The role of the piano in blues music has changed dramatically over the years, much like the music itself. Back in the 1920's and 30's, a large number of barrelhouse and boogie woogie players traveled far and wide in search of work, from big cities like Chicago and St. Louis, to small towns with major lumber, sawmill, and turpentine camps. Pianos were part of the furnishings in many of these locales, and indeed, homes where a little extra money may have been available. The players learned quickly to develop a strong two-fisted approach to be heard over the noise in the juke joints and had a definite advantage in that respect over guitar players, but the downside was that piano men didn't have the ability to entertain on street corners like their guitar playing counterparts. House rent parties became popular for boogie woogie and barrelhouse stylists, and those in Chicago featured some of the most famous names associated with those forms. Today, the piano takes a back seat to guitar and harmonica led bands, and only a few men remain familiar with the old ways--Pinetop Perkins, Henry Gray, and maybe a couple others. The list of characters on this brand new 2-disc set reads like a who's who of piano blues giants from a bygone era. With 36 tracks and about two hours of playing time and a budget price, this one is hard to pass up for any fan of stomping solo piano.
Competition was stiff for these men, much like it was with guitar players; no matter how versed you were, there was always someone around the corner ready to cut your head. Piano men had their own language full of jive, and some even sported the forehead quiff that alerted anyone familiar with the rites of passage that there was a new barrelhouse man around town. Turner Parish, a disciple of Leroy Carr, opens disc one with "Trenches," a rumbling solo boogie piece played in an economical style with enough flair to set him apart as one who should have been more widely recorded. Leroy Carr, one of the most-loved and highly respected men of blues piano gets in with the mournful "Ain't It A Shame." Walter Roland assisted perhaps the most outrageous of the female blues singers, Lucille Bogan, and Roland's flowing "Big Mama" is a fine example of his solo work. Cripple Clarence Lofton, a hero around Chicago for years, adds "I Don't Know" and will be familiar to many as the basis for Willie Mabon's version, which was the inspiration of The Blues Brothers' version . Jim Clark's "Fat Fanny Stomp" is about what the title suggests, and is loaded with triplets, pace changes, and an interesting vocal style that owes to "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie," by the legendary Pinetop Smith. Skip James adds the strangely-timed "If You Haven't Any Hay Get On Down The Road," and Speckled Red, an albino boogie woogie player contributes "The Dirty Dozen No. 2," packed with great lyrics.
The second disc leads off with Meade 'Lux' Lewis blazing through "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and proves why he became a familiar face with society crowds later in life, as his thundering left hand lays a driving boogie, while he plays some stellar patterns with an effective right hand. Walter Davis' fine and tough, "Think You Need A Shot," influenced Champion Jack Dupree, sadly absent from this compilation. Cow Cow Davenport drops off his excellent "Cow Cow Blues," and Little Brother Montgomery, one of the first players to exhibit what became known as the 44's, is along with his "Vicksburg Blues." Charles Avery, another who accompanied Bogan, plays the driving "Dearborn Street Breakdown," with the odd bass figures, while Wesley Wallace, an Illinois powerhouse, plows through "No. 29," a tour-de-force piece with some storming, yet wide open spacing in a spoken tribute to a train that ran regular routes from Cairo to St. Louis. Jabo Williams is exceptional with "Pratt City Blues," and Peetie Wheatstraw, The Devil's Son-In-Law, comes through with a stumbling groove in "Shack Bully Stomp." Montana Taylor leaves "Detroit Rocks," a fine solo, and the program closes with Romeo Nelson's stomping "Head Rag Hop," with some raucous vocals and equally distinct boogie woogie.
Others along for this fine ride include Charlie Spand, Bob Call, Will Ezell, Louise Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, and many more. The barrelhouse and boogie woogie styles were major forces in the record industry many years ago, and this rather well-done set pays debt to some of those who popularized the music and made strong contributions that will last long after all of us are gone. Unfortunately, there are no session details to look over, and the liner notes give only a brief explanation of the originations of the barrelhouse and boogie styles. This two-CD set with a discount price will appeal to those just digging into the rich field of piano work, and sound quality is quite good throughout. www.allegro-music.com lists this and many other fine blues titles.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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