© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In re-posting this piece, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles took the opportunity to amend the text with some excerpts from Willie “The Lion” Smith’s autobiography Music on My Mind [1964; George Hoefer] and with the video tribute to some of the classic Harlem pianists set to Luckey Roberts playing Spanish Fandango which you will find at the end of this piece.
It is the Jazz World’s good fortunate that the late, Les Koenig, who founded Contemporary Records and recorded a great deal of Jazz on the West Coast in the 1950s, was also a devotee of traditional Jazz, including Harlem/stride piano and created another label – Good Time Jazz – for the express purpose of immortalizing this form of the music.
As Nat Hentoff points out in the afollowing insert notes to the album, had Les not been such an enthusiast of early forms of Jazz, we would have much less of the recorded music of Luckey Roberts. Even with these sides, there is far too little of Luckey’s playing on record. Fortunately, such is not the case with Willie “The Lion” Smith, who joins Luckey on this album.
If you are looking for an introduction to Harlem piano, you need look no farther.
This one is a peach!
© -Nat Hentoff, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
HARLEM PIANO, New Orleans jazz, and country blues have this in common: once the giants are gone there can be no me to replace them. This album contains the work of two of the major creators of Harlem piano. Luckey Roberts became the dean of the school - teaching and influencing James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, and even a ringer, George Gershwin. Luckey was also the Liszt of the field in his vivid command of technical bravura, As James P. Johnson described the Luckey of 1913 "Luckey had massive hands that could stretch a fourteenth on the keyboard, and he played tenths as easy as others played octaves. His tremolo was terrific, and he could drum on one note with two or three fingers in either hand. His style in making breaks was like a drummer's; he'd flail his hands in and out, lifting them high,"
Willie 'The Lion" was always one of the reigning council of the Harlem ‘ticklers;’ and in recent years he has become the best known and most struttingly spectacular of those few who are left. I've seen him at Newport, at private parries, in night clubs, and at concerts, inevitably seizing the audience as soon as he walked on with cigar jutting out of his mouth, Willie strides like Don Juan on the way to an assignation and with a gusto that once provoked Charlie Mingus at Music Inn in Massachusetts to leap in front of the piano and shout, ‘My God, I've got roots.’
In his conversations, with James P, Johnson - currently being published in The Jazz Review - Tom Davin reports James P.'s conviction that 'the reason the New York boys became such high-class musicians was because , . . the people in New York were used to hearing good piano played in concerts and cafes. The ragtime player had to live up to that standard. They had to get orchestral effects, sound harmonies, chords and all the techniques of European concert pianists who were playing their music all over the city. New York developed the orchestral piano - full, round, big, widespread chords and tenths - a heavy bass moving against the right hand. The other boys from the South and West at that time played in smaller dimensions - like thirds played in unison. We wouldn't dare do that because the public was used to better playing. We didn't have any instruments then except maybe a drummer, so we had to use a solid bass and a solid swing to get the most colorful effects.’
LUCKEY (CHARLES LUCKEYTH ROBERTS) came on the scene early. Born in Philadelphia on August 7, 1893, he still remembers seeing his first show with music-one of the Smart Set revues-when he was four. By the next year, he was a professional -singing, dancing, jumping out of bamboo trees -on the national vaudeville circuit. He became an expert tumbler and while still a child, traveled to Europe. Luckey picked out tunes by ear on the piano when he was five, and took a job with a carnival as a pianist when he was six, but could only play in one key-B natural. "I learned," he recalls, "the whole show in that one key, Everybody was hoarse after a day or two,"
He always listened hard to the best ticklers he could find. Jess Pickett, One Leg Willie, Sam Gordon, Jack The Bear, Lonnie Hicks. Gradually, like them, Luckey learned to play in every key. Also, like most of the best ticklers, he became an expert pool player, a way of meeting the rent between engagements, He also wrote several of the first major ragtime hits - Junk Man Rag of 1913 and Pork and Bean. Later came the most lucrative of all, Ripples of the Nile, the main theme of which became a hit when recorded by Glenn Miller in 1942 as Moonlight Cocktail. He wrote for many Broadway shows, and for some three decades headed one of the most successful society orchestras in the East.
Luckey had his own club, the Rendezvous in Harlem, from 1942 to 1954. Everybody -waitresses and bartenders-sang, and Luckey played. In the Fifties, a frequent visitor was modern jazz pianist Red Garland. ‘He wouldn’t go home. He kept asking me to play things for him.' In recent years, Luckey’s had trouble. He’s been involved in two automobile accidents, and in one, his hands were shattered. A few weeks before this recording was made, he'd suffered a stroke. Yet Luckey is indomitable. He still doesn't smoke or drink, retains an astonishing amount of energy and optimism, and is one of the very few transparently honest men I've ever met.
Unjustly neglected and under-recorded - Luckey makes his second appearance on long playing records here, His first was a commercial “honkey-tonk" set, and his only other recordings were on 78 rpm for Circle in 1946. It may be supervisor’s bias, but I think the music indicates quite clearly that these are Luckey's best recorded performances.
THE STORY OF 'THE LION" is much better known than Luckey's. Born in Goshen, New York, November 25, 1897 as William Bertholoff, Willie has been, best characterized by James P. Johnson: 'Willie Smith was one of the sharpest ticklers I ever met - and I met most of them. When we first met in Newark, he wasn't called Willie "The Lion" - he got that nickname after his terrific fighting record overseas during World War 1. He was a fine dresser, very careful about the cut of his clothes and a fine dancer, too, in addition to his great playing. All of us used to be proud of our dancing. Louis Armstrong, for instance, was considered the finest dancer among the musicians. It made for attitude and stance when you walked into a place, and made you strong with the gals. When Willie Smith walked into a place, his every move was a picture."
Willie played most of the major uptown rooms before and after the First World War, has toured the vaudeville route, and given concerts in Europe. He's a much more inventive composer than is generally realized -Morning Air, Here Comes The Band, Contrary Motion, Echoes of Spring, etc. Willie still makes the festivals, a few night clubs, weekends at Central Plaza in New York, records, and is working on an autobiography, He has never lost his taste for choice cigars and the best brandy, His one flaw has been an occasional tendency to over-sentimentalize a number, or more accurately, to make everything below stride tempo into a rhapsody. Fortunately, Willie was not in an especially Douglas Fairbanks mood during this session and the result, I think, is one of his most brisk and functional recitals, The cigar is lit.
AS FOR THE TUNES, all of Luckey's are his own. Nothin' is at least fifty years old and is an apt two-handed, full-strength introduction to the program. Its climax suggests a dancing line to me -somewhat like an American version of the can-can. Spanish Fandango is one of many indications that 'the Spanish tinge" wasn’t limited to New Orleans. Fandango is also some half century old though it retains an insinuatingly enticing charm. Railroad Blues began almost as a program piece. When he was a child, Luckey lived by the tracks, and the sounds of the trains kept recurring to him until he wrote this melody. He recalls that the blues then - forty and more years ago - were not considered 'respectable" by many middle-class Negroes, and the music often had to be "prettied up" to get heard. Complainin,’ with its characteristically rugged bass line, also communicates a floating, compelling pulsation. Note here, as in all his pieces, Luckey's effective use of dynamics. The waltz, Inner Space, gets its title from Luckey's trademark, which is evident here, the use of inverted thirds and sixths. The theme of Outer Space is from the ending to one of Luckey's times, Exclusively With You, and the latter is actually Moonlight Cocktail turned upside down. The ticklers knew a lot of tricks, and Luckey is still inventing new ones.
Morning Air was written by 'The Lion" in appreciation of the way St, Nicholas Avenue near City College looks in September and October. Relaxin’ is further proof of Willie's qualities as a melodist, 'I wanted to show,' he said, 'that you could get a blues feeling without hitting people on the head.’ Rippling Water begins self descriptively, but then the stride breaks through. The Lion turns Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea into autobiography, and Tango La Caprice is his own sweeping Spanish gesture. Concentratin’ is named after a habit of Willie's - focusing his attention on particular people while playing and presumably transmitting thereby their singular qualities through his music. No one, however, is more singular than ‘The Lion.’ Luckey too is very much his own man. Every important tickler is, and these are two of the most important.
By NAT HENTOFF May, 1960
It’s very difficult for us to conceive of “the world” of Jazz that Willie “The Lion” Smith describes in the following excerpts from his autobiography, let alone to fully understand the colorful language he uses to describe it.
Jazz musicians have always had a language of their own.
And the, there’s Willie “The Lion” Smith vernacular patter or should I say patois?
DOWN IT, AND GET FROM 'ROUND IT,
LOW IT, AND YOU CAN'T OWE IT,
I'M A POET, AND I KNOW IT.
WILLIE "THE LION" SMITH
“One day in late 1919 I was strolling up 135th Street, at that time the main drag in Harlem (125th Street was then in a white neighborhood), and ran into Barren Wilkins who hailed me.
"Hi there, Sergeant Smith. My brother Leroy is looking for you. He says he needs a good piano man to take charge."
I decided to play it sharp. "The name is the Lion and you tell Leroy to phone for an appointment if he wants to audition me."
Since getting out of the Army I had been doing a little gambling, drinking, and piano playing in the various bars just like I'd been doing before the big mess in Europe had started. After meeting Barren an old saying of my mother's came back to me, "It is far better for the soul to have a crust of bread and plenty of sleep than to have a turkey and a hundred dollars in your pocket." I decided it might be a good idea to settle down somewhere for a while. The vibrations at Leroy's had always seemed good to me.
I was living at the time at Lottie Joplin's boardinghouse. That was where all the big-time theatrical people stayed and everything was free and easy. Mrs. Joplin was the widow of the great ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, who had died back in 1917. She only wanted musicians and theater people for tenants. The place was a regular boardinghouse but sometimes operated like an after-hours joint. She had the entire house at 163 West 131st Street and it was a common occurrence to step in at six in the morning and see guys like Eubie Blake, Jimmy Johnson, and the Lion sitting around talking orplaying the piano in the parlor. We used to play Scott's "Maple Leaf Rag" in A-flat for Mrs. Joplin. Before she died she took me down in the cellar and showed me Scott's cellar full of manuscripts — modern things and even some classical pieces he had written.
The Lion decided to have himself a big dinner at the Libya [139th Street near Seventh Avenue] and then go over and talk to Leroy. The Libya was Harlem's high-class restaurant of the day; it was the dictyest of the dicty. They served tea between four and five in the afternoon and featured dinner dancing until 1 A.M. The music was furnished by a string orchestra made up of members of the Clef Club. They were hidden in a grove of potted palms and were not allowed to rag it or to beautify the melody using their own ideas—they had to read those fly spots closely and truly. We used to kid them about having to read their tails off.
During supper they served the Lion a muskmelon filled with ice cream doused in champagne. These vibrations were too tony for a guy who had just gotten out of the trenches. Leroy's was gonna look good to this piano man.
When I walked in and announced to Leroy, "The Lion is here ," he glared as per usual and replied, "You know where the piano is at; go ahead and take charge."
Back in those days "takin' charge" meant the pianist had duties and responsibilities. He played solo piano, accompanied the singers, directed whatever band was on hand, and watched the kitty to be sure no one cheated on tips. That cigar-box kitty was very important at Leroy's, since the boss didn't allow any coins to be thrown around. Everybody's tips, including those given to the musicians, singers, waiters, and bartenders, had to go into the box to be divvied up at closing time. The piano man was it! The man in charge.
He had to be an all-round showman and it helped if he could both dance and sing. It was like being the host at the party, you were expected to greet everyone who entered to establish favorable feelings. I used to chat with the patrons at nearby tables in order to get their immediate moods. When I'd run into a noisy, rude one, I'd end the set abruptly, and holler "Man, go get lost!"
The bosses expected you to stay rooted to your stool from nine at night to dawn. Man, if you got up to go to the men's room those guys would scream. Leroy would come up wailing, "What are you trying to do, put me out of business?" And in those days you worked seven nights a week.
Furthermore, you'd rather piss in your pants than leave the piano when a rival was in the house. That was the best way to lose your gig.
Another thing that was different in those days was that you couldn't eat or drink in the joint on an entertainer's discount, yet you were expected to drink all the booze brought to your piano at a customer's expense. To the Harlem cabaret owners, to all nightclub bosses, the money was on a oneway chute — everything coming in, nothing going out.
And that wasn't all. In addition to all this takin'-charge service to the establishment, the tickler was required to build up for himself a big following. It got so that whether or not a place had any business was decided by who the piano man was—and there was no advertising done to help. It was your job to draw in the customers. All the owner had to do was count the money.
For all this, they paid you off in uppercuts. That was a saying we got up in those days; it meant you were allowed to keep your tips, but you got no salary. Sometimes they would give us a small weekly amount—like twenty dollars. That was known as a left hook.
When I started at Leroy's he acted as though he was doing me a big favor by letting me sit at the piano. After I'd been at the club for a couple of weeks I noticed the place was packed. It was time for me to have a little talk with Mr. Leroy. So one night I took time out and sent for an order of southern-fried chicken, the specialty of the house, served with hot biscuits. Instead of the chicken I got Leroy hollering, "What the hell you think you're doin' now, Lion? Ain't you got any food at home? You tryin' to take advantage?"
I looked calmly around the crowded room. "I want a small left hook, man, or else I'm movin' on." It was common practice for a piano player to keep on the go because you weren't considered too good if you stayed at the same place too long a time. It signified you were not in hot demand.
Well, my little move was a success. I wound up with a salary of eighteen dollars a week plus tips — and I was taking home around a hundred a week from the kitty. Old man Wilkins could see which side of the bread had the butter.
At Leroy's they didn't pretend to give out with a fancy show or revue. The show actually consisted of the pianist, occasionally accompanied by several instrumentalists, six or seven sopranos, and a bunch of dancing waiters who also sang.
Our sopranos could sing any kind of music in the book or requested by customers. These gals, like the piano players, worked all the cabarets in Harlem and Atlantic City at one time or another. I recall at Leroy's we had Josephine Stevens, Mattie Hite, and Lucy Thomas, including a cute little Creole girl from New Orleans named Mabel Bertrand — she later married Jelly Roll Morton. All these girls sang at the tables as well as doing their turn on the floor.
On the nights when I had help to keep the music rocking, we had fun. The helpers were usually a drummer, a banjoist, or a violinist. Once or twice we had a tuba player. Most frequently it was just a drummer and we sure had some good ones around New York at that time. Such guys as Carl (Battle Axe) Kenny, George Hines, Harry Green, George Barber, Freddie (Rastus) Crump, Charles (Buddie) Gilmore (the regular drum ace with Jim Europe's Hell Fighters), and a lame guy known as "Traps" (I think his real name was Arthur Mclntyre). Traps could make a fly dance with his ratchets. He and Gilmore drummed most of the time in a show band. He was knock-kneed, and like all those people with crazy legs, he was as strong as a bull. Every time one of the girls moved her eye old Traps would hit a lick. The chicks would tell him, "Just brush me lightly, politely, slightly, and get soft—give me that real low gravy." Man, the women sure did love his drumming. When the gals ran out of songs, Traps and I would take over and make up lyrics for them. And talk about blues, we really had 'em, choruses after choruses. It was like Ethel Waters once said over the radio, "I don't care what you talk about. You can talk all about the modern musics, but when it comes down to feeling the music and interpreting it, that we can do. We have the gift to send the message—the blues—Yeah!"
To GET A SHORT REST from Leroy's, I would sometimes go back to Newark and put in a few weeks at Jimmy Conerton's on Academy Street, Pierson's Hall, or in the dining rooms at the Hotel Navarro or the Robert Treat Hotel.
Several of the times I left to go up 135th Street and help out gambler Jerry Preston, who had just started an upstairs joint called The Orient. I was the first pianist to work for him and talked him into hiring three girl singers to make his place into a regular cabaret. It started him off in the business. I worked again for him years later when he ran Pod's & Jerry's. He was a congenial boss and we always got along. My only complaint was that he hired the damnedest waiters and bartenders—they were a band of crooks. He paid them good salaries but was always firing them for being snooty to the customers. Being a first-rate gambler he had very good connections.
Whenever I would cut out from Leroy's, it was my custom to leave the piano in the custody of a trial horse. In this way I felt I could get my job back when it came time to return. My favorite trial horse was a pool shark named Charles Summers, who had been a pianist at Leroy's before I went in there to take charge. He was a fair tickler, he could only play in three keys, but he made so much playing pool that his piano playing was just for kicks.
But, there came one time when I really goofed and almost lost the job.
That was when I left the stool in charge of a sixteen-year-old fat boy, whose name I didn't even know at the time. He used to hang around wherever there was a piano on 135th Street. I was told they let him play the box at the Crescent dime movie down the street when the regular man was off. (This was long before the time this kid was bugging Maisie Mullins, the pianist-organist at the Lincoln Theater, to let him play the ten-thousand-dollar Wurlitzer pipe organ.)
Yeah, man, I'll never forget how good old Fats, when he was still a stripling, would walk into Leroy's eating one of those caramel-covered apples on a stick. He was never without one.
In Comes Filthy
James P. Johnson brought him down one Sunday afternoon. We were all dressed in full-dress suits and tuxedos and in comes this guy with a greasy suit on, walks down to the bandstand, and says, "Hello there, Lion, what do you say?" He made me furious. I turned around to Jimmy and said, "Get that guy down, because he looks filthy." "Get them pants pressed," I said. "There's no excuse for it." From that day on I called him Filthy.
So he sat down until I got finished and when I got finished he was insistent, very persistent. He insisted he wanted to play Jimmy's "Carolina Shout" and when I got through he sat down and played the "Shout" and made Jimmy like it and me like it. From then on it was Thomas "Fats" Waller. He sat down also and heard me play a couple of strains of something, and then he improvised and the next time I turned around he had a tune called "Squeeze Me."
The Lion was only gone for a few days and when I got back Filthy had built up quite a following for himself. You could tell by the ovation he got when he walked in casual-like. I gave him a listen and made my famous prediction: I said to James P. Johnson, who was in the house again that night, "Watch out, Jimmy, he's got it. He's a piano-playing cub!"