Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Willie "The Lion" Smith: “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “St. Louis Blues” (1966)

This is Willie “The Lion” Smith performing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and "St. Louis Blues” in Berlin in 1966.

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (1893 – 1973), aka "The Lion", was an American jazz pianist and one of the masters of the stride style. According to Smith, his father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish, and his mother Ida Oliver, had "Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood". "Frank Bertholoff was a light skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling." His mother threw Frank out of the house when "The Lion" was two years old. When his father died in 1901, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, NJ.

He served in the army France during World War I. Supposedly his nickname “The Lion” came as a result of his bravery while serving as an artillery gunner. He was a decorated veteran.

Well-known for his flamboyant behavior, ever-present cigar, and derby hat, Willie “The Lion” Smith was a master practitioner of Harlem stride – a jazz piano style also known as New York Ragtime. He had started performing as early as the 1910’s. After the war he worked as a soloist and accompanied blues singers such as Mamie Smith. In the 1940’s he grew in popularity and toured the United States and Europe until 1971 and recorded his final album in 1972. He died in 1973.

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