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The Story Is Told


Willie The Lion Smith b.jpg

Willie 'The Lion' Smith

Pianist Willie 'The Lion' Smith recalls:


'There was a place called the Douglass Club over on Twenty-eighth Street run by Edmond Johnson, an ex-pugilist, who owned his own night club for many years until he became a doorman. The Douglass was located one flight up above a stable. The piano man was a character known as Jumbo, and like Sewell, he was an old ragtimer ... One of the best ragtimers around was One-Leg Willie Joseph. You could catch him at a joint run by Mule Johnson and a man named Davis. Willie would walk in, park his crutch on the piano, and then proceed to take charge ...

'You see, before World War I, the profession of playing ragtime piano in saloons was very active and growing all the time. Many famous stars of music and entertainment started their careers that way. Jimmy Durante started playing ragtime at Diamond Tony's on Coney Island ... Then the great composer Irving Berlin was at one time a singing waiter at Nigger Mike's in Chinatown. Pianist-bandleader Vincent Lopez, famous for his version of Nola, started as a pianist on the honky-tonk circuit .....

I did not get to hear the above guys when they started out - they were either before my time or worked in saloons where Negroes were not found...

To get back to One-Leg Willie ... Yeah, Joseph was one of the best of the old-time ragtime players. He had original ideas and never played the same number the same way twice; the melody would stay the same, but he would always vary the harmony. He was fast, real fast, and his fingers and brain seemed to be working together like a flash of lightning ....

He later became one of the most celebrated cabaret owners in Harlem.

From Music On My Mind by Willie 'The Lion' Smith

Here is a scene from the movie Scott Joplin (1977) in which there is a competition between "professors" (brothel pianists) to win $100 from John Stark in Sedalia, Missouri. In the fictional movie story, Louis Chauvin, who is a better pianist but can't read or write music, teams up with Joplin and unleashes Maple Leaf Rag upon the public for the first time.

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