Storyville Records

Smith, Willie The Lion

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (23 November 1893 – 18 April 1973), a.k.a. "The Lion", was an American jazz pianist and one of the masters of the stride style, usually grouped with James P. Johnson and Thomas "Fats" Waller as the three greatest practitioners of the genre from its Golden Age, c. 1920–1943. When Willie was about six, he went downstairs to the basement of his Academy Street home and found the organ his mother used to play. It was not in good shape, and nearly half of the keys were missing. After his mother discovered his interest in the instrument, she taught him the melodies she knew. One of the first songs he learned was Home! Sweet Home!. His uncle Rob, who was a bass singer and ran his own quartet, would teach Willie how to dance. Willie entered an amateur dance contest at the Arcadia Theater and won first place and the prize, ten dollars. After that, he focused more on playing music at the clubs. Willie had wanted a new piano very badly, but every time he thought his mother was able to afford it, there was a new mouth to feed. Willie got a job at Hauseman's Footwear store shining shoes and running errands, where he was paid five dollars a week. "Old Man" Hauseman paid that much because he liked the fact that Willie could speak Hebrew and also because Willie wanted to buy a piano with the money. As it turned out, Marshall & Wendell's was holding a contest: the object was to guess how many dots there were in a printed circle in their newspaper advertisement. Willie used arithmetic to help guess the number, and the upright piano was delivered the next day. From that day forth, he sat down at the piano and played. He would play songs he heard in the clubs, including Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, Cannonball Rag by Joe Northrup, Black and White Rag by George Botsford, and Don't Hit that Lady Dressed in Green, about which he said "the lyrics to this song were a sex education, especially for a twelve year old boy.". His other favorites picked up from the saloons were She's Got Good Booty and Baby, Let Your Drawers Hang Low. By the early 1910s he was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Smith served in World War I, where he saw action in France, and played drum with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn. He also played basketball with the regimental team. He returned to working in Harlem clubs and in rent parties, where Smith and his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride.” also after the war, where he worked for decades, often as a soloist, sometimes in bands and accompanying blues singers such as Mamie Smith. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a "musician's musician", influencing countless others including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw. In the 1940s his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe up to 1971. To leave the US, he needed a birth certificate. He went to the Orange County Courthouse and found it, but discovered that the birth certificate said he was born on November 25, in contradiction to his mother telling him he was born on November 23. Willie "The Lion" Smith died in New York City. His autobiography, Music on My Mind, The Memoirs Of An American Pianist, written with the assistance of George Hoefer, was published by Doubleday and Company in 1964. It included a generous foreword written by Duke Ellington. It also includes a comprehensive list of his compositions and a discography. His students included such notable names as Mel Powell, Brooks Kerr, and Mike Lipskin. With the latter, he made two albums: a two-LP set of playing and reminiscences, The Memoirs of Willie the Lion Smith, done in 1965, and an album of solos and duets from 1971: California Here I Come, which coincided with Mike's relocation from New York to Marin County. He was present during the taking of the famous jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem in 1958. However, he famously was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, leaving him out of the final picture. This is discussed in depth in Jean Bach's award-winning 1994 documentary on the history of this photo, released on DVD.

Recordings

Willie The Lion Smith / Henry James "Red" Allen: The Doctor Jazz Series Vol 9

Volume 9 in this exciting series takes us to the 'Central Plaza' to enjoy the company of jazz great Red Alien with some of the greatest players around! All selections previously unissued!