The hot blues piano style known as boogie woogie was popular in the rural South long before it became a national fad in the 1930s and 40s. Juke joint piano players in east Texas logging camps before the turn of the 20th century were expected to be one-man dance bands, playing a rolling bass line with their left hand and the melody in their right. The irresistible beat of their barrelhouse piano playing kept loggers dancing and drinking, and stopped them from looking for entertainment elsewhere and missing the next day’s work in the logging camp.
The boogie woogie beat poured out of the piney woods of Texas over to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, then on up to Chicago. But no one yet called it boogie woogie. Depending on where it was being played, the distinctive boogie woogie blues sound was called Fast Texas Piano, New Orleans Hop Scop, the Rocks, the Fives or the Sixteens.
Jelly Roll Morton recalled early masters of boogie woogie with names like Stavin’ Chain, Skinny Head Pete, Papa Lord God, the Toothpick or Porkchops. A piano player from Houston, Texas, with the patriotic moniker George Washington Thomas Jr., is regarded as the first to publish sheet music of a twelve bar blues progression written with a boogie woogie bass line. Thomas wrote his ‘Hop Scop Blues’ in 1911, and published it in New Orleans in 1916. On this broadcast, John Sheridan and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band play Thomas’ rarely heard piece, "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues."
In February 1923, George W. Thomas Jr. (as Clay Custer) made what is widely considered the first boogie woogie-inflected recording with his piano composition "The Rocks" composed with his younger brother Hersal. The eldest son of a Baptist preacher George W. Thomas Jr. became the patriarch of a Texas blues clan —standouts in the family include his brother Hersal (a boogie woogie child prodigy) and his sister Sippie Wallace, famous for her long and illustrious career as a blues singer.
Clarence ‘Pine Top’ Smith helped popularize the unmistakable boogie piano style while touring the TOBA vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, often appearing on the bill with top acts like blues singer Maimie Smith and the comedy duo Butterbeans and Susie. His piano solo "Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie" is the first published recording to use the phrase ‘boogie woogie’ in the lyrics and on the record’s label. Smith laid down his influential track for Vocalion in December of 1928, only months before he was accidentally shot to death at a dance in Chicago. On this Riverwalk Jazz broadcast, piano legend Dick Hyman teams up with Jim Cullum and the Band to perform "Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.’"
In an on-air interview with David Holt, Dick Hyman says,
"East coast players like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller felt it beneath them to play boogie woogie, it was just a little too low-down, too folky. At one point, they tell me, Waller had a special rider on his engagement contracts stipulating that he would not have to play boogie woogie on his concert performances. Boogie woogie transferred very easily into rhythm and blues, which in turn became early rock and roll with people like Fats Domino, Dr. John and Jerry Lee Lewis. But I think the most important guy we had who played with a great element of boogie woogie and blues was Ray Charles."
The South Side of Chicago became a hot bed for boogie woogie piano. One of the pioneers of the eight-to-the-bar piano style was Jimmy Yancey who grew up in a musical family, performing in traveling road shows. As early as 1915, Yancey was highly regarded for his piano playing. He was a great influence on Chicagoans Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, who, with help from producer John Hammond and appearances at Carnegie Hall and Café Society, would launch boogie woogie as a national craze in the late 1930s.
Boogie woogie master Albert Ammons taught himself to play using his mother’s player piano. He’d put on a piano roll, slow the mechanism down, and place his fingers on the keys as the piano played itself. He said he learned chords by marking the keys with pencil.
Ammons was childhood friends with another boogie woogie master-to-be, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. They grew up together in the early 1920s on the South Side of Chicago. For a while, they both lived in the same apartment building as Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith, one of the most influential of the first generation of boogie woogie pianists.
Billed as the Boogie Woogie Trio for their Carnegie Hall debut at John Hammond’s 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Mead Lux Lewis were the surprise hit of the night. By January 1939, the boogie woogie trio had “arrived” on the New York scene. Frequent gigs at the celebrity hangout Café Society and an appearance with the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman on his Camel Caravan radio broadcast sealed the deal.
Playing barrelhouse boogie at Café Society, the Trio sparked a boogie woogie craze that swept the country in the late 1930s. Throughout World War II, boogie woogie saturated pop music with hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” by the Andrews Sisters. Every swing orchestra from Count Basie to Woody Hermann had at least one boogie woogie number in their play list.
On our boogie woogie bash, Dick Hyman and John Sheridan play a two-piano duet on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues” and join forces with the rest of The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on “Jammin’ the Boogie” in a live crossfade from the Albert Ammons 1944 Commodore recording. Dick Hyman and John Sheridan team up with the rhythm section on Mead Lux Lewis’ tune, “Honky Tonk Train” and take it out with everyone on stage for a hot boogie woogie interpretation of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
Photo credit for Home Page: Dick Hyman. Photo courtesy the artist.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1992