House Rent Scuffle – Early Chicago Piano
During the period of today’s recordings , there was a mass migration of blacks from the southern states looking for regular employment and the chance to start a new life. Thousands headed to Chicago. They, together with the emerging school of pianists, took jobs as taxi drivers, hotel porters, dish washers and other menial occupations, working at these occupations during the daytime, they supplemented their earnings by playing at rent parties in the evenings and at weekends. The boogie pianists reigned supreme at these functions and the more proficient of them were able to find additional work at the many dives and clubs which became a part of Chicago’s night life. Today’s show spotlights the Chicago boogie and barrelhouse who made records in the 20’s and 30’s. For more detailed information on today’s performers check out Peter J. Silvester’s seminal The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God.
As Silvester wrote: “For the purposes of clarifying the several phases which the music underwent in reaching its state of perfection in the I940’s, it is helpful to consider the first generation of pianists as being active in the period up to about 1930. This would include among its members Hersal Thomas, Lemuel Fowler, Jimmy Blythe, Jimmy Yancey, Clarence Lofton, Charles Davenport, Doug Suggs, Eurreal Montgomery, Roosevelt Sykes, many’one-record pianists’ and other still unknown and unrecorded piano players. It was some time after 1930 that a number of these esteemed players made their first recordings, although their influence on later pianists as leading practitioners of the art is now clearly recognizable.”
Considered to be the originator of the boogie -woogie style of piano playing, Clarence “Pine Top” Smith was a vaudeville performer. From around 1920 Smith was based in Pittsburgh, and the following years he traveled with minstrel and vaudeville shows as a dancer, singer and comedian. Smith’s work on the circuits took him throughout the south where he worked with artists such as Butterbeans & Susie and Ma Rainey. In an interview with Downbeat magazine in 1939, Smith’s wife Sarah Horton said that her husband first started playing “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” in Pittsburgh. Cow Cow Davenport recommended Smith to Mayo Williams of Brunswick/Vocalion records. Smith then moved with his family to Chicago in 1928. On December 29, 1928 Smith recorded his two breakthrough hits: “Pine Top Blues” and “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.” This was the first time the phrase “boogie woogie” appeared on record. He began to devote more of his energies to playing piano and, at the urging of Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, made a few records. On January 14 and 15, 1929 Smith recorded six more sides of his vaudeville repertoire for Vocalion records, including “I’m Sober Now” and “Jump Steady Blues.” On March 13, 1929 Pine Top made an unissued recording of “Driving Wheel Blues.” Two days later, at age 25, his rising career ended. Smith was accidentally shot by a man named David Bell during a fight.
Meade Lux Lewis was one of the three great boogie-woogie pianists (along with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson) whose appearance at John Hammond’s 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert helped start the boogie-woogie craze. He played regularly in Chicago in the late ’20s and his one solo record of the time, “Honky Tonk Train Blues” (1927), was considered a classic. After cutting his classic “Honky Tonk Train Blues” in 1927 Lewis gained little extra work and slipped into obscurity. John Hammond heard Lewis’ record in 1935 and, after a search, found Lewis washing cars for a living in Chicago. Soon, Lewis was back on records and after the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert he was able to work steadily, sometimes in duets or trios with Ammons and Johnson. After the boogie-woogie craze ended, Lewis continued working in Chicago and California, recording as late as 1962. Lewis led sessions through the years that have come out on MCA, Victor, Blue Note, Solo Art, Euphonic, Stinson, Atlantic, Storyville, Verve, Tops, ABC-Paramount, Riverside, and Philips.
One of the seminal boogie-woogie pianists, Jimmy Yancey was active in and around Chicago playing house parties and clubs from 1915, yet he remained unrecorded until May 1939, when he recorded “The Fives” and “Jimmy’s Stuff” for a small label. By then, Yancey’s work around Chicago had already influenced such younger and better-known pianists as Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pinetop Smith, and Albert Ammons. Yancey was a musician’s musician, remaining mostly unknown and unheard outside of Chicago until 1936, when Meade Lux Lewis recorded one of his tunes, “Yancey Special.” Three years later, producer Dan Qualey became the first to record Yancey for his new Solo Art label. After the Victor recordings, Yancey went on to record for OKeh and Bluebird. In later years, Yancey performed with his wife, blues singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey; they appeared together at Carnegie Hall in 1948. Although Yancey attained a measure of fame for his music late in life, he never quit his day job, remaining￼ with the White Sox as a groundskeeper until just before his death.
Active in Chicago in the 20’s and 30’s, Charles Avery worked as a session musician backing artists such as Lil Johnson, Freddie ‘Red” Nicholson, Red Nelson and others. He cut one record under his own name, 1929’s “Dearborn Street Breakdown.”
Albert Ammons is best remembered as an exciting pianist who inaugurated the Blue Note record label by hammering out blues and boogie duets with Meade “Lux” Lewis. His main influences were Jimmy Blythe, Jimmy and Alonzo Yancey, Hersal Thomas, and Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, who personally encouraged the aspiring pianist. By 1934 Ammons was leading his own little group at the Club De Lisa on the South Side. Ammons became strongly identified with the boogie-woogie style after recording “Boogie Woogie Stomp” and “Swanee River Boogie” for Decca with his Rhythm Kings in 1936. Ammons next decided to take himself to New York, where he gigged regularly at Café Society (Downtown and Uptown) with Meade “Lux” Lewis and the Kansas City contingent of Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner. In 1938 Ammons, along with Lewis and Pete Johnson created a sensation at the Spirituals to Swing concert in Carnegie Hall. Ammons, who had cut a few sides for Vocalion in 1938, recorded a series of solos and duets with Meade “Lux” Lewis on January 6, 1939, now established as the very first titles in the catalog of Alfred Lion’s newly founded Blue Note label. Ammons remained active through the 40’s but illness forced off the scene and when he passed away on December 2, 1949, he was only 42 years old.
Romeo Nelson moved to Chicago at the age of six. For most of his life he played piano at rent parties in the city, although he also lived in East St. Louis for a while in the early 1920s. In 1929 he made his only series of recordings for Vocalion Records: “Gettin’ Dirty Just Shakin’ That Thing”and “Head Rag Hop”, featuring talking by Tampa Red and Frankie Jaxon.
Hersal Thomas was among the earliest architects of the boogie-woogie style leaving such a powerful impression that pianists as highly regarded as Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, and Meade “Lux” Lewis claimed him as a prime influence. It was his father George who taught Hersal the fundamentals of the blues, and the youngster gave his first public performances on the streets of Houston with his big sister Beulah, who would come to be known as Sippie Wallace. When George relocated to New Orleans in 1915, he brought Beulah and Hersal with him. Word spread quickly, and Hersal was soon gigging with the region’s top jazz players, including King Oliver and his promising young protégée Louis Armstrong. On February 22, 1925 he recorded his only two piano solos,”The Suitcase Blues” and “Hersal’s Blues.” Two days later, he and Joe Oliver backed Sippie on three Okeh recordings, and in April and June, he accompanied Hociel on her first records. In August, Hersal and Sippie traveled to New York to cut more records, with alto saxophonist Rudolph “Rudy” Jackson sitting in on the first of Hersal’s only two recording sessions that took place outside of the Chicago area. On November 11, 1925 Hersal, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr backed Hociel as members of Louis Armstrong’s Jazz Four. Armstrong and Hersal worked together on two more occasions, accompanying Hociel and Sippie during February and March 1926. Hersal’s last known studio session took place on the fourth of March when he accompanied Lillian Miller on her Okeh recording of “The Kitchen Blues.” The short life of Hersal Thomas came to an abrupt conclusion on July 3, 1926 while he was performing at Penny’s Pleasure Palace in Detroit MI. The exact cause of his sudden death has never been verified.
Considering how many fine recording sessions he was on in Chicago in the 1920s (particularly with Johnny Dodds), it is surprising how little is known about the mysterious Jimmy Blythe. He moved to Chicago in 1918, and studied with pianist Clarence Jones. Blythe recorded dozens of piano rolls in the early ’20s. He began cutting records in 1924 (Blythe’s “Chicago Stomp” from that year is considered by some to be the first full-length boogie-woogie recording). During the next seven years, he made a few piano solos; backed singers Viola Bartlette and Alexander Robinson; teamed up with Dodds in several settings; led Blythe’s Sinful Five; recorded with the Midnight Rounders, Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Lonnie Johnson, and the State Street Ramblers; and cut piano duets with Buddy Burton and Charlie Clark. Jimmy Blythe died at the age of 30 from meningitis.
Owing his nickname to a limp from which he suffered, Clarence Lofton became a favorite of early jazz collectors during the boogie-woogie craze of the late 1930’s along with Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey, Cow Cow Davenport, and many others. Born in Tennessee he lived most of his life in Chicago becoming a fixture on the Chicago nightlife scene. He owned his own nightclub called the Big Apple where he ran his own boogie school teaching youngsters the art form. Between 1935 and 1943 Lofton cut close to forty sides for Vocalion, Swaggie, Solo Art and Session. The bulk of these were solo sides with guitarist Big Bill Broonzy adding support for two sessions. In addition Lofton provided accompaniment to Red Nelson, Sammy Brown, Al Miller and Jimmy Yancey. Lofton remained on the scene cutting sides for the Gennett, Vocalion, Solo Art, Riverside, Session and Pax labels. He stayed around Chicago until his death in 1957 from a blood clot in the brain.
Montana Taylor was born in Butte, Montana, where his father owned a club. The family moved to Chicago and then Indianapolis, where Taylor learned piano around 1919. In 1929 he recorded a few tracks for Vocalion Records, including “Indiana Avenue Stomp” and “Detroit Rocks”. Later he moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1936. He then disappeared from the public record for some years, during which he may have given up playing piano. However, in 1946 he was rediscovered by jazz fan Rudi Blesh, and was recorded both solo and as the accompanist to Bertha “Chippie” Hill. His final recordings were from a 1948 radio broadcast. Taylor died in 1954.
Clarence “Jelly” Johnson became an in-demand piano roll performer, cutting many performances in Chicago during the mid to late 1920’s fory the Capitol Music Roll Company and issued as nickelodeon piano rolls. Johnson never cut any 78’s under his own name but did back several singers including Edna Hicks, Sara Martin, Lizzie Miles, Monette Moore and others. Recently Delmark records release Low Down Papa, a collection of twenty of Johnson’s piano rolls.
Freddie Shayne is a shadowy figure who spent his life working in Chicago. He first time on record was backing singer Priscilla Stewart on “Mr. Freddie Blues.” Shayne also made a very rare piano roll of this song. In 1935 Shayne recorded a solo record, “Original Mr. Freddie Blues b/w Lonesome Man Blues.” “Mr. Freddie Blues” became something of a boogie standard covered by many artists including Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Jimmy Blythe, Art Tatum and others. In the 40’s he made some recordings for the Circle label where he also backed singer Bertha “Chippie” Hill.
Cow Cow Davenport learned to play piano and organ in his father’s church from his mother who was the organist. Davenport’s early career revolved around carnivals and vaudeville. He toured TOBA with an act called Davenport and Company with Blues singer Dora Carr and they recorded together in 1925 and 1926. Davenport didn’t cut a 78 record until 1927 although prior to that he made a number of piano rolls between 1925 and 1927 including three versions of “Cow Cow Blues.” Davenport briefly teamed up with Blues singer Ivy Smith in 1928 and worked as a talent scout for Brunswick and Vocalion records in the late 1920’s and played rent parties in Chicago. They formed an act called the Chicago Steppers which lasted for some months and, in 1928, the partnership began to record for the Paramount Company. Daven venport moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1930 and toured the TOBA vaudeville circuit and recorded with Sam Price. In 1938 Davenport suffered a stroke that left his right hand somewhat paralyzed and affected his piano playing for the rest of his life, but he remained active as a vocalist until he regained enough strength in his hand to play again. In the early 1940’s Cow Cow briefly left the music business and worked as a washroom attendant at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in New York. In 1942 Freddie Slack’s Orchestra scored a huge hit with “Cow Cow Boogie” with vocals by seventeen year old Ella Mae Morse which sparked the Boogie-Woogie craze of the early 1940s; this led to a revival of interest in Davenport’s music. He tried to make a “comeback” in the forties and fifties but his career was often interrupted by sickness. He died in 1955 of heart problems in Cleveland.
– Jeff Harris, host of Big Road Blues, Jazz90.1
Henry Hardee -
June 4, 2018 at 6:36 pm
I was born and raised in Chicago and I’m 65 now, all the thing I’ve learned from this article is news to me. At the Harold Washington (in the Loop) is an exhibit about Maxwell Street- you should check it out.