A brilliant keyboard virtuoso, Earl “Fatha” Hines was one of the first great piano soloists in jazz, and one of the very few musicians who could hold his own with Louis Armstrong. His so-called 'trumpet' style used doubled octaves in the right hand to produce a clear melodic line that stood out over the sound of a whole band, but he also had a magnificent technical command of the entire range of the keyboard.
Earl Kenneth Hines was born into a musical family in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, on December 28, 1905. His father worked as a foreman at the local coal docks and played cornet with the Eureka Brass Band, a group that performed at picnics and dances. His mother, played organ and gave him his first piano lessons. Hines's sister, Nancy, also played organ, and his brother, Boots, played piano; his aunt sang light opera and his uncle played a variety of brass instruments. At age nine Hines started taking piano lessons, but he soon outgrew his teacher. He then studied classical technique under Von Holz, a teacher who introduced him to exercise books, and began to dream of becoming a concert pianist.
In his teens Hines moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended Schenley High School and continued to study music. His musical direction changed abruptly when family members took Hines to the Liederhouse, a club featuring jazz, and he fell in love with the rhythm-filled music. After discovering the burgeoning jazz scene, he abandoned his plans to play classical music and immersed himself in jazz. At age 15 he formed a group with a violinist and drummer, and soon the trio was performing at high school functions, nightclubs, and church socials. Because Hines worked many late-night engagements, he decided to leave school when he was 16.
In 1922 Hines went to work with singer/band leader Lois B. Deppe at the Liederhouse, where he earned $15 a week. The band made forays into West Virginia, Ohio, and New York City, and in 1923 the young pianist traveled to Richmond, Indiana, where he attended his first recording session. In 1924 Hines led his own band for a short time and then, following the advice of pianist Eubie Blake, he moved to Chicago. In Chicago he met a cadre of first-class musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Benny Goodman, who were beginning to re-write the rules of jazz. In 1927 he joined with Armstrong and Zutty Singleton, and the trio performed a regular gig at the Café Sunset, an establishment that catered to gangsters and other high-dollar rollers. When the club temporarily closed in 1927, the band broke up and Hines joined clarinetist Jimmy Noone's band at the Apex Club. Armstrong, however, would soon call again, and together the old friends would make jazz history.