Allow himself to introduce… himself!
Willie “The Lion” Smith was one of the progenitors of the Harlem Stride piano style; he is considered among the “Big Three,” along with James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller. During the 1920s, he gained a reputation as a hot piano player who could “rag the classics” or play some gutbucket. He, along with Johnson and Waller, provided the soundtrack for the rent parties in the private homes and small clubs of Harlem. He recorded rarely during the 1920s, but was the first musical director of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds and was the accompanist on “Crazy Blues,” the first blues recording ever released.
Here’s Willie discussing his early forays into jazz:
Willie’s family relocated to Newark, New Jersey, a move that would prove to make an indelible impression. “The Lion” was introduced to the school of East Coast Ragtime, as espoused by none other than James P. Johnson. The two, along with Johnson’s protege, Fats Waller, would become life-long friends (and cutting-contest competitors!).
In 1915, Willie entered the armed forces to fight in World War I; it was during the war, and because of his great valor, when Willie earned the moniker, “The Lion.” Upon returning from the war, Willie pursued the musical front: accompanying Mamie Smith on the aforementioned “Crazy Blues” and setting the blues craze ablaze.
Here’s “The Lion’s” definition of the Harlem style of piano (spoken in true “Lion” fashion!):
Perhaps the best way to understand “The Lion” is to give a listen. Here he is playing “Finger Buster”:
Throughout his career, “The Lion” led few bands, preferring the life of a solo performer. He remained very active until his death from cancer on April 18, 1973.
Here are some last words from “The Lion”: