Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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SMITH, Willie 'The Lion'

(b William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, 25 November 1897, Goshen NY; d 18 April 1973, NYC) Pianist, composer; sometime vocalist. His mother played piano and organ; he began in ragtime, like Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake; then with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson one of the all-time great artists in the NYC style of stride piano: as with Roberts, the ragtime heritage bestowed upon The Lion a fondness for arabesques and distinctive harmonies. Stories about origin of his nickname included 'Lion of Judea' (one of his parents was Jewish), ferocity as a soldier in WWI ('It was a tough war, and I'm proud and happy that I won it'). He worked almost his whole life in NYC ('I would rather be a fly on a lamp post in Harlem than a millionaire anywhere else'); played on the first blues record (Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues' '20), toured Europe and North Africa '49-50. Passed judgement on the young Waller, helped Duke Ellington (who wrote 'Portrait Of The Lion'); other pupils included Mel Powell, Joe Bushkin, Artie Shaw, many others. With his derby and ever- present cigar, only Waller rivalled him as the archetypal tickler. Autobiography Music On My Mind '65 with George Hoefer was a delight (foreword by Ellington). More than 70 compositions included 'Contrary Motion', 'Echos Of Spring', 'Portrait Of The Duke', 'Rippling Waters'; songs like 'The Stuff Is Here And It's Mellow' with lyrics by Walter Bishop (successful Jamaican-born songwriter Bishop also wrote 'Swing, Brother, Swing', was father of pianist Walter Bishop Jr), Andy Razaf, others: 'Sweeter Than The Sweetest' '41 (words by Jack Lawrence) recorded by Glenn Miller. Recorded '20s-30s with many small groups: led by Mezz Mezzrow '34-6; septet Willie Smith and his Cubs on Decca '35-7 (sang very well on 'Swing Brother Swing'); with organist Milt Herth (b 3 November 1902, Kenosha WI; d 18 June 1969, Las Vegas) and drummer O'Neill Spencer '37-9 on Decca; duos and trios (Smith on celeste) with Bushkin and Jess Stacy '38, piano solos '39 on Commodore. With Sidney Bechet '41 on Victor, Max Kaminsky '44 on Brunswick; solo LP Musical Compositions Of James P. Johnson '53 on Blue Circle; playing, singing, talking on Reminiscing The Piano Greats '49 on Dial USA (Vogue in France), The Lion Roars '57 on Dot, The Legend Of Willie (The Lion) Smith '58 on Grand Award, two-disc Memoirs Of Willie The Lion Smith on RCA. With three others backed blues singer Lucille Hegamin (b Lucille Nelson, 29 November 1894, Macon GA; d 1 March 1970, NYC) on Songs We Taught Your Mother '61 on Prestige. Also solos on one side of Luckey And The Lion '58 on Good Time Jazz (Roberts overside); Grand Piano duets with Don Ewell '67, now on Sackville, A Legend on Mainstream, solo Pork And Beans '66 on Black Lion, Live At Blues Alley and Relaxing '70 on Chiaroscuro. Echoes Of Spring on a Milan CD is a '65 Paris concert.