Little Brother MontgomeryVicksburg BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 1 Paramount
Charles AveryChain 'Em DownThe Piano Blues Vol. 1 Paramount
Blind Blake & Charlie SpandHastings St.The Piano Blues Vol. 1 Paramount
Lucille BoganAlly BoogieThe Piano Blues Vol. 2 Brunswick
Mozelle AldersonTight In ChicagoThe Piano Blues Vol. 2 Brunswick
Louise JohnsonBy The Moon And The StarsThe Piano Blues Vol. 1 Paramount
Charles 'Speck' PetrumHarvest Moon BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 2 Brunswick
Eddie MillerFreight Train BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 2 Brunswick
Bert MaysYou Ca'’t Come InThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Dan StewartNew Orleans BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Cow Cow DavenportBack In The AlleyThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Joe DeanI'm So Glad I'm 21 Years Old TodayThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Lee GreenMemphis FivesThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Pinetop SmithPine Top's Boogie WoogieThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Romeo NelsonHead Rag HopThe Piano Blues Vol. 3 Vocalion
Leroy CarrAlabama Woman BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 7: Leroy Carr
Walter RolandEarly This MorningThe Piano Blues Vol. 6 - Walter Roland
Turner ParrishTrenchesThe Piano Blues Vol. 5: Postscript
Joe PullumCows, See That Train Comin'The Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport
Andy BoyHouse Raid BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 8: Texas Seaport
Cripple Clarence LoftonStrut That ThingThe Piano Blues Vol. 9 Lofton/Noble
Alfoncy HarrisAbsent Freight Train BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 11 Texas Santa Fe
Black Boy ShineBrown House BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 11 Texas Santa Fe
Pinetop BurksJack Of All TradesThe Piano Blues Vol. 11 Texas Santa Fe
Pigmeat TerryBlack Sheep BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 13: Central Highway
Peetie WheatstrawShack Bully StompThe Piano Blues Vol. 13: Central Highway
Georgia WhiteThe Blues Ain't Nothin' But...The Piano Blues Vol. 13: Central Highway
Whistlin' Alex MooreBlue Bloomer BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 15: Dallas
Charlie SpandSoon This Morning BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 16 - Charlie Spand
Jabo WilliamsPratt City BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 17 - Paramount Vol. 2
Pinetop and LindbergEast Chicago BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 20 - Barrelhouse Years
Stump Johnson & Dorothy TrowbridgeSteady Grindin'Piano Blues Vol. 17 - Paramount Vol. 2
Bumble Slim w/ Myrtle JenkinsSomebody LosesPiano Blues Vol. 17 - Paramount Vol. 2
Speckled RedThe Dirty Dozen No. 2The Piano Blues Vol. 20 - Barrelhouse Years
Henry BrownHenry Brown BluesThe Piano Blues Vol. 1 Paramount

Show Notes:

Some piano player, I'll tell you that
(Ivy Smith, Alabama Strut)

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On December 4, 2009 Francis Wilford-Smith died and today we pay tribute to him. Smith was an avid collector of 78 records, a broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 (Aspects of the Blues) and the compiler of some excellent piano blues LP's on the British label Magpie Records, drawing all the material from his own collection. Today's selections all come from Smith's groundbreaking 21 volume series he started in 1977 and issued on the Magpie label, a subsidiary o of the Flyright label. Subsequently his collection was used for a piano blues series on Yazoo issued on CD. He had one of the largest collections of piano blues 78's in the world. Smith also field recorded Roosevelt Sykes and Little Brother Montgomery at his home in Sussex in 1960, yielding two 1980s LP's of the latter: These Are What I Like: Unissued Recordings Vol. 1 and Those I Liked I Learned: Unissued Recordings Vol. 2. Smith made a good living from cartoons published under the pen name 'Smilby' in Playboy, which allowed him to outbid others for rare 78s. Wilford-Smith was 82, had suffered from Parkinson's disease since 1994, and spent his last years in a nursing home. He died asleep in bed.

On a personal note, it was through the Magpie series that I became a life long fan of piano blues. I came to the series late, my first purchase was volume 20 and I must have been around 16. The album made a huge impression on me and I even remember exactly where I purchased it – Tower Records on West 4th St., NYC. I went back and picked up as many of the rest of the albums I could find and over the years completed the entire series. The series had everything you would want; each thematically well assembled, excellent liner notes (brief introductions by Smith) by Bob Hall, Paul Oliver and Richard Noblett and superb transfers.

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Before I give some background on the individual volumes, its worth quoting Wilford-Smith from his introduction to the series:  "The well-merited reissue of so many excellent blues guitar records over the past few years has had, perhaps, one unfortunate and unintentional – in that it caused the pianist to be unfairly overshadowed. This album marks the start of a series which, it is hoped, will put into perspective the role of the piano in blues history and do justice to the memory of the many fine pianists who have so enriched the music. We are only using 78 originals from my own collection, thus giving the listener the rare chance to hear records; at their best. No dubs, no tape-tracks that have wandered in and out of   half-a-dozen tape collections before being issued with that all too familiar dead and muffled cotton-wool-in-the-ears sounds. No ordinary filtering of any sort has been done in any misguided attempt t0 'improve' the quality, and each listener is left free to filter to his own taste. Surface noise there may be, but freshness and vitality are not strained away. The selection of records both here and throughout the series will be essentially subjective and reflect my own taste, but l shall endeavor to include a wide-ranging variety of piano styles and treatments to give as broad as possible a picture of the whole blues piano scene."

More or less, we work our way through the series volume by volume. The first volume and volume 17 are devoted to Paramount and as Smith writes: "…We start with Paramount, almost unchallenged as the greatest blues label, and its piano content lives up to its reputation. Here are joys indeed  –  and some of the greatest blues piano ever recorded.  Spand, Little Brother, Ezell,  Louise Johnson, Wesley Wallace, Garnett.  …I think the playing here must satisfy the most critical lover of the blues." From those volumes we spin tracks by Little Montgomery, Charles Avery, Charlie Spand, Louise Johnson, Henry Brown and Jabo Williams.

"…The second volume", Smith writes, "in our Piano Blues Series, will  be found very different in character to Volume One.  … Here on Brunswick a large  proportion of  the  piano blues bear a strong family resemblance and emotional  unity. This perhaps because several of the artists would seem to hail from the St. Louis area, and share that  hollow-chorded easy-rocking piano style." The Piano Blues Vol. 3 is devoted to the Vocalion label which was founded in 1916 and acquired by Brunswick in 1925. These are particularly strong volumes and we included several tracks from these collections including Eddie Miller, Charles "Speck" Pertum, Lucille Bogan, Mozelle Alderson, Romeo Nelson and Joe Dean among others.

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Next to St. Louis, one of the most musically rich piano regions was Texas as Paul Oliver observed:  “Texas was as rich in piano blues as Mississippi was in guitar blues …A cursory glance through the discographies will emphasize the fact that a remarkable number of blues pianists came from Texas.” Four volumes in the series are devoted to the piano blues of Texas: The Piano Blues Vol. 4 – The Thomas Family 1925-1929, The Piano Blues Vol. 8 – Texas Seaport 1934-1937, The Piano Blues Vol. 11 – Texas Sante Fe 1934-1937 and The Piano Blues Vol. 15 – Dallas 1927-1929. The Texas pianists, Oliver notes, "…can be grouped into 'schools', characterized by certain similarities of style and approach, that were partly a reflection of the environments in which they worked, of their friendships and associations with other pianists, and by the isolation of Texas from other states.” One school was 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. Here 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. The other important school was a cluster of pianists and singers based in Dallas such as Alex Moore, Texas Bill Day, Neal Roberts Willie Tyson, and singer Billiken Johnson. The earlier Texas piano tradition is documented on The Piano Blues Vol. 4 – The Thomas Family 1925-1929. 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.”

Several volumes in the series are devoted to individual artists or a cluster of artists: The Piano Blues Vol. 6 – Walter Roland 1933-1935, The Piano Blues Vol. 7 – Leroy Carr 1930-1935, The Piano Blues Vol. 9 – Lofton-Noble 1935-1936 (Cripple Clarence Lofton and George Noble), The Piano Blues Vol. 12 – Big Four 1933-1941 (Little Brother Montgomery, Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes, Springback James) and The Piano Blues Vol. 18 – Roosevelt Sykes/Lee Green 1929-1930.

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Among the other volumes in the series we play tracks from The Piano Blues Vol. 5 – Postsript 1927-1935, The Piano Blues Vol. 13 – Central Highway 1933-1941, The Piano Blues Vol. 14 – The Accompanist and The Piano Blues Vol. 20 – Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933. Among the tracks we spin from these collections are Turner Parrish's remarkable "The Trenches" who Bob Hall calls "an eccentric and probably unschooled pianist with nevertheless a considerable technique", Georgia White accompanying herself on piano on the boisterous "The Blues Ain't Nothin' But…", the obscure Pigmeat Terry who sings magnificently on the moving "Black Sheep Blues" accompanied by his own piano and the wonderful Pinetop and Lindberg's "East Chicago Blues."

The piano blues series officially concluded with The Piano Blues Vol. 21 – Unfinished Boogie 1938-1945 which collects unreleased recordings of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. As mentioned previously two collections of recordings by Little Brother Montgomery were made at Smith's home in 1960 and were the final albums issued on the Magpie imprint. Yazoo Records launched their own piano blues series also using 78’s from Smith’s collection. As far as I can tell the series has stopped but they issued seven excellent collections.

Related Articles:

Notes to The Piano Blues Vol. 8 – Texas Seaport 1934-1937, The Piano Blues Vol. 11 – Texas Sante Fe 1934-1937 and The Piano Blues Vol. 15 – Dallas 1927-1929 (Word Doc)