Georgia-born bluesman Robert “Chick” Willis knew how to play the blues for everybody: the adults that made up his fan base in the nightclubs, but for kids as well.
Though most of Willis’ material was geared toward adults, he understood kids needed to hear his blues guitar too, said Theodis Ealey, a friend and fellow musician.
“He played it in a way the children would love it,” Ealey said. “He played the blues with a happy spirit.”
Robert Lee Willis, a native of Monroe County, died Dec. 7 in Forsyth of complications from cancer. He was 79.
A funeral is planned for 11 a.m. on Saturday at Antioch Baptist Church, 1096 Old Cabaniss Road, Forsyth. Willis Funeral Services, Forsyth, is in charge of arrangements.
Willis may be best known for his 1972 hit, “Stoop Down Baby.” He continued to record and perform across the country and in Europe until mid-2012, said his wife, Agnes Willis.
“I’d run into him all over the globe,” said Ealey, who met Willis in the early-‘90s at Blind Willie’s, the Viriginia-Highland blues mecca.
Born in Cabaniss, located about 20 miles southeast of Griffin, Willis didn’t start playing the guitar until he got out of the Air Force in the early-‘50s. He had grown up around music — the late R&B star Chuck Willis was a cousin — so he had a motivation to move in that direction, his wife said.
He took on the stage name Chick as a salute to his famous cousin, said George Willis, a distant relative and friend. In the mid-‘50s, Chick Willis joined his cousin’s touring outfit as a valet, eventually moving up to a stage performer, according to friends and family.
His first recordings were made in the late-‘50s, the result of winning a talent show in Atlanta, George Willis said. Agnes Willis said her husband recorded widely before “Stoop Down Baby” came along.
“And he was still working and recording until his shoulder started bothering him in 2012,” she said. “He thought he’d just been holding that guitar strap too long. But that wasn’t it.”
Before the cancer diagnosis, Willis spent decades on the road, his wife said. “He had dates in Europe every year,” she said.
And lead guitar wasn’t the only thing he played.
“At church, he played the piano and bass guitar,” George Willis said.
“He played a little drums too,” added Agnes Willis.
Ealey said it was Willis’ love for life and God that kept his music happy.
“Some people think of the blues and think of all sad songs, but that wasn’t Chick,” Ealey said. “Sure, the lyrics were for adults, but it was happy blues, you know? He could take a take a double entendre, roll it around and keep you laughing during the whole song.”
Agnes Willis said her husband loved the stage and his art. As long as he could keep performing, he was doing his part to keep the blues alive and well, she said.
“He was performance material,” she said with a laugh.
In addition to his wife of 11 years, Willis is survived by a number of children and other relatives.