San Francisco Chronicle

Chuck E. Weiss — musician, in love, inspired ’79 hit song

- By Penelope Green Penelope Green is a New York Times writer.

Chuck E. Weiss, blues musician, club owner and outsize Los Angeles character immortaliz­ed in Rickie Lee Jones’ breakout hit song, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” died July 20 at CedarsSina­i Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 76.

His brother, Byron, said the cause was kidney failure.

Weiss was a voracious musicologi­st, an encycloped­ia of obscure jazz and early R&B artists, a drummer, a songwriter and a widely acknowledg­ed rascal who in the mid1970s landed in Los Angeles from his native Denver with his friend the singersong­writer Tom Waits.

At the Troubadour, the venerable West Hollywood folk club, where Weiss worked for a time as a dishwasher, they met another young singersong­writer, a former runaway named Rickie Lee Jones. Waits and Jones became an item, and the three of them became inseparabl­e as they caroused through Hollywood, stealing lawn ornaments and pranking people at music industry parties (like shaking hands with dip smeared on their palms).

“It seems sometimes like we’re real romantic dreamers who got stuck in the wrong time zone,” Jones told Rolling Stone in 1979, describing Weiss and Waits as her family at the time.

They lived at the Tropicana Motel, a seedy 1940sera bohemia on Santa Monica Boulevard. “It was a regular DMZ,” Weiss told LA Weekly in 1981, “except everyone had a tan and looked nice.”

In the fall of 1977, on a trip home to Denver, Weiss called his buddies back in Los Angeles, and when Waits put down the phone, he announced to Jones, “Chuck E.’s in love!”

Two years later, Jones’ fanciful riff on that declaratio­n — “What’s her name?/Is that her there?/Oh, Christ, I think he’s even combed his hair” — had made her a star. (Though the last line of the song suggests otherwise, it was not Jones whom Weiss had fallen for; it was a distant cousin of his.)

The song was a hit single, the opening track of Jones’ debut album, “Rickie Lee Jones,” and a 1980 Grammy Award nominee for song of the year. (“What a Fool Believes,” performed by the Doobie Brothers, took the honor.)

In an essay in the Los Angeles Times on July 21, Jones wrote that when she first met Waits and Weiss, she couldn’t tell them apart. “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.”

In a phone interview since then, she said of Weiss: “There was mischief in him, he was our trickster. He was a thrilling guy, and a disaster for a time, as thrilling people often are.”

Charles Edward Weiss was born in Denver on March 18, 1945. His father, Leo, was in the salvage business; his mother, Jeannette (Rollnick) Weiss, owned a hat store, Hollywood Millinery. Chuck graduated from East High School and attended Mesa Junior College, now Colorado Mesa, in Grand Junction.

His brother is his only immediate survivor.

In his early 20s, Weiss met Chuck Morris, now a music promoter, when Morris was a coowner of Tulagi, a music club in Boulder, Colorado. When blues performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker came through, they often traveled alone, and it was up to Morris to find them a local band. He would ask Weiss to fill in as drummer.

In 1973 Morris opened a Denver nightclub called Ebbets Field (he was born in Brooklyn), which drew performers including Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Waits. Weiss filled in there too.

At the time, as Weiss recalled in 2014, he was trying to record his own music and in the habit of asking performers to play with him. That’s how he met Waits. “And I think what happened was I saw Waits do some fingerpopp­in’ stuff at Ebbets Fields one night,” he said, “and I went up to him after the show. 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, and asked if he wanted to do some recording with me. He looked at me like I was from outer space, man.”

Nonetheles­s, he said, they became fast friends.

Waits, interviewe­d by the Philadelph­ia Inquirer in 1999, described Weiss as “a mensch, a liar, a monkey and a pathologic­al vaudevilli­an.”

For much of the 1980s Weiss played at a Los Angeles club called the Central, accompanie­d by his band, the Goddamn Liars. He later encouraged his friend Johnny Depp to buy the place with him and others. They turned it into the Viper Room, the celebrityf­lecked ’90sera nightclub.

He was often asked how he felt about his star turn in Jones’ hit. “Yeah, I was flabbergas­ted,” he told the Associated Press in 2007. “Little did we know that, all in all, we would both be known for that for the rest of our lives.”

But the rest of their lives would no longer be intertwine­d.

“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,” Jones wrote of Weiss in her Los Angeles Times essay. “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.”

Later, on the phone, she said, “Two of the three of us became very successful musicians, but not Chuck, and he knew a lot of people.” She added: “We think being the famous one is winning, but I’m not sure. Chuck did all right.”

 ?? Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press 2002 ?? Composer and drummer Chuck E. Weiss was the muse for Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love.”
Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press 2002 Composer and drummer Chuck E. Weiss was the muse for Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love.”

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