HARLEM PIANO, New Orleans jazz, and country blues have this in common: once the giants are gone there can be no one 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 parties, 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 Beans. 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.
NOTHIN’ (Time: 3.14.)
SPANISH FANDANGO (Time: 3.17.)
RAILROAD BLUES (Time: 2.09.)
COMPLAININ’ (Time: 3.03.)
INNER SPACE (Time: 7.20.)
OUTER SPACE (Time: 2.49.)
The compositions on Side 1 are all by Luckey Roberts, published by Luckey Roberts Music, Inc. ASCAP.
WILLIE “THE LION” SMITH
MORNING AIR (Leo Feist, Inc. ASCAP. Time: 2.38.)
Recorded March 18, 1938 in New York City under the supervision of Nat Hentoff. David B. Hancock was the recording engineer. Produced by Lester Koenig.
RELAXIN’ (Composers Music. ASCAP. Time: 3.47.)
RIPPLING WATER (Leo Feist, Inc. ASCAP. Time: 2.03.)
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler. (Mills Music, Inc. ASCAP. Time: 4.02.)
TANGO LA CAPRICE(Leo Feist, Inc. ASCAP. Time: 3.37.)
CONCENTRATIN’ (Leo Feist, Inc. ASCAP. Time: 4.01.)
All the compositions on Side 2 except Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea are by Willie ’The Lion” Smith.
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 superviser”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.: “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 I. 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 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 dubs, 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 oversentimentalize 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-dass 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 tunes, 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
Mr. Hentoff is co-editor of the monthly Jazz Review, and co-author (with Nat Shapiro) of two books, The Jazz Makers and Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, both published by Rinehart.
Cover photo of Willie “The Lion” Smith (left) and Luckey Roberts (right) in Harlem by Lee Friedlander. Cover design by Guidi/Tri-Arts. Album © 1960 by Contemporary Records, Inc. Printed in U.S.A.
CONTEMPORARY RECORDS INC, P.O.BOX 2628, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA 90028