March 7, 1937: Boogie-woogie pianist Meade "Lux" Lewis records "Honky Tonk Train Blues."Added: 2008-03-03
By Joel Simpson
Meade Anderson Lewis was born September 4, 1905, in Chicago and died June 7, 1964 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a car accident. He came from a musical family. He acquired the nickname Lux because as a child he would imitate the excessively polite comic strip characters Alphonse and Gaston, calling himself the Duke of Luxembourg. His father, a Pullman car porter, insisted he play the violin as a child. At age 16, when his father died, Lewis switched to the piano after hearing local boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis was entirely self-taught on piano. He was a boyhood friend of Albert Ammons. Together they studied the music of Jimmy Yancey and other Chicago blues pianists. They also drove taxis together around 1924.
In 1927, Lewis recorded his boogie Honky-Tonk Train Blues, a driving boogie based on the sounds of the trains that rumbled past his boyhood home on South La Salle Street in Chicago as many as a hundred times a day. The record was released 18 months later in 1929, but attracted little attention. The recording company, Paramount, went out of business, and the record became almost impossible to obtain. Lewis did various things to survive at the time, the beginning of the Depression: he dug ditches for the Works Progress Administration and he returned to taxicab driving.
In 1933, jazz promoter/producer and record collector John Hammond (heir to the Hammond organ fortune) obtained a beat-up copy of Lewis's recording. He was so impressed with it that he embarked on a two-year search for the pianist. Hammond found Lewis in 1935, through Albert Ammons. Ammons was playing in Chicago's Club De Lisa, and he was the first person Hammond met who had ever heard of Lewis. Hammond found Lewis washing cars in a Chicago garage. After a few days practice Lewis got Honkey Tonk Train Blues back up to speed, and Hammond arranged a recording session to rerecorded it. The following year Hammond recorded Lewis's other classic, Yancey Special and booked him in a concert in New York. Following the concert Lewis performed at Nick's in Greenwich Village for six weeks, then returned to Chicago and applied for relief as an unemployed car washer.
Then in 1938 Hammond invited Lewis back to New York to perform in his legendary Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals to Swing along with boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. The performance was an enormous hit, setting off a minor riot among the fans and spawning a flood of boogie-woogie imitators. The boogie-woogie craze was on. The three pianists got together with blues singer Joe Turner and held down a long-term engagement at the Cafe Society Downtown.
Lewis had the most pianistically complex style of the three major boogie pianists. He had a vast repertoire of bass patterns and right hand riffs and figures. He was more intense and quicker than his mentor Jimmy Yancey, and he frequently varied his left hand by going into stride. He had a fertile musical imagination and technique to match. He could keep a single boogie going for 20 or 30 minutes by careful use of his material: each chorus would be based on a single technical idea, which he would conclude with an unexpected twist. He used the whole range of the piano. Sometimes choruses would be linked developmental and sometimes by dramatic contrast. He utilized dynamic variety and cross-rhythms much more than the other boogie pianists.
Lewis was an excellent whistler and could whistle the blues with the ease of a trumpet-like style. He recorded Whistlin' Blues in 1937. He also recorded blues played on the celesta and the harpsichord.
After the Peak
In 1941 Lewis moved to Los Angeles, where most of his appearances were relatively low-paying solo gigs. He made a number of short films in 1944 (an excerpt from one is included with this program) and appeared with Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans. He made frequent appearances on television during its early years. In 1952, along with Pete Johnson, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum he did a series of concerts on a U. S. tour entitled Piano Parade. In his later years he became frustrated at being identified purely as a boogie-woogie pianist, and his playing was frequently rushed and perfunctory.
Lewis's weight hovered around 290 pounds until he underwent medical treatments, gave up alcohol and restricted his diet. He died in a car accident June 6, 1964, in Minneapolis after a performance. Rear-ended at 80 miles per hour, his car was thrown into a tree, and he was crushed to death. The driver of the other car was seriously injured but survived.More facts on this day:
Bassist Alcide Pavageau born in New Orleans, LA.
Boogie-woogie pianist Meade "Lux" Lewis records "Honky Tonk Train Blues."
Chet Baker sings "You Don't Know What Love Is" for Pacific Jazz.
Sonny Rollins goes "Way Out West" for Blue Note Records.
Kenny Burrell meets John Coltrane at Rudy Van Gelder's studio.
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman record for Impulse Records.
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