Clarence "Pine Top" Smith

Born: January 11, 1904, Orion, Alabama

Died 15 March 1929, Chicago, Illinois

Considered to be the originator of the boogie -woogie style of piano playing, Clarence "Pine Top" Smith was a vaudeville performer. He was raised in nearby Troy and first performed in public in Birmingham about the age of fifteen. From around 1920 Smith was based in Pittsburgh, and the following years he traveled with minstrel and vaudeville shows (including the TOBA circuit - Theatre Owners’ Booking Association) as a dancer, singer and comedian. Smith’s work on the circuits took him throughout the south where he worked with artists such as Butterbeans & Susie and Ma Rainey. He began to devote more of his energies to playing piano and, at the urging of Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport, made a few records.

In an interview with Downbeat magazine in 1939, Smith’s wife Sarah Horton said that her husband first started playing Pine Top's Boogie Woogie in Pittsburgh. Cow Cow Davenport recommended Smith to Mayo Williams of Brunswick/Vocalion records. Smith then moved with his family to Chicago in 1928. On December 29, 1928 Smith recorded his two breakthrough hits: Pine Top Blues and Pine Top's Boogie Woogie. This was the first time the phrase "boogie woogie" appeared on record.

On January 14 and 15, 1929 Smith recorded six more sides of his vaudeville repertoire for Vocalion records, including I'm Sober Now and Jump Steady Blues.

On March 13, 1929 Pine Top made an unissued recording of Driving Wheel Blues. Two days later, at age 25, his rising career ended. Smith was accidentally shot by a man named David Bell during a fight that broke out in a dancehall. He was survived by his wife and two children.

Boogie - Woogie

is a style of piano playing that developed around the turn of the 20th century, and had solid roots in New Orleans, Louisiana. This fast paced twelve-bar blues with a driving rhythm in the left hand spread from Southern black musicians up to the North. This style of music was played in "speakeasies" and in the "rent parties" of the Chicago black communities in the 1920’s and the early 30’s depression years.

The "eight beats to the bar" strumming rhythm style, adapted from blues guitar players, was well established in Chicago by 1920, but the name "boogie woogie" did not come into wide use until Clarence "Pine Top" Smith’s now famous recording.

In addition to Smith, other historic boogie -woogie players include Cripple Clarence Lofton, Speckled Red, Cow Cow Davenport, Jimmy Yancey (who inspired jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi), the younger Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson.

Boogie - Woogie was often referred to as "Barrelhouse Music." The lively style developed as a response from blues pianists to keep pace with the rowdy atmosphere and to be heard above the noise in the barrelhouses in which they performed.

Boogie - woogie became a national craze in the 1930’s and early 40’s but soon subsided. Often heard in big-band arrangements, the most successful version of The Original Boogie Woogie was Tommy Dorsey’s smash hit for Victor, recorded 1938 and reissued 1943. Later, with blues guitar players leading the way, the original boogie-woogie strumming style returned to the South. The style has remained an essential element in the repertoires of blues and country players up to the present day.

Recommended CDs:

Boogie Woogie & Barrelhouse Piano - Vol.1: The Complete Recordings of Pine Top Smith, Charles Avery, Freddie Redd Nicholson, and Jabo Williams (1928-32).