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Piano Red - The Lost Atlanta Tapes

Landslide Records

18 tracks

Total time: 60:52

Blues piano legend Piano Red was the younger brother by 17 years of another blues piano legend, Speckled Red. Born William Lee “Willie” Perryman in 1911, Piano Red had a musical career that lasted half a century, and which extended from playing for rent parties and fish fries as a teenager to travelling with Blind Willie McTell, playing in the barrelhouses during the Depression years, becoming a vital force in rock ‘n’ roll, and finally being recognized as the artist he was at the end. He played the blues festivals in Europe and the U.S.; had as avid fans blues-rockers Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Bill Wyman; was the subject of a song written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham; performed at the inauguration of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt; recorded two blues classics in 1951 which both went gold; and was even lucky enough to have fairly steady work from the 1950s on, hosting his own radio show on Atlanta’s WOAK from 1953-1967, touring the South as Dr. Feelgood and the Interns in the 1960s, and performing regular gigs at Atlanta’s Muhlenbrink’s Saloon and, later, at the Excelsior Mill. It was at the Excelsior Mill where The Lost Atlanta Tapes was recorded as a live show on October 11, 1984, when Red was 73 years old. Or young (at least vocally, and as a piano player), which is what this exciting, joy-to-listen-to CD certainly demonstrates.

This just-over-an-hour live recording can justifiably claim to be an historical event, capturing as it does not only 18 tracks of scintillating blues performed by one of its major piano artists and vocalists, but also a slice of blues music history in the wide-ranging repertoire of material handled—from such very early blues classics as “St. Louis Blues” (track 13), “C.C. Rider” (track 5) and Leadbelly’s folk staple, “Cotton Fields,” (track 8) through Piano Red’s three (yes, three!) distinctive signature songs from the 1950s and 1960s: “Rockin’ with Red” (his first gold record, track 17), “The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo) (his follow-up hit to “Rockin’ with Red,” and also a gold record in 1951; track 10), and the ending track, “Dr. Feelgood” (Red’s radio show gave him a second moniker, Dr. Feelgood, under which he recorded an LP, with this song issued as a smashing rock ‘n’ roll single which I heard as a teenager in Illinois in 1962).

Of the 18 tracks on The Lost Atlanta Tapes, seven are previously unreleased. Nine of the tracks are Piano Red originals: in addition to the three signature songs given above, on the CD are also opening tracks 1 and 2, “She’s Mine” and ‘My Baby’s Gone;” track 4, “Let’s Get It On; “Baby, Please Don’t Go, “track 6 (quite different from the Big Joe Williams classic); “Let’s Have a Good Time Tonight,” track 12; and “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Lowdown Dog No More,” track 14. Piano Red introduces “My Baby’s Gone” with the comment, “I used to live the blues years ago, an’ that’s when I learned to play ‘em,” most apt commentary on the essence of the blues, even when exuberantly played and sung, as they are on The Lost Atlanta Tapes. For always underneath the exuberance, the dialectic of rocking music combined with poignant lyrics, is the reality of Black life that’s expressed in Sonny Boy Williamson I’s line, “Laughin’ just to keep from cryin’,” and which Piano Red notes matter-of-factly as “I used to live the blues….” For The Lost Atlanta Tapes is a happy album, a felicitous and entertaining performance; yet, at bottom, the blues is always more than entertainment, even when it entertains.

Accompanying Piano Red here are James Jackson, drums, and George Miller, stand-up bass, who also sing and shout, both individually and together, in call-and-response chorus and exclamations on several of the songs. Just this minimal accompaniment is all that’s needed, for Piano Red’s strong left hand driving the rhythm, and his right hand filling the spaces with elegant playing of the higher notes, do everything else. Already in the 1930s Red was playing in a rocking, rhythmic, danceable style that made him a natural when the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll came along in the mid- to-late-1940s. Indeed, what’s quite noticeable about Piano Red’s playing here on The Lost Atlanta Tapes is his ability to combine older stride, boogie and jump styles with more modern R&B sounds, which is precisely what ranks him among the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. His vocals partake of modern sounds too, with frequent gospel-like shouts and exclamations, and he spreads an infectious excitement throughout in both his vocals and in his stage patter. Piano Red was known as a showman as well as a great musician; that comes through beautifully on this CD, even though we can’t see him. We know we are at a great show, just by listening.

There are many shades and colors in the music here, with the slower, sadder numbers comfortably rubbing shoulders with up-tempo rockers. There’s even numbers here that could be said to be unvarnished rock ‘n’ roll, such as track 7, “Shake, That’s All Right,” where the left hand drives a churning rock riff throughout, and Red sings and plays the high notes in a style that’s reminiscent of a slightly subdued Jerry Lee Lewis. Indeed, tracks 7-10, “Shake, That’s All Right,” “Cotton Fields,” “Corrina, Corrina” (track 9), and “The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo)” can be seen as a rock ‘n’ roll mini-set. Red renders Roosevelt Sykes’s “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” track 16, as one minute and 16 seconds of incandescent piano-and-vocal-driven energy.

Slowing the tempo down are two pop ballads that Piano Red has adapted to the blues, track 3’s “That’s My Desire” and track 15’s “Pay It No Mind.” There’s also Robert Lockwood Jr.’s “Blues and Trouble” (track 11), a sad and moody song played with a dialectical exuberance as if to say I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’. Thus can The Lost Atlanta Tapes be justly considered a one-CD crash course in the meaning of the blues.

David Fulmer’s excellent accompanying notes are six pages of vital information, and are interspersed with a photo of Piano Red in his later years, a music trade publication excerpt on his success in 1951, and a picture of him with his R&B band, the Interns, from the 1960s. The note jacket cover reproduces a neo-primitive painting by Al Simpson, “Piano Red Rockin’ the Blues.” These notes and graphics thus round out another excellent CD from the justly-noted Southern roots small label, Landslide Records.

Reviewer George "Blues Fin Tuna" Fish hails from Indianapolis, Indiana. He wrote the liner notes for Yank Rachell’s Delmark album, Chicago Style and has written a regular music column for several years.

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