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Roosevelt Sykes

Roosevelt Sykes was one of the greatest blues pianists of all time. In a recording career that extended over five decades, Sykes displays a mastery of performing styles from barrelhouse to stride piano, from St. Louis boogie woogie to New Orleans blues.

Considered by musicians and music historians as the father of the modern blues piano style, Roosevelt Sykes possessed a beautiful voice and a unique keyboard style that was often imitated by other blues pianists, and he was the mentor for Memphis Slim. During the 1930s, he performed with sidemen ranging from jazz drummer "Big" Sid Catlett to slide guitarist James "Kokmo" Arnold. He also performed solo piano pieces. A genial man with a vibrant personality, Sykes was the consummate entertainer. He delighted audiences both in Europe and the United States with blues and ragtime-influenced songs filled with risque humor.

Roosevelt Sykes was born on January 31, 1906, in Elmar, Arkansas, a community he later described as “just a little sawmill town." In 1909, Sykes moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri. He often returned to his grandfather's farm near West Helena and played the organ in a local church. By 1918 he had taught himself the art of blues piano and, three years later, left home to work as an itinerant pianist in gambling establishments and barrelhouses throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. He led the life of a rambler, playing music in order to survive.

While in St. Louis, Sykes performed as a soloist and occasionally played with other musicians like guitarist Big Joe Williams. He later attributed his early piano influences to local St. Louis musicians such as "Red Eye" Jesse Bell, Joe Crump, and Baby Sneed. However, his most important mentor was "Pork Chop" Lee Green, who taught Sykes a rendition of the "Forty-Four Blues" piano style. "The Forty- Four Blues” was a popular theme in the South and many pianists attempted to master its intricate separated rhythms in the bass and treble."

In 1929 Sykes met Jesse Johnson, the owner of the Deluxe Record Shop in St. Louis. Sykes, who at the time performed at an East St. Louis club for one dollar a night, quickly accepted Johnson's invitation to a recording session in New York. Accompanied by Johnson, Sykes arrived at the Okeh Studios in New York in June of 1929. He recorded several numbers, including a version of "Forty- Four Blues" which featured vocals based on the theme of a .44 pistol. During the same year, while attending a recording session for Paramount, Sykes received the nickname "The Honey Dripper" from a song written by singer Edith Johnson. Although some people speculated that this nickname was a reference to Sykes's sexual prowess, Johnson contended that she gave him the nickname in reference to his kind disposition and outgoing personality.

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Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

Nasty But It's Clean

Catfish Records (UK)
2000

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Grind It! The Ann...

Riverside Records
1996

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The Meek Roosevelt...

Riverside Records
1976

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Feel Like Blowin' My...

Delmark Records
1973

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The Honeydripper's...

Riverside Records
1971

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