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The Greatest Blues Pianists You Never Heard Of
(Part 1?)
By Carl 'Sonny' Leyland - Jan 2008 or

When the editor suggested I write a blues piano article I considered various aspects of the genre that I might focus on. After taking into account the fact that the average Blues in London reader is most likely a well informed aficionado I concluded that there wouldn't be much point in talking about folks like Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, etc. Of course these kingpins of Blues & Boogie piano deserve any and all attention that they might receive and I do wish all God's chillun the good fortune of having their lives enriched by hearing the great music these men created. For this piece, however I am going to cast a light on some unsung heroes of the 88 keys whose playing has continued to move me over the years.

One of the earliest known figures associated with Blues & Boogie is Lemuel Fowler. Although his playing is not exclusively in that genre a couple of his piano rolls feature some of the earliest examples of Boogie Woogie. In particular his 'Wicked Dirty Fives' (1923) shows his contribution to the development of the style. He recorded in Chicago & New York between 1922-32 appearing as an accompanist to some lesser known female Blues singers & also with his group 'Fowler's Washboard Wonders'.

Serious boogie fans will likely know something about Montana Taylor. His 1929 Vocalion recordings of 'Detroit Rocks' and 'Indiana Avenue Stomp' have appeared on numerous reissue compilations from the 1940s on. Less frequently heard are his accompaniments to Blues singer Bertha 'Chippie ' Hill recorded for Rudy Blesh's Circle Label in 1946. I dearly love these records (Worried Jailhouse Blues, Black Market Blues, Mistreatin' Mr. Dupree). Now let me state up front that if your ideal groove is Stevey Ray's 'Pride & Joy' you'll be stepping into a completely different time/space continuum here. We're talking washboard, kazoo, a nutty hardware store kind of scenario. There is a truly Dickenzian vibe to these tracks that is nothing short of transcendent.

Bertha 'Chippie' Hill
Bertha 'Chippie' Hill

On the awesome 'Black Market Blues' Chippie' (high points to her for having the nerve to use that as her professional name!) sings wistfully of easy life in a 'Project Home'(!) buying illegal beef, pork & nylons on the black market. Along with all this goes Montana Taylor's piano, lilting & mournful, yet solidly boogieing at the same time. This is the beauty of primitive music right here. The depth of nuance is staggering and the fact that they were able to achieve that out of such a rough-hewn set up is one of life's wonderful mysteries and the kind of thing that keeps me inspired to pursue my own musical path.

I've always been a big fan of the RCA Victor and Bluebird recordings of the 30s 40s & while certain writers would have you believe that nothing worthwhile was recorded in Chicago before Muddy Waters arrived there I would strongly assert that this was not the case. I've picked out three piano men who to my knowledge never recorded under their own names. Horace Malcomb was a member of the Harlem Hamfats, the group that originated the song 'Oh Red' which Howling Wolf later covered. Malcomb was equally comfortable with jazz (traditional) or blues. One of my favourite examples of his playing is on 'Block & Tackle' by Washboard Sam. The record features a comic dialog between Sam (real name Robert Brown) and Big Bill Broonzy. The two men are making their way to a rent party where they partake of a certain kind of moonshine known as 'Block & Tackle'. Horace Malcomb's accompanying piano really sets the scene. Although he was reputedly from New Orleans, Malcomb plays this tune in the St. Louis 'four to the bar' style associated with Henry Brown and James 'Stump' Johnson.

James Clark appears on a number of tracks with harmonica man Jazz Gillum who I consider to be a very under-rated performer. Sides like 'I'm Not the Lad' and 'Country Woman Blues' are some of my favourite records of all time featuring great performances by all the band members. James Clark also plays great piano behind Red Nelson on the classic 'Dirty Mother Fuyer' recorded for Aladdin in 1947. Nelson is also known for his fantastic sides with another great piano man Cripple Clarence Lofton. 'Streamline Train' is the best known of these although 'Dyin' Mother Blues', 'Married Woman' and the rollicking 'When the Soldiers Get Their Bonus' are equally deserving of attention. James 'Beale Street' Clark's last appearances are on some of Muddy Waters earliest recordings including 'Hard Day Blues' and 'I'm Gonna Cut Your Head'.

Joshua Altheimer was Big Bill Broonzy's first choice on piano until his untimely death at age 30 when he was replaced by a young Memphis Slim. Apparently from the town of Altheimer, Arkansas, Joshua had worked with Big Bill in that state before coming to Chicago. Also appearing with other RCA artists, Altheimer plays piano on John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson's highly regarded 'I've Been Dealing With the Devil' (194?). Billy Boy Arnold, who was greatly influenced by the first 'Sonny Boy' is a big fan of this record. In addition to being one the best examples of Mr. Williamson's music it prominently features Joshua Altheimer's piano playing - the solid boogie basses and trembling right hand figures - it's no surprise he was a sought after accompanist.

Well there you have it Friends. I hope this inspires you to check out some new music. There are a few more of these obscure cats that I'd be happy to talk about so there may be further episodes coming...

Carl Sonny Leyland