One Friday night in 1929, a great boogie-woogie pianist was rocking the joint at a dancehall in Chicago. A rumbunctious crowd was celebrating payday, when an argument at the bar led to gunshots. A stray bullet hit the piano player in the chest. Pinetop Smith was 25 years old when he was killed.
Born in Troy, Alabama in 1904 and raised in nearby Birmingham, the young Clarence Smith taught himself piano to provide the music for dancing at parties in the days before poor people had records or radio.
As a teenager he moved to Pittsburg, where he was taken up by various touring musical companies, including Ma Rainey‘s show and an act called ‘Butterbeans and Susie‘ that played in tent-shows and small theatres. A fellow pianist on the TOBA circuit, Charles ‘Cow Cow’ Davenport, was playing a distinctive ragtime style with a walking bass figure in an act with singer Dora Carr, which sounded a lot like boogie-woogie. ‘Cow Cow’ suggested Clarence should check out the Blues scene in Chicago, where the growing Black population moving up from the South was providing a ready audience in the clubs and at rent-parties. Also the demand for ‘race records‘ meant it was possible to get studio work.
The first Boogie-Woogie record?
In Chicago, ‘Pinetop’ (given his nick-name by his mother because he was always climbing trees as a kid) shared an apartment block with two other young pianists, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis and Albert Ammons. The three friends often jammed together when they weren’t playing in the bars and house-parties of the ‘Black belt’ neighbourhoods, mixing rousing ‘barrel-house’ styles with soulful slow Blues songs. Although none would claim credit for inventing the ‘boogie-woogie’ piano style, Pinetop’s first recording session for Vocalion in 1928 produced the frenetic ‘Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie’. The lyric included the phrase “Hold it! Stop! Boogie-Woogie!” and the tune has the characteristic 12-bar structure and rock-steady, danceable left-hand patterns. This record was a big hit in Chicago and proved hugely influential among other players.