In my continuing attempt to raise the profile of piano blues here's a show devoted to some of the best barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano of the 1920's and 1930's. Last year I did several piano based shows including a spotlight on the remarkable group of Texas piano men who who made records 1920’s and 30’s. This show, which takes it's title from a line in Romeo Nelson's "Head Rag Hop", is a much broader look at early piano blues featuring some of the best piano records of the era.
I remember exactly when I became enthralled with the early piano blues. I was was in Tower Records in NYC (still in in high school) browsing through blues records when I stumbled across the LP The Piano Blues Volume Twenty: Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933. I soon realized that this was the tail end of a groundbreaking piano series on Magpie Records. The Magpie series was the first attempt to present the the full breadth of piano blues in a systematic fashion. Each volume was built around a particular theme, featured excellent notes and terrific sound quality with records culled from the vast collection of producer Francis Smith (sadly I've heard that Smith is in the end stage of a terminal illness). The series concluded in 1984 after twenty-one volumes and has yet to be surpassed. A number of years ago 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 a number of excellent collections all of which are featured on today's show. A list of their piano compilations can be found here and they've also issued single artist collections: Dreaming the Blues: The Best of Charlie Spand and The Way I Feel which spotlights Lee Green and Roosevelt Sykes.
While the piano blues is something of a declining art form it flourished on record in the 1920’s-30’s and with the boogie-woogie craze of the 1940’s. To quote Peter J. Silvester's A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano: "Originating in barrelhouses and entertainment spots that served the black labor force who worked in the lumber and railroad industries throughout the deep south, it could be heard later at rent parties in Chicago, buffet flats in St. Louis and other black urban centers like Birmingham, Al and several towns in Texas among others. When the music evolved into boogie-woogie entering New York nightclubs like Café Society, pianists such as Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons became stars. In the 1940’s the boogie-woogie craze hit big but faded by the 1950’s."
Today's show stops just short of the boogie-woogie craze, spanning 1928 to 1939. This was an era before mass media and many of today's recordings bear a distinct regional style. As Bob Hall wrote: "At the start of the recording era blues piano consisted of a variety of distinctive regional styles, particularly in Southern states such as Texas and Mississippi, and there were 'schools' of pianists in many of the major cities having significant migrant black populations, for example Birmingham, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago." St. Louis, for example, was an extremely fertile piano town boasting piano men like Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Brown, Aaron Sparks, Walter Davis, Stump Johnson, Eddie Miller among many others. It's not surprising that Chicago had a lively scene including Pinetop Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Romeo Nelson, Cripple Clarence Lofton and others. Birmingham and Detroit were another prime piano towns with Jabbo Williams, Walter Roland and Cow Cow Davenport from the former and Charlie Spand, Will Ezell from the latter. In future shows I plan to do several piano programs with a narrower, regional focus.