Photo: Chuck E. Weiss.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Chuck E. Weiss, the singer, songwriter, Tom Waits collaborator, L.A. club owner, raconteur and subject of Rickie Lee Jones’ hit “Chuck E.’s in Love,” has died. Weiss was a fixture in Hollywood for nearly 50 years, including hosting an 11-year Monday night residency at the Central on the Sunset Strip. He went on to become the Central’s co-owner, with Johnny Depp and others, when the club changed its name to the Viper Room.
Weiss died in L.A. on July 19. He was 76. His death was confirmed by his friend of more than 50 years, Chuck Morris, who cited cancer as the cause.
Weiss first earned fame not for his music but as the “Chuck” of Jones’ jazz-inspired 1979 hit. In it, she notes her protagonist’s newly mysterious behavior: “He sure has acquired this kinda cool / And inspired sorta jazz when he walks / Where’s his jacket and his old blue jeans? / Well, this ain’t healthy, it is some kinda clean.”
The reason for this transformation arrives in the song’s title and refrain. The complication comes near the coda: “Chuck E.’s in love with the little girl singing this song.”
Whether accurate or poetic license, “Chuck E.’s in Love” was Jones’ breakthrough and cemented Weiss’ legend in the American pop imagination. By the time the song started creeping up the charts, Weiss was already a looming presence on the club circuit: The Times described him as “one of L.A.’s perennial hangers-out” in a 1979 profile.
Born into music as the son of a Denver record store owner, Charles Edward Weiss first met Waits in Denver, where Weiss was playing drums with touring blues artists including Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Weiss had been at a Waits gig and approached the singer after the set. “I was wearing some platform shoes and a chinchilla coat, and I was slipping on the ice on the street outside because I was so high,” Weiss recalled in a 1999 interview, adding that he invited Waits to record with him at a local studio. “He looked at me like I was from outer space, man. Next night I saw him at the coffee shop next door. We started hanging out together. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Weiss co-wrote “Spare Parts (A Nocturnal Emission),” a noir-ish song on Waits’ 1975 barfly masterpiece, “Nighthawks at the Diner.” The song captures the essence of lowlife L.A. in which Weiss moved, one where “bums showed up just like bounced checks / Rubbin’ their necks / And the sky turned the color of Pepto-Bismol / And my old sports coat full of promissory notes.”
Fueled by a pharmacy’s worth of drugs and a renegade spirit, Weiss led an artistic existence that echoed those described in the beatnik work of Jack Kerouac and the gritty stories of Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. In 1975, he moved into the famed West Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll motel the Tropicana because, he told one interviewer, “I was driving to and from Silver Lake to [Duke’s Coffee Shop] everyday to eat.” In doing so, he joined a rockstar-heavy spot that at one time or another housed Waits, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Warren Zevon, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and Blondie.
Weiss knew the young singer Jones from nights at the Troubadour, where he had worked (before getting fired within a month), and after she and Waits developed a relationship, the trio became a constant presence on the music scene. They were described in The Times as “three Runyonesque characters [who] were as much a part of the west Hollywood hotel Tropicana’s fauna as the mastodons that stocked the La Brea tar pits way back when.”
The darker side of that existence was largely hidden from the media. Both Jones and Weiss had become addicted to heroin as “Chuck E.’s in Love” and her Grammy-winning self-titled debut album were making them famous. The situation prompted Waits to move east, he told BAM in 1982: “There was always the danger of getting sucked down,” Waits said, adding that by the end of 1979, “I felt I’d painted myself into a corner. I’d fallen in with a bad crowd and needed a new landscape, a new story.”
Despite Weiss’ addiction, “Chuck E.’s in Love” opened doors. “This song has brought people out of the woodwork,” Weiss told The Times in ’79, adding that he’d been getting label offers. He described his style as “sort of like a bohemian street rockabilly kind of thing, a little rhythm and blues.” His album of demos, “The Other Side of Town,” was released in 1981. It featured appearances by Jones on one song, “Sidekick,” as well as by Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack (who was Jones’ beau at the time).
Weiss was a regular on the Sunset Strip across the 1980s. Though he was hardly the best singer — he was once compared to “that guy in the audience who always seems to get the microphone stuck in his face come sing-along time” — he and his blues-rock band the Goddamn Liars held court at the Central on a weekly basis.
The club, which was a gangster hangout when it was called the Melody Room, went up for sale in the early 1990s, and Weiss, his friend Depp and a few other investors renamed it the Viper Room. When it opened in 1993, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers christened the stage and Depp’s fame gave it instant buzz. That changed less than a year later, when actor River Phoenix collapsed in front of the club after overdosing and died.
The media attention prompted Weiss to shutter the place for a week out of respect for Phoenix’s memory. When it opened the following Monday, Weiss and his Liars dedicated the set to the actor. In the mid-1990s, Weiss moved his residency to North Hollywood and renamed it Hot House.
By then, Weiss, long known as an inexhaustible party dude, had gotten sober, says his friend Morris, and “after years of drug abuse he became a leader of turning people around from the problems of drug and alcohol excess.” Added Morris, “His speeches at AA meetings in Los Angeles were legendary.”
Weiss recorded his first official solo album in 1998. Called “Extremely Cool,” it was co-produced by the husband/wife collaborating team of Waits and Kathleen Brennan. In an interview after its release, Weiss praised his longtime friend Waits: “He was really a mentor, telling me what I needed to do to get it done. It’s kinda like Snoop and Dr. Dre!”
The musician teamed up with Waits again in 2014 for “Red Beans and Rice,” which was co-produced by Depp. Also steeped in the blues, the album found Weiss growling his way through songs about bombing train tracks during a war, brewing music he calls “the knucklehead stuff,” a lady named Shushie and another one named Boston Blackie. It was hardly a smash hit, but that never seemed to bother Weiss.
“I’m not known well enough to have any conceptions at all yet,” Weiss told an interviewer in 1999, of his musical approach. “I guess everybody has a different idea of what it is that I’m doing. I’d just like to say that I don’t like to be labeled. That’s a big asset.”
A regular at Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District, in recent years he’d meet up with friends there for lunch. After his death, singer and songwriter Kinky Friedman’s Facebook page offered a salute, via a spokesperson: “Kinky rarely made a trip to L.A. without meeting Chuck E. for lunch at Canter’s Deli.” The note added that Friedman and Weiss had “just recently finished writing a song together titled, appropriately enough, ‘See You Down the Highway.’”
Weiss never married and didn’t have any children. He is survived by his older brother, Byron “Whiz” Weiss.
21 July 2021 | Rickie Lee Jones | Yahoo News
Musician and bandleader Chuck E. Weiss died on July 19 at 76, after an extended battle with cancer. Here, Rickie Lee Jones, who famously name-checked Weiss on her breakthrough 1979 hit “Chuck E.’s in Love,” recalls days and nights spent prowling L.A.’s hipster demimonde with Weiss and his partner-in-crime, Tom Waits.
Chuck Weiss was Tom Waits’ sidekick for so many years that when I met him I could not tell them apart. It was as if he had always been there. They were two of the most charismatic characters Hollywood had seen in decades and without them I think the entire street of Santa Monica Boulevard would have collapsed. They were hipsters long before the word was overrun by very unhipster writers, held it up like hitchhikers hoping for a ride out of their own skins, or like that dilapidated Hollywood sign of 1978, trying to remind people there was still great music to learn from in a time when all anyone wanted to do was get a shag haircut and forget about learning anything. Chuck was a digger of culture and more than once brought up great nuggets of Black music for Waits to mine.
Chuck and Tom shared Lucky Strike cigarettes, they leaned against the wall the exact same way, and on occasion they even shared the same dame who, stumbling out of Waits’ kitchen, ended up in Weiss’ basement.
Besides those girls, there was little Waits actually shared. Chuck got the scraps, and that’s the truth. And don’t get me wrong, he was not entitled to share Tom’s ascension. Tom had carved his own place among the poets and passersby and was not about to give up one phone number or one poetry night slot.
But there was a love there, something between them, a symbiotic relationship like the fish who cleans the shark. When I met them, and it was them I met, not him, or him, Chuck was the wiser of the two, and given the chance might have been the kinder, but he had already found his way to barbiturates and fooled himself into thinking it was a better way to go than heroin. It certainly did not shake up the A&R guys the way skag did, but the damage was every bit as bad — addicting, debilitating and a sad substitute for respect and love.
Still, he was a Svengali to Waits, and everyone who knew him. While Chuck’s music might have seemed derivative, what he passed on to others was as authentic as it got, at least for people who never experienced the real thing. The music he played live was the music he loved. And for the white kids lining up outside the Central on Sunset Blvd., this was as close to the Black clubs of Cleveland and Memphis as they were ever gonna get.
When “Chuck E.’s in Love” came out in ’79, Weiss was catapulted to fame far above his mentor’s. He began to imagine having a music career of his own, which he really had not considered before and had no right to. He could not sing, he did not play an instrument. But he could make up a rhyme along the lines of Waits, and eventually so many musicians in town wanted to play with him because if Waits liked him, he must be good, and because, well, he was Chuck E.
The Central gave Chuck legitimacy as a musician, and he kept his job there for a decade or so. It became the place to go in the ’80s. Actors who wished they were Black or at the very least real guitar players sat in with Chuck regularly. River Phoenix died out in front of the place. Inside the club, Chuck was making paths into Black music that would become as meaningful as any other musician in L.A. for one reason — he had the capacity to engage an audience that would never have been engaged otherwise.
I saw him there a few times with Spyder, his sax player and Katey Sagal’s old flame. Chuck and Spyder both wore their bathrobes onstage, though I’m pretty sure Spyder did it first. Chuck just did better. His song selection was outstanding, and great horn players showed up to get paid very little and be seen on stage with Chuck. Chuck E., the spokesperson, became bigger than the product.
Eventually he wrote a few interesting titles, nothing special but true to his love of ’40s and ’50s R&B. What he nurtured, what he harvested, were the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. Waits loved it. I loved it. Everybody loved it.
When “Chuck E.’s in Love” passed from the heavens and faded into the “I hate that song” desert, from which it still has not really recovered, he and I became estranged, and everyone fell away from everyone. Waits left, the brief Camelot of our street corner jive ended. I had made fiction of us, made heroes of very unheroic people. But I’m glad I did.
That great hit song was something of a beautiful rogue elephant who, after escaping from the zoo, remained hidden in the Hollywood Hills somewhere near Argyle. Occasionally someone would spot her, still stained with pink and purple paint, the paisley patterns fading down her legs, a vague and beautiful defiance in her eye. She disappeared around the time they tore down Chuck’s old apartment under Waits’ house.
I still hear her, though, on the radio, making this strange noise that almost sounds like singing.
Rickie Lee Jones is a musician and author of the memoir “Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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