Friday, September 25, 2009

A personal list of Ten Great Blues Pianists

I will not claim this is an exhaustive list but any collection of blues piano (and blues) should have something by all these acts.

Cow Cow Davenport - One could have selected his contemporaries like that tragic Pinetop Smith or the pioneering brothers of Sippie Wallace, George Washington Thomas and Hersal Thomas, but Charles Davenport came out of vaudeville (like Smith) and fortunately recorded extensively including his signature piece, “Cow Cow Blues” as well as such other gems as “Texas Shout” and “Atlanta Rag.” Document issued his complete recordings which included some strong accompaniments.

Eurreal ‘Little Brother’ Montgomery’s career spanned several decades and included his definitive reading of the “Forty Four Blues Theme, “Vicksburg Blues” along with “No Special Rider Blues, that in 1930 started a lengthy recording career that included him playing in territory bands and continuing his distinctive style that included elements of ragtime and stride. Other early classics he recorded include the virtuoso “Farish Street Jive.”

Roosevelt Sykes gets my nod as the greatest of all blues pianists. Lee Green taught Sykes a lot and he began a lengthy recording career that continued until his passing while holding down a regular gig in New Orleans. With his boisterous vocal style one can imagine how he jumped the crowds at the barrelhouses, juke joints and other clubs. He is associated with “Honey Dripper Blues,” “Mistake in Life,” Driving Wheel,” “Sunny Road,” and his “Sweet Old Chicago,” derived as much from “Original Kokomo Blues” as “Sweet Home Chicago,” inspired Junior Parker and Magic Sam to revive “Sweet Home Chicago.” Of course he did his own definitive rendition of “Forty Four Blues.” He was equally superb solo and in small jump blues combos. One of my favorite Delmark albums is his “Feel Like Blowing My Horn,” with his friend Robert Lockwood Junior and others.

Charlie Spand. I select him in lieu of Leroy Carr because Spand is less well known but such a marvelous pianist. Francis Smith in his definitive series on Piano Blues on Magpie devoted an entire volume to Spand whose “Soon This Morning,” is every bit a blues standard (Junior Wells and Sonny Boy do it as “Early in the Morning”). Other classics include some stomping piano with Blind Blake on guitar for “Hastings St,” while “Mississippi Blues" displays his fluent style.

Pete Johnson. I limit myself to only one of the Boogie Woogie Trio. I won’t argue that Johnson is better than Meade Lux Lewis or Albert Ammons. Perhaps it is his association with Joe Turner (who did record with the other two). Johnson can be heard on many of Turner’s tracks including his early “Roll ‘Em Pete,” and the Atlantic “Boss of the Blues” album.

Jimmy Yancey - In a review of the superb Mosaic Select box set, “Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano,” that appeared in the March 2008 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 301) I wrote the following about him, "A former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, he was a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park as well as a pianist of great emotional depth and rhythmic vitality. His music eschewed flash for a lyrical, almost poetic quality with what Morganstern notes idiosyncratic harmonies although every of his numbers ends in the key of E. His boogies are not played at quite a breakneck as Ammons, Johnson or Lewis were capable of but his treble lines are perhaps more interesting and while his bass work is varied and propulsive if not as powerful as the others as can be heard on ‘Yancey’s Stomp.’ Slow blues like ‘Five O'clock Blues’ were his forte as his subtle touch and treble embellishments lend a melancholy flavor to his performances. His poetic piano perhaps is stronger than his unmannered vocals, but his earnest delivery compensates for any vocal limitations, and one will not find any better examples of blues piano than his work here.” I see no reason to change anything I wrote there. I do note that his slow blues “Yancey Shuffle,” was adopted by countless other pianists including Lloyd Glenn who retitled it “Old Time Shuffle.”

Amos Milburn. If one wants a bridge from the great boogie woogie pianists like Pete Johnson to the rock and roll giants like Archibald, Fats Domino one could do no better than this Texas born blues and boogie master who dominated the charts during the late forties and early fifties. The original “Chicken Shack Boogie,” a take on “Down a Road a Piece,” “Walking Blues,” and such drinking blues as “Bad Bad Whiskey,” “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” and “Let Me Go Home Whiskey.” He inspired Floyd Dixon and there are his contemporaries like Ivory Joe Hunter, Charles Brown, and Little Willie Littlefield (still with us) that made many wonderful recordings, but Milburn’s piano had more impact at the time.

Whistling Alex Moore. Texas spawned too many great pianists from Texas Bill Day, Joe Pullum, Rob Cooper, Andy Boy and others so picking Moore because of his stately playing as well as his folk poetry. He did benefit from the blues revival in the sixties which allowed him to show he was still a marvelous blues pianist, lyricist and singer.

Camille Howard. There are other great piano playing blues women such as Georgia While, Julia Lee, Devonia Williams, but Howard’s piano with Roy Milton was as seminal as Mary Lou Williams with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy a decade earlier. She was also a really solid singer and there was a fine reissue featuring her as a leader that was issued as part of the Specialty reissues that is worth seeking out.

Otis Spann. Its hard to leave out Memphis Slim, Little Johnny Jones, Sunnyland Slim, Black Bob, Henry Gray, and especially Big Maceo when one thinks of other great Chicago blues pianists, but Spann had something magical about his playing when heard at his best. It is unfortunate that production spoiled some of his recordings as a leader with a band (the Bluesway albums were marred by how the harmonica was recorded) but his solo and duo recordings for Candid and Storyville are classic as was his backing behind Buddy Guy on Guy's classic album,“A Man & the Blues.”


Rob said...

At last. I'm in Heaven. Somebody who likes the sort of blues that is my thing. For a while the impression I've got is that:

" If it ain't got a guitar it ain't the blues".

People are missing out if they don't listen to piano blues. Full of characters such as Roosvelt Sykes.

Rob said...

Brilliant. At last someone who knows good blues. I've been trying for a while to find someone who likes piano blue but got the
impression that

" if it ain't got a guitar it aint the blues"

Great list. Love them all and try and play like a few of them.

OldScull4eva said...

I love piano blues and play it myself, I wish I lived in the days of good music!!!great list

martin tilson said...

Bringing things up to date, I think James Booker deserves to be #1 as much as Roosevelt Sykes, and best living surely includes Dr. John and Henry Butler.