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She put carbolic in my coffee, turpentine in my tea, strychnine in my biscuits, Lord but she didn't hurt me - Furry Lewis, Big Chief Blues

Author Topic: Ralph Willis  (Read 2084 times)

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Ralph Willis
« on: January 28, 2007, 06:28:32 PM »
Hey, I Just Bought The First Volume Of Ralph Willis's Complete Recordings (On Document Records) From iTunes, I Don't Know Much About Him, Could Anyone Tell Me Something? Thanks.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #1 on: January 28, 2007, 11:39:56 PM »
I think Dave Moore's two booklets to those CDs just about sums up what is known about him, which probably came from Bruce Bastin's book Red River Blues. Most of that was gleaned from the recollections of Brownie McGhee.


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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #2 on: January 29, 2007, 12:47:05 PM »
If I Buy The Second Volume (The Actual Album) I'll Definitely Read It, But I'd Like To Know Some Info Now, Thanks Anyway! :)

Offline dj

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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #3 on: January 29, 2007, 01:01:01 PM »
That's the problem with places like iTunes - no notes!  They keep you ignorant.   >:(

Willis was born in Alabama in 1910, and grew up on a farm.  In the 1930s he moved to North Carolina, met and learned from Buddy Moss, Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, and the others, but may have made most of his income outside of music.  By the late 30s he'd moved to New York City, living in Harlem.  He first recorded in 1944.  He recorded for many small labels throughout the late 40s and early 50s, occasionally solo, often with a small band which after 1948 invariably included Brownie McGhee.  He died in 1957.  That, unfortunately, is about the sum total of our knowledge of his life.   

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #4 on: January 29, 2007, 01:19:59 PM »
That's the problem with places like iTunes - no notes!

I've always wondered why they wouldn't provide notes in PDF format. Especially now that they have their artwork database providing iTunes players with cover art. I guess no one cares about notes for Gwen Stefani or the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack. I personally find life nearly impossible without liner notes.  :P

Interestingly, Willis does a cover of Luke Jordan's Church Bells Blues, for those who may not have known. A rather different vocal. It's on the Juke. I like Willis!

Transcribing his lyrics would certainly provide some challenges.


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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #5 on: January 29, 2007, 01:20:53 PM »
Thanks DJ, I try not to use iTunes but since, I'm 13 right now my only source of money for music is a 15 dollar iTunes gift card that my aunt got me for Christmas.

If I Buy His Second Volume Of Recorded Works, I'll Do It Off Or

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #6 on: January 30, 2007, 10:10:18 AM »
That's O.K. I don't think many of us were cool enough to be searching out players like Ralph Willis at age 13! Our hats off to you.
I'll second that, I was only a couple of years older myself when I first discovered blues.  :)

If you go to and scroll down to LP22 you'll see the cover of the first full LP devoted to Willis, released in November 1970. There's a short Paul Oliver sleeve note which doesn't tell one much about Willis but is good concerning the songs present. It'll only take a second to scan and post here if interested.

In the early 60s there was a 7" EP devoted to Willis on the British Esquire label, I think it was.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Ralph Willis
« Reply #7 on: January 22, 2008, 01:25:00 PM »
Hi all,
I've been listening to Ralph Willis quite a lot lately, from the JSP "Shake That Thing" set, which he shares with Gabriel Brown and Dan Pickett.  The set gives a terrific sampling of Willis's recordings with 46 titles, recorded from 1944--1953, spread over two discs.
Ralph Willis was really an interesting musician.  A good portion of his repertoire comes from the East Coast tradition of people like Buddy Moss and Blind Boy Fuller, who were so popular in the '30s.  Instrumentally, Willis probably bears a stronger resemblance to Buddy Moss than to Fuller, but he (Willis) also ventures into a lot of areas that Moss and Fuller never tried (at least on disc).
As Andrew noted earlier in the thread, Ralph Willis covered Luke Jordan's "Church Bell Blues".  In fact, he seems semi-fixated on the lyrics, because in the course of the 46 titles on "Shake That Thing", he quotes the lyrics on three different occasions, once in his early recording, "Worried Blues", played in A standard unlike Jordan's version, which was in E standard, and in two later takes of "Church Bells", dating from 1946 and 1951, with the earlier played in E standard and the later played in A standard.
Willis liked to keep a mumbly running commentary going between his sung vocal phrases, and he was quite droll; not that what he was saying was side-splitting, but the way he said it was very funny.  Listening to his early recording, "Just A Note", I thought at first he was reminding me of early Bill Cosby records with these spoken asides, and subsequently realized that the person he really reminded me of was Fats Waller, one of the all-time kings of the spoken aside.  I really think Willis was influenced by Waller, who had already been dead several years at the point at which Willis began recording.  A later novelty recording of Willis's, "Bed Tick Blues", is nonsensical in a way similar to the recordings of the hipster Slim Gailliard, whose "Cement Mixer" had the immortal lyrics, "Cement mixer, putty putty".
Willis doesn't work to draw attention to his guitar-playing in his recordings, but he was very, very strong, really outstanding.  On a high percentage of his recordings he was joined (unfortunately, from my point of view) by seconding guitarists, who with only a couple of exceptions have the effect of squaring up Willis's rhythmic feel.  He sounds much more alive rhythmically when playing by himself.
Willis was a bit of a trail blazer in his frequent use of an electric guitar, which he sounds great on, not at all put off by the change in tonal quality.  And as has been mentioned on the "Slackabilly's First Gig" thread, Willis played a good number of tunes that sound like prototypes for Rockabilly numbers that came down the line a few years later.
Willis's slightly sleepy, drawling delivery bears some resemblance to that of the East Coast musician Alec Seward, though I don't know if I would rate Willis as highly as I do Seward, who was really a beautiful singer.
As dj points out earlier in this thread, Willis, who was born in 1910, was only 47-years-old at the time of his death in 1957, so if he had survived into the '60s, he would have been one of the younger blues musicians of his in-between generation performing.
All in all, I would rate Ralph Willis highly, as a player, singer and entertainer/personality.  I have been enjoying these recordings quite a lot and think they are definitely worth giving a listen.
All best,
« Last Edit: January 22, 2008, 02:50:25 PM by Johnm »


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