly absorbing everything that was going on around him. In his NDT review, Chris Woodford writes that at times he sounds like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and sometimes like something in-between. These are obvious influences, but in his most intense moments he reminds me most of all of Ray Smith, during his 1958 Sun period. On several tracks, especially the slower ones, there are clear New Orleans influences to be heard as well, almost in the swamp pop style.
Wiley auditioned for legendary Nashville music man Murray Nash, who was very impressed with Chuck's strong voice and his writing ability. During the 1957-1959 period he recorded some twenty different songs, most of which came from his own pen. Six singles were released, on four different labels : Spangle (2, including a single credited to The Rock-Its), United Artists (2, licensed from Spangle), Jax and MusiCenter. Highlights for me are the frantic "Come Back Baby" (probably recorded in 1958, but not released until 1965), "Door To Door", "Tear It Up" (not the Johnny Burnette tune), "I Wanna Dance All Night" and "It's Love". Piano-led rock 'n' roll doesn't get much better than this. "I played piano on the majority of my own sessions, but Hargus 'Pig' Robbins played on all of my Nashville sessions and had lived with me in Dayton, Ohio, previous to that". Other session musicians include Buddy Harman (drums), Wayne Moss (guitar) and Chuck Agee (guitar), the co-writer of "I Love You So Much" on Jax.
His performing career started around 1957. Chuck : "My career actually began in Dayton, Ohio, where I played with Ray Charles and several members of Count Basie's band. I then hired some of those members to play with me, which, at the time was very unusual since most clubs were all white and hiring black musicians was virtually unheard of. From there, I went to Chicago and played on North Clark Street near Wrigley Field. I was in Chicago because of a tour that I was part of, which featured the All American Boys. The time I spent in Chicago was quite an adventure. I spent a lot of time learning who was in the mob and who the flunkeys were. I worked for the Glasson brothers, who ran clubs that had been owned by Al Capone. After about a year I was given my own club, the 8 O'Clock Club in Logan Square on the northwest side of Chicago. It had no business at all. I tried all kinds of bands, but nothing would work. Then I found a black band on the southside of town. After only two nights the place was full. Now comes the trouble. The club next door was owned by the mob and I got a visit from the big man. 'No black boys on the north side', he told me. Well, the next day as I opened the doors, the guns went off and I found my way out the back door and got my ass out of there and have never been back."
Chuck went back to Dayton. Even there, the gangsters came looking for him, but "I knew every cop in town there" and the Dayton police protected him. Dave Travis (in his liner notes for both the GeeDee CD and the Stomper Time CD "Nashville Rock 'n' Roll") writes that Chuck woke up in hospital, having been severely beaten up and left in a back alley, but that isn't true. Also, Wiley did not leave the music business. He ended up in Evansville, Indiana, and has been living there and playing the clubs for the last 40 years. He changed his name to Johnny K. and was signed to Epic Records in 1969. "Charlie Rich was a friend who put me in touch with a manager, Betty Burger, next-door neighbor to Elvis Presley. Betty contacted Epic Records, who came to Evansville to see me. After that, I was on contract with them. I played shows with Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, B.J. Thomas and opened for Jimi Hendrix, who died the following year." According to Wiley, he recorded at least 25 songs for Epic ("in Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals and Los Angeles"), but only three singles were released in 1969-1971, including remakes of "I Love You So Much" and "Right By My Side". These were credited to Johnny K. Wiley. Unfortunately, he had a car accident, which disfigured his face for almost a year. "Epic Records dropped me because of the way I looked. Plastic surgeons restored my face."
Chuck has just turned 72 and says he's in great shape. "I work out daily and play golf as often as possible. I met a young gal, Alex, who studied music at Western Kentucky University and the University of California / Berkeley. We jokingly say that I play rock and she plays Bach! We have been married for seven years." (Alex told me her real age, but I'm not going to reveal that.) "I played in every club in Evansville for 30 years. I have been out of the clubs for some time, but as of now I am back close to where I was." Johnny / Chuck owns a recording studio and still writes and records about every week. He has sent me some samples of songs that he has recently recorded. Not exactly rock 'n' roll, but his voice is impressive, deeper and more mature than on the 50s cuts, sometimes reminiscent of Tom Jones. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed his house a couple of years ago. Johnny and Alex lost seven pianos, all their tape recordings and virtually all of their other belongings. Luckily, they were well insured. "Dave Travis has sent me a letter about singing in England. I would love that very much." So who knows, the enigma that Chuck Wiley once was might be performing in the UK in the near future! Wiley doesn't have any pictures of the early days, but he sent me a recent photo of himself sitting behind the piano, which has been uploaded to the Blackcat Rockabilly site. He looks a lot younger than his years.
Almost all of his 1950s recordings (including some demo tapes) were issued in 1995 on the German Gee Dee label: Chuck Wiley, Tear It Up, Gee Dee CD 270116-2. 23 tracks. Licensed from Dave Travis, who wrote the (short) liner notes.
Other sources used:
With thanks to Chuck and Alex Wiley.
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