Learn karate, and people will be attempting to pick fights with you the rest of your life. One could only imagine the problems for a guitar player named Chuck Norris, even if he didn't know a lick of martial arts. But the guitar-playing Norris, an excellent West Coast session man who helped forge the link between blues and soul music, was around for nearly three decades before the martial arts instructor Norris took the advice of his student Steve McQueen and went into the movie business. So if the guitarist was subjected to any kung-phooey humor it would have happened only late in his life. When he was cutting records on his own as well as with a series of blues, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, and jazz stars, only a consumer who could see into the future would have asked "Is that the karate guy?"
Considered a prototype West Coast bluesman, Norris was actually a Midwesterner. He was born in the blues- and jazz-heavy town of Kansas City and raised in the equally musical metropolis of Chicago. Listeners who have heard his guitar playing in any context would not be surprised to learn that he was a student of the famed Chicago music instructor Captain Walter Dyett, a man who was involved in the formative training of many Chicago-area jazz musicians. Norris was much more than just a funky string bender. He could play subtle rhythmic accompaniment in the style of a jazz guitarist such as Oscar Moore, then turn around and wail out front and high above the band like a Peewee Crayton or Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
He studied and worked in Chicago until the mid-'40s, when he moved out to the West Coast following a failed marriage. Truthfully feeling the blues, he gigged at night and mined the recording studios for session gold during the days. He soon became one of the most-called musicians in Hollywood. From time to time he did sessions on his own, including a single for Atlantic. The best-known Norris tracks include titles such as "Messin' Around," "Kinda Sick, Mostly Worried," and the philosophical "What's Good for One's Good for All." Some of the guitarist's best playing was on records by brilliant black performers who were in the process of extending the blues into innovative realms, creating brand new genres in the process. One such artist was the great Percy Mayfield, who recorded original classics such as the grueling "Two Years of Torture" with band backing that combined Norris with musicians such as saxophonists Marshall Royal and Maxwell Davis. Although not as well-known as Mayfield, pianist and singer Floyd Dixon was another blues talent that recorded on the West Coast in the early '50s, putting the guitar sound of Norris into the spotlight for tracks such as "Come Back Baby," "I'll Be Lonely," "People Like Me," and especially the rocking instrumental "Shuffle Boogie."
Many of the great West Coast players were aligned at one time or another with Johnny Otis, a drummer and bandleader whose groups were something like junior colleges for sidemen, Norris included. Guitar nuts can drool over the Otis band that featured not only Norris but the amazing Johnny "Guitar" Watson as well. Some of the sides cut by this lineup are included on the Otis collection on the Charly label entitled Let's Live It Up. Norris also worked with artists such as Amos Milburn, Dinah Washington, and Little Richard.
Although confusion between the guitarist and the karate king was avoided in the old days, the later career of the martial arts star has shown worrisome tendencies toward musical projects, perhaps predicting a time in the future when the career's of the two men will become hopelessly entangled. Around the time of the Gulf War, the superstar Norris premiered the Chuck Norris Orchestra, dedicated to playing a mix of patriotic music and "hardcore covers." The actor has also been involved in performing theme songs on his Walker, Texas Ranger series. It's a good thing he knows karate, because nothing he has done comes close to the musical power of his guitar-playing namesake. ~ Eugene Chadbourne