Chuck E. Weiss, 'Svengali to Tom Waits' and Rickie Lee Jones muse, is dead at 76

If you've ever heard of Chuck E. Weiss, it's probably in a song. His name hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1979, the title character of Rickie Lee Jones' breakout hit "Chuck E.'s in Love." But Weiss was a songwriter, club owner, bandleader, and longtime friend and collaborator of Tom Waits. In a remembrance Wednesday, Jones called Weiss "a Svengali to Waits, and everyone who knew him." Weiss died on Monday, after a long battle with cancer, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday. He was 76.

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"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," the Times reports. He bought the club with Johnny Depp and others and renamed it the Viper Room in 1993. A year later, actor River Phoenix collapsed in front of the club after a fatal overdose.

By the late 1990s, Weiss — whose heroin addiction, and Jones', prompted Waits to leave L.A. and move east, Waits said in 1982 — was sober. "His speeches at AA meetings in Los Angeles were legendary," longtime friend Chuck Morris told the Times. Waits co-produced Weiss' first official solo album, Extremely Cool, in 1998 and worked on a 2014 followup album, co-produced by Depp.

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Charles Edward Weiss was raised in Denver, the son of record store owners. When he met Waits after a gig in town, "I was wearing some platform shoes and a chinchilla coat," and "he looked at me like I was from outer space, man," he recounted in 1999. "Next night I saw him at the coffee shop next door. We started hanging out together. We've been friends ever since."

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After moving to L.A. with Waits, he co-wrote "Spare Parts (A Nocturnal Emission)," from Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner. Waits dropped Weiss' name in his 1976 song "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" — "And deal the cards roll the dice, if it ain't that old Chuck E. Weiss."

"Chuck Weiss was Tom Waits' sidekick for so many years that when I met him I could not tell them apart," Jones writes in the Times. When "Chuck E.'s in Love" hit the charts, "Weiss was catapulted to fame far above his mentor's," and "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."

Weiss never married, had no children, and is survived by an older brother, Byron "Whiz" Weiss.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.