Piano Blues – Atlantic

chicago plus

Atlantic SD 7227 – Chicago Piano, various artists – “Blues Piano, Chicago, Plus” [Blues Originals, Vol. 4]

Blues piano is a strangely neglected area, what with the emphasis that existed on the guitar; this, even though the piano was the “#2” blues instrument. The historical picture is spotty at best and only an occasional notice has been made of any regional styles. “Lack of factual knowledge favors the growth of legends, and information on black piano players from the Deep South is scarce. Literally thousands of them went unrecorded”…[1] Much of this neglect by historians has been the result of the bias shown by commercial recordings – pianos seemingly played a secondary, accompanying role to the “Classic” [vaudeville-based] female singers or were often submerged in a jazz band context. The popularization and subsequent bastardization of “boogie woogie” in the forties also warped the picture of piano blues traditions, so that it was often dismissed as superficial and a minor branch of black music. This is unfortunate, because the “boogie is the blues as far as melody, harmony, and length of meter are concerned” as Ernest Bornemann stated.

In spite of this, much has been preserved – piano rolls of blues were made before the first [phonograph] recordings of this music came along in 1920. A few areas had noticeable piano traditions – New Orleans, Texas, St. Louis, Birmingham, Kansas City, Chicago… and even Helena, Ark. – though they are very hard to document [today]. Many areas with a strong blues tradition had almost no pianists at all [that we know of], and the reasons for this are a bit unclear. Pianos could be found in specific areas such as sawmills, turpentine and railroad camps; brothels, juke joints, tonks, and dance halls… and churches (plus a few private homes). This limited the availability [of pianos] to the camps, and larger towns and cities, and pianists perforce gathered there – a piano is somewhat less portable (and more expensive) than a guitar – so many rural areas were “left out”.

In Texas, where the majority of the lumber and turpentine camps were located, there was a school of barrelhouse artists that played that local circuit. The persons in the camps were often under semi-prison conditions of [geographical] isolation, and the companies often built barrelhouses equipped with pianos to entertain them (as well as remove some wages!). These establishments provided much-needed diversion for the workers, and their music also had an effect on post-war playing when this crude style mated with the piano sounds of Kansas City. The more sophisticated “Texas” forms then flowered in the Los Angeles environs to produce a very popular approach that greatly dominated the rhythm and blues charts in the late forties and early fifties.

In other cities and large towns there were [the usual] brothels, dance halls, et al to provide employ for pianists, or even small bands. New Orleans and the Storyville saga are rather too well-known to bear repeating, but a similar phenomenon existed in towns throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. The cruder, self-taught “tonk” players tended to play solo and stay in the rural Delta area, but the more sophisticated ones often moved North with an orchestra.

Cities like Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Los Angeles collected many blacks and much black music to serve these new city dwellers. Those unable to play in a band worked by themselves, or with a guitarist for house–rent parties and the like. Others did both, while a third group stuck mostly with the bands to become part of the jazz world. Examples of the various types of blues pianists are provided on this album, in a pastiche of sounds and approaches.

 

LITTLE JOHNNY JONES –

Johnny Jones unfortunately remains something of an indistinct figure, though he was one of the best post-war blues pianists that worked out of Chicago. Presumed born in the vicinity of Jackson, Miss. About 1924, he may have been a cousin of the late Otis Spann – one-time, longtime pianist with Muddy Waters. Johnny first surfaced on record in 1949 as part of the band backing Tampa Red on Victor, and he did this until Tampa’s last session for that label in 1953 – he was the sole vocalist on one song, [a cover of] John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s Early In the Morning, and he often joined Tampa in the vocal choruses as well. In addition to his records with Tampa Red, Jones also recorded with Muddy Waters and “Baby Face” Leroy Foster in 1950, and two of his [own] songs were issued by Aristocrat, as by “Little Johnny” – they were Shelby County Blues and the classic Big Town Playboy, also done later by Eddie Taylor. A session for the Flair label (two songs) and the four songs included here for Atlantic were done in his name in 1953… and that was the extent of recordings done [issued] in his name. Though a bit neglected as a “lead” performer, his ability as an accompanist was not at all ignored. He appears on many records, especially on Chess sessions, and backed people like Albert King, J.B. Hutto, Magic Sam, and, later, Howlin’ Wolf. While in Chicago, he often appeared as a member of Wolf’s band.

Still, the post-war blues fan will hook Johnny’s name to that of the late Elmore James, as he appeared on the bulk of his recordings and worked with that band in the fifties and sixties. As a matter of fact, on Johnny’s last two sessions, Elmore and his band are the backing group and they are heard on the four sides issued here. This is obviously a “working” group, as all the parts fit together so well – the “buzzy” sound of the tenor of the late J.T. Brown cushioning the group and taking an occasional, pithy solo… and Elmore. Something of a god to many blues addicts, his searingly impassioned slide guitar has never been duplicated – the delicate intensity and unique sound quality identify him immediately. An unexpected bonus here is his use of an acoustic guitar on Chicago Blues and Doin’ the Best I Can – the former played with slide.

While momentarily stressing Elmore, it is still a session for Johnny Jones and his is the primary role. There are a variety of tempi here and on all one hears the pianist – and it is truly a two-handed pianist. He played with a rolling right-hand, as did Otis Spann, but he was much more dexterous and adept with the left than Otis and he rumbles away nicely on the basses, too. Little Johnny Jones was one of the best pianists to appear on the blues scene after The Second World War – better than Spann, Henry Gray, or Johnny Johnson. With the paucity of good pianists always noticeable, the gap left by his passing in November of 1964 (one and a half years after the death of cohort Elmore James) will not be filled. As Mike Leadbitter wrote at the time, “In a Chicago full of guitarists and with comparatively few top-rate pianists, the death of Little Johnny Jones is a great loss, as it is to us (i.e. the blues fan), who were never really given a chance to appreciate him.”[2] Post-mortem notice is kind of late, but these four sides – fifty percent of his apparent recorded output – should be noticed.

 

FLOYD DIXON –

Dixon is the “ringer” in this collection and the reason for the mildly vague album title, though he did one session in Chicago in 1958. Floyd is one of the collection of relatively sophisticated pianists to appear in the late forties – one of a group including Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, early Ray Charles, Lloyd Glenn, and others. Nothing at all is known about him, though he started recording in 1947 and continued to do so prolifically through the fifties and still surfaces occasionally today. Reputed to work in and around the Fresno area in California, he has not been located as yet by blues fans, which is unfortunate. He is still alive and still working in the music “business” and should be recorded in depth.

The sides here are very much a mixed bag – When I Get Lucky and Hey, Bartender[[3]] are mildly commercial (he sounds a bit like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on the former), while the other two are not. They seem to be the end-of-the-session “unwinding” pieces that got taped – Floyd’s Blues, going only with bass and drums, is an easy-going piece, while the strange Two Piano Blues is an obvious after-hours piece that has a lovely tenor sax solo, as well as fine lead piano work. Floyd Dixon is a versatile performer, and he shows a number of aspects of his talent in the four sides included here. It should be obvious from these sides included where much of the influence on Ray Charles came from.

 

“LITTLE BROTHER” MONTGOMERY –

Eurreal Wilford Montgomery was born in Kentwood, Louisiana on 18 April, 1906 – a small town in Tangipahoa Parish named after the local Amos Kent Lumber and Brick Co. His parents, Harper and Dicy Montgomery, were a mixture of black and Creek Indian – the latter from a remnant of the tribe that settled in Louisiana as they were pushed West from their original territory in Alabama. The family of ten was extremely musical, singing in local churches and playing a multitude of instruments – the senior Montgomery played cornet and his wife, the accordion and organ. In addition, Harper ran a barrelhouse near the lumber camp, and many of the pianists who played there stopped by the Montgomery home to play for fun. To understate it, “Brother” was surrounded by music and he began the piano when about five years old, being influenced by the by the visitors to his home.

The result of all this exposure and precocity, “Brother” left home at age eleven to take up employ as a professional pianist. He began playing tonks in the Parish, starting at eight dollars a week + room and board – soon after that he was pulling down fifteen dollars! It was in this period that the theme referred to as The 44’s came into being – it is a two-handed barrelhouse blues that was developed by Robert “Big Brother” Johnson, “Long Tall Friday”, Ernest “44” Johnson, and Montgomery. This was later recorded with this title by Lee Green, and Roosevelt Sykes – “Little Brother” recorded it himself as Vicksburg Blues, and a variant can be heard on this album.

“Brother” worked out of New Orleans in the twenties, playing with various bands, or working the brothel circuit with blues guitarists. His travels took him all over Mississippi and Louisiana, and he played in almost all the big towns in the Delta. In early 1928 he joined Clarence Desdunes’s Joyland Revelers for a while, but left them to go to Chicago for a while. He played house-rent parties and such, and also made his first recordings there for Paramount. They included his first release of Vicksburg, as well as accompanying some female singers for the label. This continued until 1931, when he recorded for Brunswick – the Depression had hit in force, so “Brother” returned South.

Until 1938, “Brother” used Jackson, Miss. As his base, traveling around with his own eight-piece band known as “Little Brother Montgomery and His Southland Troubadors.” While so engaged, he returned to New Orleans in 1935 and 1936 for recording sessions for Victor in the company of other blues artists from the Jackson, Miss. vicinity. With the outset of World War Two, he moved permanently to Chicago – there he played with “New Orleans” bands, even having a stint with Kid Ory in 1948. The blues were not forgotten, though, and he recorded with Otis Rush, Little Willie Foster, and Magic Sam. More recently he has played with Franz Jackson’s Dixieland group and toured Europe with blues-shows. Though slowed for a while by recent illness, he is still playing and singing in top form.

The sides on the album are a mixture of three older songs – Shreveport Farwell, Vicksburg Blues, and Farish Street Jive – and an extemporaneous boogie. The first mentioned are unfortunately on a “prepared” piano, but “Brother” and the drummer (probably “Sweet” Williams) manage to overcome this obstacle rather well. The fourth is an interesting description of a house party when boogie and jazz were in full swing (pun intended). “Little Brother” Montgomery is a unique artist, and these sides should give some credence to that statement.

 

FRANK “SWEET” WILLIAMS –

Frank Williams seemingly was a minor talent in Chicago, as no references to him have been made in the literature and his only recorded efforts were two unissued sides done in 1951 for Atlantic. He is mentioned in passing by “Little Brother” Montgomery on his “Talkin’ Boogie” (included here), and that seemed to be the only reference to him to date. It took German Karl Gert zur Heide to obtain information on Williams in 1968, which he included in his recent book about “Little Brother”, entitled Deep South Piano.

“Sweet” is a New Orleans man, born there 8 June, 1906, and he started playing for local parties (fish fries, et al) while in his early teens. He formed a trio with [legendary] trumpeter Chris Kelly and drummer “Papa Crutches”, with which he performed in the early twenties. Williams moved to Chicago in the middle of that decade; there he played with New Orleans style led by people like Lee Collins or Herb Morand. In the early thirties he teamed up with singer/banjoist “Papa” Charlie Jackson and he stayed with him until the singer’s death in 1938. Frank Williams still lives in Chicago and still plays the piano occasionally, but he has been oddly neglected.

Two songs were done in 1951 for Atlantic – it is presumed that he was brought along by “Little Brother” Montgomery… who was in the studio mainly due to the uncertain state of Jimmy Yancey’s health (see Atlantic 72299 for the Yancey session). One number was a rather weak boogie item deemed unissuable, but the slow blues issued here for the first time is excellent. He is a two-fisted player, and one can only wonder what he still may be capable of doing – he is still only in his sixties.

 

MEADE LUX LEWIS –

Born Meade Anderson Lewis, nicknamed “Luxembourg”, on 4 September, 1905 in Chicago, Lux was a self-taught pianist. Influenced by Jimmy Yancey and Cripple Clarence Lofton, and first recorded for Paramount in 1927, he was associated with the boogie woogie fad of the forties, as were Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. A pianist of unique talent, he is heard here on a variant riff from Cow Cow Davenports’ Cow Cow Boogie. Lewis died as a result of an automobile accident in Minneapolis on June 7, 1964, one of the last of the Chicago house-rent stylists. The rest of his efforts for Atlantic are to be released on a later album devoted solely to his session in late 1951[[4]] – this one should whet some appetites!

 

Many styles of blues piano have been released here – the sophisticated Texas/L.A. brand of Dixon, and intense post-war blues band with Jones, some solo performers in Lewis, and Williams, and the jazz/blues artistry of Montgomery. There is a mixture of obviously commercial efforts, as well as some “labors of love” for blues piano music – they all sound pretty good today.

PETE LOWRY (Peter B. Lowry) – 1972

contributor: BLUES UNLIMITED                                                                                                   album research and compilation                                                                                                       “Blues Originals” series concept

Chicago Plus insert

Little Johnny Jones – vo/pno: Chicago, IL, w. J.T. Brown – ts; Elmore James – gtr; Odie Payne – dms, 9 October, 1953.                                                                                                       Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler

Floyd Dixon – vo/pno: New York, w. Jimmy Lewis – gtr; unk ts, bari/pno; bs, dms, 10 November, 1954.                                                                                                                              Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler

Little Brother Montgomery – pno/vo: Chicago, IL w. pos. Frank Williams – dms, 18 July, 1951.                                                                                                                                                  Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Herb Abramson

Frank “Sweet” Williams – pno: Chicago, IL w. Israel Crosby – bs, 18 July, 1951.                   Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Herb Abramson

Meade “Lux” Lewis – pno: Chicago, IL w. unk bs, dms, 4 December, 1951.                          Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Herb Abramson

 

[1] Deep South Piano, Karl Gert zur Heide, Studio Vista (1970).

[2] Mike Leadbitter, “An Obituary”, BLUES UNLIMITED No. 18 – Jan 1965.

[[3] Part of The Blues Brothers repertoire!]

[[4] This did not take place, due to stupidity and company ownership changes – see Oddenda & Such #15 for more information. It was meant as “Chicago Piano – Vol. 2” in this series, but not to be.]

Chicago Plus back

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