Since September is traditionally back-to-school month, I thought I’d do a short history lesson on some of the most influential roots piano players. Whether barrelhouse, boogie woogie, boogaloo, or rumba, hard pounding rhythmic piano playing has found its home in the brothels and the concert halls, with styles traveling that swath of land and sea from the Caribbean up through the blues highway to Chicago.
Let’s start our journey at the barrellhouse, defined as both a 1) disreputable old-time saloon or bawdyhouse and 2) an early style of jazz characterized by boisterous piano playing, free group improvisation, and an accented two-beat rhythm.
Champion Jack Dupree was the epitome of New Orleans boogie woogie and barrelhouse blues piano. His birthdate disputed, but the year was between 1908 and 1910. He lived a long life, passing in 1992.
James Edward “Jimmy” Yancey was born in Chicago in 1898 and was a famous pianist by 1915 influencing the boogie woogie style of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammon, who were the predecessors of many blues pianists. Despite his musical prowess, he kept his job as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox his entire life.
We all know that New Orleans has birthed some of the greatest jazz and blues piano players including Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Harry Connick, Jr. and Henry Butler. Less well known outside of the Crescent City is one who left all those guys in awe, James Booker, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of New Orleans piano. Often people unfamiliar with his playing will mistake his sound as two simultaneous piano players:
Up to Chicago by way of Mississippi, Otis Spann was a blues piano player most notably with Muddy Waters, but an artist in his own right. Here he is with “Jangleboogie:”
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1913 and considered “one of the greatest pianists in the history of Cuban music, Pedro “Peruchin” Justiz made his name in Havana’s descarga (jam session) craze of the ’50s; along with Ruben Gonzalez, Lili Martinez, and Bebo Valdes, he was instrumental in shifting the piano into a much more rhythmic role in Afro-Cuban music (source)”. Here is “Peruchin”:
Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales, born in 1912, was an innovator of combining rhythm and melody, rising to the top of the mambo and rumba word. He played with some of the mambo and salsa greats including Tito Rodríguez, José Luis Moneró, Chano Pozo, Willie Rosario and Tito Puente.
I couldn’t leave out Nuyorican Charlie Palmieri. Less well known than his brother Eddie Palmieri, Charlie gave us really solid boogaloo from the 60s to the 70s. He played with Mongo Santamaria among others. If you have the chance to pick up his album, Either You Have It Or You Don’t, do it!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention country great Floyd Cramer, who did his own rolling country style piano playing, supporting everyone from Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins to Elvis Presley. Here he is with Chet Atkins:
Resources & Links:
Champion Jack Dupree
Meade Lux Lewis
Bayou Maharajah: The Life and Music of James Booker Trailer for documentary
New Orleans Pianists including Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Fats Domino, Henry Butler, Harry Connick Jr. and others
Pedro Peruchin Justiz