Piano Blues


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Little Brother Montgomery Louisiana Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Out West Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Walking Basses/Dud Low Joe/FirstVicksburg Blues Conversation With The Blues
Little Brother Montgomery The 44 (Vicksburg) Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Hesitatin' Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Bob Martin Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery I Keep DrinkingAmerican Folk Blues Festival '66
Little Brother Montgomery Something Keeps Worrying Me Tasty Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Michigan Water Blues Chicago: The Living Legends
Adam CatoOld Barrelhouse BluesDeep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery Dudlow Joe Deep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery West Texas Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Crescent City Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery I Don't Feel Welcome Here (Stingaree Blues)Farro Street Jive
Little Brother Montgomery L&N Boogie Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Mama, You Don't Mean No Good I Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother Montgomery InterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother Montgomery Pleadin' Blues Rare Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Talkin' BoogieAtlantic Blues: Piano
Little Brother Montgomery Cow Cow Blues Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Irene Scruggs Must Get Mine in Front Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Annie TurnerWorkkhouse BluesLittle Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery Farish Street JiveLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Loomis Gibson Blues Deep South Piano (Agram)
Roosevelt SykesThe Way I Feel BuesDeep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery Woman That I LoveLittle Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery A&B Blues Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery No Special Rider Blues Blues Piano Orgy
Little Brother Montgomery Cooney Vaughn's Tremblin' BluesDeep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Up The Country BluesBajez Copper Station

Show Notes:

Deep South PianoLittle Brother Montgomery ranks among the greatest blues pianists of the 20th century who had unusually long and prolific career. Montgomery's biographer, Karl Gert zur Heide, called Montgomery "probably the greatest all-round piano player of his time in the Deep South." He was born in 1906, passed away in the early 1980's and began his recording career in 1930. Like his contemporary, Roosevelt Sykes, both men chose to record their versions of “44 blues” at their debut sessions; Sykes cutting it first in 1929 as "Forty- Four Blues" and following year by Montgomery as “Vicksburg Blues.” Montgomery recorded steadily through the decades although never became a star like his contemporary, Sykes who cut hundreds of commercial sides for the black record buying public. Montgomery was recorded much more sparingly, cutting some two-dozen sides in the 30's, without a doubt his greatest recordings, barely recorded in the 40's and 50's but saw ample recording opportunities starting with the blues revival of the 1960's and continuing through the 1970's.

This is our second show devoted to Montgomery, with the first also spotlighting Roosevelt Sykes. Today's show was inspired by the recent 3-CD set on the Agram label, Deep South Piano: The Music of Little Brother Montgomery, his Family, Friends and Peers.  These recordings stem from a trip to  the United States by Karl Gert zur Heide in 1968 and 1972 to seek out piano blues players. During that trip he recorded Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Sweet Williams, Lafayette Leake, Roosevelt Sykes and others. This collection serves as a belated companion to Heide's long-out-of-print book, Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery which came out in 1970 (I recently tracked down a copy of this fascinating book). Today's show is inspired by another album I've been listening to quite a bit lately, also titled Deep South Piano and cut for the Storyville label in 1972. The more I listen to this record the more I feel this is one of his finest; perfectly recorded, the album finds Montgomery at his peak and in a nostalgic mood as he remembers those piano men who influenced him but never record on such songs as "Willie Anderson's Blues", "Vanado Anderson Blues", "Bob Martin Blues", "Cooney Vaughn's Tremblin' Blues", "Miles Davis Blues" and an extended reworking of his classic, "The 44 (Vicksburg) Blues." Montgomery knew a staggering number of piano players and absorbed a vast musical knowledge from them. Indeed, Montgomery knew a huge number of songs although he had a smaller number of favorites he recorded often throughout the years.

Crescent City Blues
Farrish Street Jive

Eurreal Montgomery was the fifth of ten children, born to Harper and Dicy Montgomery. The family home was in Kentwood, Louisiana where Harper ran a honky-tonk where logging workers gathered on weekends to drink, dance, gamble and listen to music. Most all of the Montgomerys were musical. Harper played clarinet, and Dicy played accordion and organ. Eurreal’s brothers and sisters all learned to play piano to one degree or another. Little Brother taught himself to play simple "three finger blues", as he called them, on a piano his father bought the family. From then on," he told his biographer Karl Gert zur Heide, "I just created simple things on my own until later I got large enough and went to hear older people play.… like Rip Top, Loomis Gibson, Papa Lord God." Montgomery had plenty of opportunity to hear older musicians. Most of them passed regularly through Kentwood and played at his father’s honky-tonk. Eventually, he told Heide,  "…I ran away from home at about the age of eleven and played piano for a living."

Little Brother, along with a group of other players, developed a piano piece that was unlike any other, and they revelled not only in its originality, but also in its sheer difficulty. He described it as “the hardest barrelhouse of any blues in history to play because you have to keep two different times going in each hand”. This remarkable composition developed over a period of years and was inevitably picked up by other players. One of these (“a feller… (who) always used to be hangin’ around us tryin’ to get in on it”) was Lee Green. Later, in St.Louis, Green would teach it to Roosevelt Sykes, who in turn, was the first to put it on a record, for Okeh in New York in 1929, under the title "44 Blues."

Montgomery played his way through Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. He eventually moved to New Orleans. In the mid-1920's, Montgomery toured Louisiana with a variety of bands, his own and others. In 1928, Montgomery was hired by Clarence Desdune’s Dixieland Revelers, a dance band. At the end of 1928, Montgomery quit the Revelers and moved up to Chicago. He made a name for himself playing rent parties—house parties put on in black neighborhoods to raise money to pay the rent. As Heide writes: "It seems impossible to lay down a reliable chronology of Brother's movements in he mid-1920s. He traveled extensively in the areas round Louisiana and Mississippi… He probably bought his first car when he was eighteen years old. Thus he could traverse the country playing 'one-nighters.'"

In late 1930, Montgomery accompanied Minnie Hicks and on two songs, Irene Scruggs on four and recorded “No Special Rider blues” and "Vicksburg Blues" for Paramount. The latter song was one of the most popular blues of its day, widely imitated by bluesmen. In 1931 he cut one 78 for Melotone, "Louisiana Blues b/w Frisco Hi-Ball"and cut two 78's for Bluebird in 1935. His next recording opportunity was in October 1936 in New Orleans where he waxed a remarkable 18 song session. He also backed fifteen year old singer Annie Turner on four numbers. The recordings Montgomery laid down were undoubtedly the pinnacle of Deep South Piano Bookhis career, an astonishing profusion of piano technique, originality and depth of feeling that mark these as one of the finest bodies of piano blues recorded in the era. As Chris Smith writes he was "adept at blues, jazz, stride, boogie and pop which he synthesized into a personal style that ranged easily from the bopping earthiness of "Frisco Hi-Ball" to the pearl-stringing elegance of "Shreveport Farewell." His high voice and bleating vibrato are unmistakable, especially on his signature piece, "Vicksburg Blues", a polyrhythmic  showcase for his acute but never pedantic timing. it's also an example of Brother's poetry of geography; many of his songs, and even the titles of his instrumentals, are rich evocations of places he knew and the railroads that carried him between them."

Around the time World War II started Montgomery moved north to Chicago where he remained for the rest of his career. After the war, he began playing "old-time jazz" with musicians such as Baby Dodds and Lonnie Johnson. In 1948, he took part in a Carnegie Hall reunion concert by the Kid Ory Band and He played the Chicago club circuit regularly. Montgomery, like many others, saw himself as more than just a bluesman. From quite early on, too, Montgomery had played in jazz bands, and based in New Orleans in the 1920's, he worked with many of the great musicians in that city. It was in a jazz band that he would appear on his first issued recordings of the post-war era, together with New Orleans musicians Lee Collins (trumpet) and Oliver Alcorn (sax) and a Chicago rhythm section, in 1947 for Century. Also from the 1940's were unissued sides for Savoy in 1949.

In the 1950's there was sporadic recording activity, even if there were few issued records to show for it at the time: a 1951 session for Atlantic with drummer Frank ‘Sweet’ Williams, two 1953 sides for JOB and two sessions in 1954 and 1956 only four tracks were issued, on a ten-inch LP on the Winding Ball label and five rare sides cut for the Chicago label, Ebony, in 1956.

As electric post-war blues took hold in Chicago, Montgomery was an active session musician. He toured briefly with Otis Rush in 1956. His fame grew in the 1960's, and he continued to make many recordings. He appeared on some of the influential mid-fifties record made by Otis Rush, and played piano on one of Buddy Guy’s first big hits, his 1960 remake of Montgomery’s "First Time I Met The Blues."

Deep South Piano
Read Liner Notes

As momentum to Montgomery’s career picked up in the 60's and he became a world traveler, visiting the UK and Europe on several occasions during the 1960's, cutting several albums there, while remaining based in Chicago. He cut some excellent albums during this period including Tasty Blues for Bluesville featuring sympathetic support from guitarist Lafayette Thomas, two exceptional records for Folkways (Blues and Farro Street Jive), the aforementioned Storyville album, a fine live recording in Amsterdam (Bajez Copper Station) plus band recordings with Edith Wilson and the State Street Ramblers (He May Be Your Man… But He Comes To See Me Sometime!), an album with the State Street Swingers (Goodbye Mr. Blues), recordings made for his own FM label among several others. Other notable recordings were made in 1964 for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (I Blueskvarter Vol. 2) and in 1960 when Montgomery visited England where he was recorded extensively by piano expert Francis Wilford Smith (issued on Magpie as These Are What I Like: Unissued Recordings Vol. 1 and Those I Liked I Learned: Unissued Recordings Vol. 2.). He continued performing and recording practically right up to his death on September 6, 1985 of congestive heart failure.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Andy BoyEvil BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Andy BoyChurch Street BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Walter 'Cowboy' Washington & Andy BoyIce Pick MamaThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Andy BoyHouse Raid BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Big Boy KnoxBlue Man BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Big Boy KnoxEleven Light City BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 11: Texas Santa Fe 1934-1937
Son Becky Mistreated Washboard BluesSan Antonio Blues 1937
Son Becky Midnight Trouble BluesSan Antonio Blues 1937
Pinetop BurksJack of All Trades BluesSan Antonio Blues 1937
Pinetop BurksFannie Mae BluesSan Antonio Blues 1937
Pinetop BurksShake the ShackSan Antonio Blues 1937
Thunder SmithSanta Fe BluesLightnin' Special Vol. 2
Thunder SmithLow Down Dirty WaysLightnin' Special Vol. 2
Leroy Ervin Rock Island BluesTexas Blues: Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings
Lee HunterBack To Santa FeTexas Blues: Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings
Sonny Boy DavisI Don't Live Here No MoreTexas Country Blues 1948-1951
Dr. HepcatI CriedHouston Might Be Heaven V
Dr. HepcatHattie GreenDown Home Blue Classics 1943-1953: Texas
Dr. HepcatBoogie WoogieGiants Of Texas Country Blues Piano
Whistlin Moore AlexSometimes I Feel Worried From North Dallas To The East Side
Whistlin Moore AlexIf I Lose You WomanModern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol. 4
Whistlin Moore AlexNeglected WomanModern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol. 4
Buster PickensSanta Fe TrainEdwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions
Buster PickensJim NappyEdwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions
Buster PickensShe Caught The L & NEdwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions
Robert ShawHere I Come With My Dirty, Dirty Duckings On Texas Barrelhouse Piano: The Ma Grinder
Robert ShawGroceries On My Shelf (Piggly Wiggly) Texas Barrelhouse Piano: The Ma Grinder
Robert ShawThe Ma Grinder Texas Barrelhouse Piano: The Ma Grinder
Grey GhostNobody Knows You When You're Down And OutGrey Ghost (Catfish)
Grey GhostWay Out On The DesertGrey Ghost (Spindletop)

Show Notes:

Back when I started this show in 2007 one of the first programs I did was one devoted to the pre-war Texas piano tradition. My interest in this was sparked again recently when I was doing research and writing the notes for a reissue of pianist Buster Pickens long out-of-print album for the Document label (just reissued  as Edwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions).  Pickens was an active member of the  'Santa Fe group' of pianists, knew all players but unlike some of them did not get the opportunity to record until the post-war era. In our two-part feature on Texas piano I'll be spotlighting the tradition in more depth that I did the first time out, surveying both  pre-war and post-war artists.

Pinetop Burks: Jack Of All Trades BluesThe Texas piano tradition flowered in the 1920’s and was at its peak during the 1930’s when a number of the tradition’s best players were recorded. Paul Oliver observed that “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues” and “a cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas." The pianists can be roughly grouped into schools; there was the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928, one based around Dallas which included Whistlin Alex Moore, a regional style that developed around Shreveport and the so-called 'Santa Fe group' who were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie. In our second installment we spotlight members of the powerful Santa Fe group as well as a number of pianists who recorded in the post-war era.

The  'Santa Fe group' were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie.“ Mack McCormick noted that the “itinerant pack of pianists who came to be known loosely as 'the Santa Fe group,' partly because they favored that railroad and partly because a stranger asking for the name of a selection was invariably told 'That's The Santa Fe.' …They were known as The Santa Fe after the railroad that straddle Fort Bend County with a big triangle just Southwest of Houston, providing access westward to the high plains, cotton country, east to the piney-woods lumbering camps and north (pretty much following the old Chisholm Trail) to a string of cities and watering places. ”Here”, Oliver notes “was where the music thrived and pianists could be found like Pinetop Burks, Son Becky, Rob Cooper, Black Boy Shine, Andy Boy, Big Boy Knox, Robert Shaw, Buster Pickens and the singers who worked with them like Walter 'Cowboy' Washington and Joe Pullum.” Others associated with the group were Victoria Spivey and Bernice Edwards.

1937 was an outstanding year for the Santa Fe group of pianists: Andy Boy recorded in February for Bluebird, Big Boy Knox recorded for Bluebird in March, Black Boy Shine recorded in June for Vocalion and Son Becky and Pinetop Burks recorded at a shared session for Vocalion in October. Among the best of the Santa Fe group were Andy Boy of Galveston and Rob Cooper of Houston. Andy Boy had a rough, expressive voice offset with his sprightly blues piano laced with ragtime flourishes. He waxed eight sides in 1937 under his own name as well as backing singer Joe Pullum on eleven sides in 1935 and the obscure Walter 'Cowboy' Washington.

Little is known of Big Boy Knox who recorded four sides in 1937. Son Becky and Pinetop Burks recorded at a shared session for Vocalion in October 1937. Becky's real name was Leon Calhoun born in Wharton, Texas in 1910. He's remembered playing along the Piney woods border with Louisiana. He's backed by an unknown guitarist and washboard player oh his six titles. Conish 'Pinetop' Burks was born near Richmond, Texas in 1907. He possessed a formidable technique as he displays on the six titles he cut for Vocalion in 1937.

Thunder Smith: Santa Fe BluesAfter World War II the Texas piano tradition virtually evaporated. Several, however, did record in the post-war era including Wilson “Thunder” Smith. Smith plays piano behind Lightnin' Hopkins on his first two sessions for Aladdin in 1946 and 1947 and Hopkins backed Smith on a four song session for Aladdin in 1946 with Smith cutting one session apiece in 1947 for Gold Star and in 1948 for Down Town. He was murdered in Houston in 1963. His “Santa Fe Blues” indicates ties to the Santa Fe group.

Bill Quinn, owner of the Houston based Gold Star label, recorded two piano players: Leroy Ervin in 1947 and Lee Hunter in 1948. Another pianist from the older generation was Sonny Boy Davis who recorded two sides for the Talent label in 1949 backed by guitarist Rattlesnake Cooper.

Lavada Durst, known as Dr. Hepcat, who was a disciple of Robert Shaw but who recorded infrequently. He worked in baseball for much of his life, training players and announcing games, and it was from the latter activity that he graduated to working as a DJ, broadcasting over KVET, a white station in Austin. There he developed the persona of Dr.Hepcat, with an extraordinary line in jive talk. He also made a few records of his own, but despite his high profile on radio, it appears that these can't have sold very well, as they are extremely rare, even one issued on the comparatively major independent label Peacock; the other two were on the local Uptown label, one issued under the pseudonym of Cool Papa Smith. He made a handful of latter day recordings before passing in 1995.

In part one of our spotlight on Texas piano we played a pair of pre-war number by Whistlin Alex Moore, the best known Dallas pianist. Moore's career spanned from 1929 until 1988, recording in every decade except the 1970's. He was rediscovered by Chris Strachwitz in 1960, recording an album for Arhoolie and making his way to Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival by the end of the decade. Back in 1951 in Dallas he cut a few titles for the RPM label including two of which we spin today.

As Paul Oliver wrote: "Buster Pickens is a barrelhouse pianist who has played the sawmills, the turpentine camps and the oil 'boom' towns since his childhood. He has outlasted most of his contemporaries in their tough an often dangerous life and can lay good claim to be virtually the last of the sawmill pianists. Pickens lone album, for Heritage, the self-titled Buster Pickens, was recorded over several sessions in 1960 and 1961 and released in 1962, later reissued in 1977 on the Flyright label as Back Door Blues and now appears on CD for the first time courtesy of Document Records. Liner notes for the new reissue were written by your truly.

Edwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions
 Read Liner Notes

Robert Shaw was born in Stafford, Texas in 1908 and in his mid-teens started playing with members of the Santa Fe Group and greatly influenced by his friend Black Boy Shine. Shaw wasn't recorded until 1963 when he was tracked down by Mack McCormick.

Roosevelt Williams, better know as the Grey Ghost, was born in Bastrop, Texas in 1903. He outlived his contemporaries passing at the age of 92 in 1996. He traveled to the area dances and roadhouses by riding empty boxcars. He would seem to appear out of nowhere and then disappear immediately after performing, which earned him the nickname, "Grey Ghost. He wasn't properly documented until 1965 when he was recorded by Tary Owens. Those recordings saw daylight in the late 80's, reviving Williams' career. Owens arranged for Williams to make a CD of new recordings at the age of 89, Which was released in 1992.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Hersal ThomasHersal BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Sippie WallaceMurder's Gonna be My CrimeThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Hociel ThomasWorried Down With The BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
George Thomas Fast Stuff BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Moanin' Bernice EdwardsLong Tall Mama The Piano Blues Vol. 4: The Thomas Family 1925-1929
Bernice Edwards, Black Boy Shine & Howling SmithHot Mattress Stomp The Piano Blues Vol. 11: Texas Santa Fe 1934-1937
Bert Mays Michigan River Blues Down In Black Bottom
Bert Mays You Can't Come In Down In Black Bottom
Fred Adams & Bilikin Johnson Frisco BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Texas Bill Day & Bilikin JohnsonElm Street Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Texas Bill Day Good Morning Blues The Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Hattie HudsonDoggone My Good Luck Soul Dallas Alley Drag
Jack RangerTP Window Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Jack RangerThieving Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Bessie TuckerThe Katy Dallas Alley Drag
Bessie TuckerPenitentiaryI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Ida May MackElm Street BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas 1927-1929
Ida May MackGoodbye Rider Barrelhouse Mamas
Whistlin Moore AlexHeart Wrecked Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Whistlin Moore AlexBlue Bloomer Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Whistlin Moore AlexIce Pick Blues Dallas Alley Drag
Black Ivory KingThe Flying CrowBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Duskey DaileyThe Flying CrowThe Piano Blues Vol. 10: Territory Blues 1934-1941
Frank TannehillRolling Stone BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 10: Territory Blues 1934-1941
Black Boy Shine Dog House BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Black Boy Shine Ice Pick And Pistol Woman BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Black Boy Shine Brown House BluesBlack Boy Shine & Black Ivory King 1936-1937
Joe PullumCows, See That Train Comin'Joe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Joe PullumMcKinney Street StompJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Rob Cooper West Dallas DragThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport 1934-1937
Joe PullumHard-Working Man BluesJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935
Joe PullumDixie My HomeJoe Pullum Vol. 1 1934-1935

Show Notes:

Back when I started this show in 2007 one of the first programs I did was one devoted to the pre-war Texas piano tradition. My interest in this was sparked again recently when I was doing research and writing the notes for a reissue of pianist Buster Pickens long out-of-print album for the Document label (just reissued  as Edwin "Buster" Pickens: The 1959 to 1961 Sessions).  Pickens was an active member of the  'Santa Fe group' of pianists, knew all players but unlike some of them did not get the opportunity to record until the post-war era. In our two-part feature on Texas piano I'll be spotlighting the tradition in more depth that I did the first time out, surveying both  pre-war and post-war artists.

Hersal Thomas
Hersal Thomas

The Texas piano tradition flowered in the 1920’s and was at its peak during the 1930’s when a number of the tradition’s best players were recorded. Paul Oliver observed that “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues” and “a cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas." The pianists can be roughly grouped into schools; there was the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928, one based around Dallas which included Whistlin Alex Moore, a regional style that developed around Shreveport and the so-called 'Santa Fe group' who were based in the southwestern part of the state where the cities of Galveston, Houston and Richmond lie. Today’s show is part one of a two-part feature, spotlighting recordings made between 1925 and 1941.

As piano expert Francis Smith noted: “With the two major recording centers of New York and Chicago a thousand miles to the North, it was extremely fortunate that so many pianists of this important close knit Texas group were recorded—all three record companies of the time being involved.” The three companies were Columbia, Victor and Vocalion in addition to Bluebird and Okeh. These companies, either singularly or in various combinations, made field trips to Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio between 1927 and 1941.

The early Texas piano tradition was based around the remarkable Thomas family who made the bulk of their recordings between 1923 and 1928. The music sounds quite different from those who recorded in the 30's. As David Evans states: “It is likely that no family has contributed more personalities to blues history than the Thomas family of Houston, Texas, whose famous members included George W. Thomas, his sister Beulah “Sippie” Wallace, their brother Hersal Thomas, George’s daughter Hociel Thomas, and Moanin’ Bernice Edwards who was raised up in the family.”

Hersal, is described by Francis Smith: "That Hersal, the child prodigy, was a highly influential pianist among his peers there is no doubt; even though he left Houston in his very early 'teens he had established a reputation there which remains still in the folk memory."Hersal was busy between 1925 & 1926 cutting a dozen titles with Hociel, fifteen with Sippie and backing singers Lillian Mller and Sodarisa Miller. Hersal died tragically at the age of 16 in 1926 of food poisoning.

Hersal's older brother George also left behind a slim legacy; a few jazz titles with his Muscle Shoals Devils, some sides backing singer Tiny Franklin, a recording of "The Rocks" made in 1922 under the name Clay Custer and the coupling ""Don't Kill Him In Here" from 1929 and our selection “Fast Stuff Blues."

Moanin' Bernice Edwards possessed a beautiful, deep, lowdown voice and piano style  that fell within the Santa Fe school of pianists. Edwards waxed twelve sides for Paramount in 1928 and six more for Vocalion in 1935.

Whistlin  Alex Moore: West Texas WomanDallas was the home of a number of distinctive piano players and singers they accompanied. Among them were Texas Bill Day, Neal Roberts, Willie Tyson, Whistlin' Alex Moore and singer Billiken Johnson. The hub of the black community was an area known as Central Tracks, where honky-tonks 'saloons, beer-parlours and brothels were wedged between warehouses, furniture stores and places of entertainment like Ella B. Moore's Park Theatre, or Hattie Burleson's dance hall. In addition many railroads whose names are familiar to blues collectors had termini there. It's not surprising that the railroad figure prominently in the blues of Dallas.

Not much is known about several of the Dallas pianists. Pianist/singer Texas Bill Day cut six sides for Columbia. Tyson cut two solo piano numbers for Columbia in 1927 which went unissued. The next day he backed singer Hattie Hudson on “Black Hand Blues” and the classic “Doggone My Good Luck Soul.” Tyson also backed Gertrude Perkins, Bilikin Johnson and Lillian Glinn. Jack Ranger cut three songs for Okeh in Dallas in 1929. it's unknown if he accompanies himself on piano but he was a sensitive singer and songwriter.

Pianist K.D. Johnson became famous backing the outstanding Texas singers Bessie Tucker and Ida May Mack. Johnson backs them on their legendary session for Victor on August 29th and 30th 1928 in Memphis. He was remembered as '49' by Alex Moore and not only did Mack call him 'Mr. 49' during his solos, she even named a song after him called "Mr. Forty-Nine Blues."

The most famous of the Dallas pianists was Alex Moore. Of Moore, Paul Oliver wrote: "He is a true original, a folk blues singer of the city who can sit at the piano improvise endlessly piano themes and blues verses that are sometimes startling, sometimes comic, sometimes grim, and very often pure poetry." Moore began performing in the early '20s, playing clubs and parties around his hometown of Dallas. In 1929, he recorded his first sessions for Columbia Records and also accompanied several artists on record. Moore didn't record again until 1937, when he made a few records for Decca.

Around Shreveport another regional style flourished. Among the pianists who recorded from this region were Dave Alexander who recorded as Black Ivory King and Duskey Dailey. Both recorded in 1937 with Dailey cutting an additional session in 1939. Both men cut version of a regional railroad number called “The Flying Crow.”

Two pianists who fall outside the Texas piano schools are Bert Mays and Frank Tannehill. Mays recorded four titles for Paramount in Chicago in 1927. He cut a final ten sides in 1928 and 1929 for Vocalion although only two were released. Tannehill was born in Austin and made his debut backing Perry Dickson in 1932. Under his own name he recorded for Vocalion in Chicago in 1937, in 1938 for Bluebird in San Antonio and a final session in Dallas in 1941.

Joe Pullum: Dixie Is My HomeIn part two of our feature we'll be going more in depth into the recordings of the Santa Fe group but we do feature a number of songs today by men associated with that group. ARC Records made field recordings in 1936 in San Antonio where they recorded Harold Holiday, known as Black Boy Shine. He was one of the acknowledged leaders among the Santa Fe group of pianists. He recorded more prolifically then the rest; cutting 18 issued sides in 1936 and 1937.

Among the best of the Santa Fe group were Andy Boy of Galveston and Rob Cooper of Houston. Andy Boy had a rough, expressive voice offset with his sprightly blues piano laced with ragtime flourishes. He waxed eight sides in 1937 under his own name as well as backing singer Joe Pullum on eleven sides in 1935 and the obscure Walter 'Cowboy' Washington.

Rob Cooper was an accomplished pianist with strong links to ragtime and stride piano. He also recorded behind the popular singer Joe Pullum on three sessions in 1934, 1935 and 1936. He recorded two version of “West Dallas Drag”, his version of the seminal, technically complex Santa Fe number “The Ma Grinder.”

 

 

 

 

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 Document video for the release of
Edwin Buster Pickens – The 1959 to 1961 Sessions

 

I've been collaborating with Document Records since 2005 when they asked me to write the notes for the Robert Nighthawk collection Prowling With The Nighthawk. The next project was the series that grew into the three double disc sets of Blues, Blues Christmas. For years I had being doing an annual Christmas program on my blues show and pitched the idea of a vintage collection of blues and gospel Christmas songs to Document. This year Document issued the third volume of Blues, Blues Christmas, the most wide-ranging collection yet, jumping genres from blues, gospel, jazz, rock, doo-wop and country. Another idea I brought to Document was to resurrect some great long out-of-print blues records. One of the first records that came to mind was pianist Buster Pickens' lone album for Heritage (HLP 1008), the self-titled Buster Pickens, which was recorded over several sessions between 1960 and 1961 and released in 1962, subsequently reissued in 1977 on the Flyright label as Back Door Blues and now appears on CD first time as Edwin Buster Pickens – The 1959 to 1961 Sessions.

Texas Piano Part 1 Texas Piano Part 2

 

A couple weeks back I got a call from Gillian from Document asking me if I was interested in putting together some podcasts. With the release of the Buster Pickens and the Christmas CD we decided to do a couple revolving around the rich Texas piano tradition and one devoted to Christmas tunes. You can hear these on the new Document podcast page. While you're there check out the great podcasts on James Booker and Christmas songs from Edison Records.

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