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Willie "The Lion" Smith
"Pork and Beans"
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goschen, New York, on 23rd or 25th November, 1897. The exact date is unknown, but Smith is impeturbed by this vagueness concerning his nativity: "It doesn't make any difference, because, using either date I was born under Sagitarius the ninth sign of the Zodiac ...many other famous and successful people were born under that sign." His mother played the organ in the local church and when she heard her six year old son trying to play tunes on an old organ in the basement of her house, she decided to give him tuition, with the help of her own mother who had been banjo player with a minstrel group! At the age of fourteen he was making money playing ragtime in the local saloons.
From 1913 "The Lion" could be heard playing at various spots around New York; as he mentions in his autobiography "Music on my Mind": "...before World War I, the profession of playing ragtime piano in saloons was very active and growing all the time. Many famous stars of music and entertainment started their careers in that way. Jimmy Durante started playing ragtime at Diamond Tony's on Coney Island ...Eddie Cantor was a singing waiter, then the great composer Irving Berlin was one time a singing waiter at Nigger Mike's in Chinatown." In those days mere technical expertise at the piano was not enough, the competition was stiff for pianists, who not only had to turn out individual interpretations of current favourites but were expected to produce a quantity of new material besides. Smith became friendly with two other outstanding, and subsequently famous, exponents of the 'stride' piano - James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. They would drop in to hear each other play and could sometimes be heard playing at the same function such as one of the numerous "rent parties." Smith soon became a force to be reckoned with in New York; the young Duke Ellington dropped in to hear him play and became one of his most famous fans and many years later composed a piece dedicated to "The Lion."
Although Willie the Lion appeared on the first ever negro blues record, as one of Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, on "Crazy Blues" in 1920, we have no recorded evidence of his solo piano until the mid-'thirties. We must rely on the numerous tributes paid to him by his musical colleagues who all appeared to rate him very highly. Bill Strayhorn was to say of Smith: "His style is a strange mixture of counterpoint, chromatic harmony and arabesque-like figures as refreshing to the ears as spring-water to the lips."
Serving as gunner with the U.S. Army in France during the first World War, we hear one version of how Smith earned his leonine nickname "...I was one of the few to volunteer to go to the front and fire a French 75 - and out of those who did, few returned. I stayed at the front for 51 days without relief. I was known from that time as Sergeant William H. Smith - The Lion." Other versions involve his early interest in Judaism - he wanted to become a Rabbi and was nicknamed "The Lion of Judea;" or "James P. Johnson gave me the title because of my spunk and enterprise." No matter which, if any, is the true story, for this pianist the title "The Lion" appears to be particularly apposite.
The coarse-edged voice singing and reminiscing will evoke memories for the many listeners who have witnessed the raconteur pianist in person. His brown derby perched on his head, feet and elbows widespread and the omnipresent cigar clenched aggressively between his teeth. A far cry from the shy boy who, on his mother's advice, sipped gin, laced with a sedative, to prevent himself from stuttering! Willie comes from a 'show biz' back ground and although there are strong elements of 'stride' in his playing, his approach to the piano is far more varied than that would imply. In simple terms 'Stride piano' can be defined as a strong "walking bass" provided by the left hand while the right hand performs counter rhythms, arpeggios and chords; but like so many simplifications this doesn't do justice to the form and the best way to find out what the term means is to listen to the records of "The Lion," James P. Johnson and "Fats" Waller.
Willie has always had a great affinity to the wider world of entertainment and, like many of his pianistic comrades, his main preference has been for the stage musical. He appeared in revues such as Holiday in Dixieland in 1922 and even managed to get a part in a play The Four Walls (1927). In more recent years he appeared in the film Jazz Dance and during 1966 was the subject of two films made in Canada. He has been a prolific composer of beguilingly attractive melodies including Contrary Motion; Echo of Spring Morning Air; Rippling Waters and Portrait of the Duke.
To give credit where it's due, Willie "The Lion" Smith, one of the last from a golden era of two-handed pianists, not only promulgated his own achievements but has been the most effective P.R.O. for the legions of almost forgotten, legendary piano players. Such men as Willie "One Leg" Joseph, Walter "One Leg Shadow" Gould, Willie "Egghead Sewell and John "Jack the Bear" Wilson. He has been unstinting in his praise of performers like Eubie Blake, who wrote the revue Blackbirds and, with Noble Sissle Shuffle Along in 1921. Blake too, was a composer of many well known standards including Memories of you: I'm just wild about Harry: You're lucky to me and Love will find a way.
Then there was Charles "Luckey" Roberts, a pianist of prodgious technique who made his first recordings in 1916 and who composed the famous Pork and Beans, Junk Man Rag and a ragtime piece entitled Ripples of the Nile, which was later to be simplified and recorded by Glenn Miller as Moonlight Cocktail. Not forgetting Thomas "Fats" Waller, a close friend of "The Lion," and probably responsible for more standards than any other jazz performer, with the exception of another close friend - Duke Ellington. It is not widely known that George Gershwin was a frequent visitor to Harlem to hear many of the pianists mentioned here, in fact his first composition was an opera entitled 135th Street, based on the colourful impressions he received from that vital area. When these recordings were made "The Lion" could still "cut" most 'ticklers' who would be foolish enough to throw down the gauntlet. You still get the impression of the days of the virtuoso performer who had to be musician, vaudeville artist and wit, a person who had to play with both hands and all his soul - or be pushed to the wall
Pork and Beans (1:55), Moonlight Cocktail (2:12), Spanish Venus (4:31), Junk Man Rag (2:25), Squeeze Me (2:42), Love Will Find A Way (2:55), I Am Just Wild About Harry (1:11), Memories Of You (2:40), Alexander's Ragtime Band (2:53), All Of Me (2:20), Aint't Misbehavin (4:40), The Man I Love (3:45), Summertime (1:26), Ain't She Sweet (4:21), Dardanella (2:35)
Recorded MPS Studio, Germany, November 8, 1966