Piano Red was one of the few barrelhouse blues pianists who found a way to adapt as musical styles changed around them. Rather than become an anachronism back when rhythm & blues became all the rage and rock 'n' roll was born, Red changed with the times before eventually morphing into Dr. Feelgood, producing hit records such as "Rockin' With Red" and "The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo)."
Born in Hampton, Georgia in 1911, but spending most of his 74 years in Atlanta, William Lee Perryman followed in the ivory-tinkling footsteps of his older brother Rufus, who was known as Speckled Red, most famous for giving the world "The Dirty Dozens." Piano Red became famous all over the world, but he kept on playing regularly in Atlanta. Beginning in 1981, he was ensconced at the Excelsior Mill, and in 1984, one of his average performances was taped. Your guess is as good as any as to why the tapes were kept under wraps all these years, but we have only just now been given the chance to hear this legendary performer in his natural element. Sure, his vocal prowess was slightly worn down from his prime, but the enthusiasm and spirit of Piano Red shines through. Backing by bassist George Miller and drummer James Jackson is right in step with him.
Piano Red's The Lost Atlanta Tapes
The album opens with "She's Mine," one of eight songs here that Red never recorded in the studio. It's a jaunty, joyous little number that would definitely grab the attention of bar patrons ready to be entertained. "I used to live the blues years ago," Red says to introduce "My Baby’s Gone," his next number, "and that's when I learned how to play 'em." This slow blues shows off his delicately ornamental filigrees and his barrelhouse pounding. Red is a showman, and he neatly shifts gears to the Tin Pan Alley number "That’s My Desire" from his youth, just because he gets a lot of requests for it.
"Let's Get It On" has that raunchy groove that fueled so many R&B songs of the late-1940s and early '50s. Red has a blast with the pulsating chords of this one, and he belts out the lyrics with a combination of salacious desire and a lot of humor. His laughs are infectious, and this one ends with his biggest shout of "Yeah" so far. Red shouts "Yeah" at the end of every song, and most often tells the audience they are wonderful. At this point, he's spent nearly 60 years entertaining people, so he holds on to little ticks which have worked well for him. A version of the traditional "C.C. Rider" follows, with a bouncy groove and only a hint of the pain often brought to the fore in this song. But oh, those piano solos sear with an intensity echoed by his wordless cry announcing the last chorus.
Baby, Please Don't Go
His own song, called "Baby, Please Don't Go," is nothing like the ones of the same name we've heard, but Red does wonders with a matter-of-fact pleading vocal. The traditional "Shake, That's All Right" comes off as a cross between boogie-woogie and early rock 'n' roll, but if you think about it, so does "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" by Jerry Lee Lewis, which is pretty similar to this song. "I'm telling you, the music spirit is moving, and all you've got to do is have a good time," Red says before doing a relatively laid back version of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields."
The mood barely changes as he starts in on "Corinna, Corinna." At this point, Red is the blues songster, bringing the room together into a semblance of community through well-known songs played with verve. And he has such fun pulling a call and response with one of his bandmates, who uses a falsetto.
Let's Have A Good Time Tonight
Now it's time for one of those huge hits, "The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo)," probably Red's best-known number. It goes fast and with a bit of nonchalance in the vocals, but it has all the joyous energy of previous versions. Robert Jr. Lockwood's "Blues and Trouble" is adapted to Red's blues style next, and it restores some seriousness to the mood of the show. His first piano solo on this one is marvelous, moving from fury to exasperation to sorrow through a cascade of chords and notes. "I don't know how you felt when you come here, but you're gonna be feeling good when you leave," says Red before singing "Let’s Have a Good Time Tonight." Red is thoroughly determined to uplift his audience, and by this point in the evening, it's hard to imagine feeling anything but good.
An inventive take on the familiar "St. Louis Blues" gives the rhythm section a chance to vary somewhat from its standard approach, and Red punches out the lyrics with more vehemence than they usually get. "Ain’t Gonna Be Your Lowdown Dog No More" is a raucous R&B number with some playful piano licks; one imagines the dance floor filling up as soon as this one starts.
"Pay It No Mind" is another Tin Pan Alley song with some beautiful piano playing. Red is adept at every style he tries, without ever calling attention to his skills. But there is one heck of a lot of piano being played all over this record. For evidence, look no further than the jazzy, fast-paced Roosevelt Sykes number, "Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone" which follows.
Naturally, Red has to end his set with his two biggest hits, "Rockin' with Red" and "Doctor Feelgood." The former is a piano masterpiece on a par with anything Professor Longhair came up with in New Orleans. Red has a blast playing this one, and he runs away with some of his most exciting solos here. The latter is just as delightful, and probably reveals most closely the influence NRBQ pianist Terry Adams picked up from Red.
Steve's Bottom Line
Piano Red was a professional musician. He worked many nights a week for nearly 60 years of his life. He knew he was recording this performance, but the odds are it's not a lot different from what he did when the tape machines weren't running. This was a man who understood people wanted to be entertained, and he had the repertoire, the enthusiasm, and the chops to make anybody's evening brighter than it had been. "Don't forget," he says over the applause at the end, "The Excelsior Mill is the place where you'll have a good time." (Landslide Records, released August 10, 2010)
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