It's hard to believe these days, but at one time the piano wrestled with the guitar for domination as the primary instrument in blues music. The piano has a long and storied history as a great blues music-maker, and you can hear such keyboard-pounding talents as Professor Longhair, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann, and Leroy Carr rockin' the 88s on various barrelhouse, boogie-woogie, and ragtime tunes through the decades.
Delmark Records, the noted Chicago-based blues and jazz label, also has a lengthy history with the piano. Pianist Speckled Red's The Dirty Dozens was the first blues album that the label released, and Delmark has continued to support the form through the decades, releasing albums by such piano blues greats as Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, and many others. With the acquisition of the Euphonic Records catalog, Delmark has access to a wealth of early-era, piano-based blues and jazz music, some of the best of which is offered up on Boogie Woogie Kings.
Delmark Records' Boogie Woogie Kings
Compiled by Delmark label founder Bob Koester from the original Euphonic masters, Boogie Woogie Kings presents better than a dozen-and-a-half classics of boogie-woogie blues, the bulk of them from the 1930s, from such masters of the style as Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, and "Cripple" Clarence Lofton. Only a handful of tracks here, from Henry Brown and Speckled Red, date from the 1950s or '60s, and five of these performances were previously unreleased altogether.
Given the talent of the artists represented on Boogie Woogie Kings, it's no surprise that these nineteen selections will rock your speakers. Ammons' take on the standard "Pinetop's Blues" is a high-energy romp across the piano keyboard, and the recording – from a live radio broadcast at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1939, has been cleaned up pretty well by the album's producers. Another piano blues great, Pete Johnson, is best known for his lengthy partnership with vocalist Big Joe Turner. Johnson is represented here by the rollicking "G-Flat Blues," also from 1939, and his style stands out as more disciplined compared to the more reckless Ammons.
Clarence Lofton, Meade Lux Lewis, and Speckled Red
Pianist "Cripple" Clarence Lofton is featured on Boogie Woogie Kings with six dynamite tracks, including his best-known performance, "Streamline Train." The sound is a little murkier on these tracks, recorded in 1938 and 1939, but enjoyable nonetheless as Lofton spanks the keys with a joyful abandon even more loose-limbed and wild than Ammons. The great Meade Lux Lewis has only a handful of tracks here, "Doll House Boogie" being the more energetic and rambunctious of the two as Lewis's fingers literally dance across the keys, one hand bashing out a deep rhythm and the other tickling out an infectious melody. Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis all team up on a crazed performance of "Boogie Woogie Prayer," the three boogie-woogie kings attacking the keys like a gangfight and delivering an inspired performance for the ages.
Henry Brown's three tracks are dated from 1960, and showcase a more traditional approach to the boogie-woogie blues style, seldom teetering off the tracks. When Brown does throw caution to the wind, as with the raucous "22nd Street Stomp," the entertaining results illustrate why piano blues remain one of the most popular styles of the music. Speckled Red, who is said to have learned his trade in the brothels and gin-joints of Louisiana, provides some of the few vocals on Boogie Woogie Kings, his often-bawdy lyrical bon mots accompanied by blasts of discordant notes and rolling boogie keyboard runs. Red's unique reading of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" throws in what appears to be a few classical influences, but the tune still sways wildly back and forth like a windmill in a hurricane.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Boogie-woogie, as a genre of the blues, hit its peak during the 1940s when pianists like Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis were toasted as instrumental geniuses. During the post-war years, however, as the piano lost favor among blues musicians – a guitar and a harmonica were much easier to tote around and make music with, and not every club had a piano on hand – the classic "boogie-woogie" sound would be picked up by bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and performed on guitar.
Although talented pianists like Otis Spann and Sunnyland Slim were an essential part of the Chicago blues sound, the golden era of piano-based blues and boogie-woogie had passed. Still, one can listen to Delmark's Boogie Woogie Kings and hear the anarchic spirit that would move early rock 'n' roll pioneers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. After all these years, this album proves that boogie-woogie blues still rock! (Delmark Records, released October 27, 2009)
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