Are You Ready For Some Boogie-Woogie?

boogie woogie2

Now, when I tell you to hold yourself, don’t you move a peg.
And when I tell you to get it, I want you to Boogie Woogie!

Those are some of the lyrics of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, recorded in 1928. The song consists entirely of instructions to dancers and is characterized by a regular bass figure in the left hand. Boogie-woogie is an African American style of piano-based blues that became popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but originated much earlier, and was extended from piano, to three pianos at once, guitar, big band, and country and western music, and even gospel. While the blues traditionally depicts a variety of emotions, boogie-woogie is mainly associated with dancing.

In 1938, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra recorded a piece entitled Boogie Woogie (sometimes also called T.D.’s Boogie Woogie). This recording was made popular by a smart Deane Kincaide arrangement for Tommy Dorsey’s band of the 1929 composition written by Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, a Chicago pianist who is also credited with coining the term, “Boogie Woogie.” It was a #3 hit for Dorsey in 1938, and is considered his most famous instrumental. And then in 1944, Dorsey’s recording came back on the Billboard charts, peaking at #5, and then again in 1945, this time reaching the #4 position on the Billboard charts.

Just why, exactly, the 1938 Dorsey version resurfaced in 1944-1945 is difficult to determine. One possible explanation is that following a sensational 1938 Carnegie Hall concert by such boogie woogie pianists as Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Pete Johnson, there was a renaissance of authentic boogie-woogie piano playing that helped to create a true boogie-woogie fever in the United States. This enthusiasm led to the acknowledgement of boogie-woogie as a musical form in its own right. It also provided acceptance, success and popularity to many of the pianists who until then had only been playing in the ghetto. The boogie-woogie wave took the swing orchestras to an even greater degree. Everywhere, the swing afficionados danced their breathtaking boogie figures. Every swing band of the period had several boogie-woogie songs in its repertoire. The boogie-woogie wave came to an end during the late 1940s due to increasing commercialism. However, boogie rhythm was back to the limelight in the mid to late 1950s, for boogie-woogie was one of the “parents” present at the cradle of the musical revolution called rock‘n’roll.

Here then is the 1938 Tommy Dorsey recording that was re-issued in 1944 and again in 1945.
Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, featuring Howard Smith, piano Boogie Woogie

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey


Let me now give a brief history of “boogie-woogie.” In this brief excursion into the land of the boogie-woogie, I have tried to provide the original recordings regardless of the quality of the sound reproduction, rather than cover versions of the songs I have described. That being said, please keep in mind that most of these recordings precede the modern era of high fidelity or stereo sound.

The origin of the term boogie-woogie is unknown, but there are some interesting linguistic precursors. Among them are four African terms, including the Hausa word Boog and the Mandingo word Booga, both of which mean “to beat,” as in beating a drum. There is also the West African word Bogi, which means “to dance,” and the Bantu term Mbuki Mvuki, which means, Mbuki – to take off in flight” and Mvuki – “to dance wildly, as if to shake off ones clothes.” The meanings of all these words are consistent with the percussiveness, the dancing, and the uninhibited behaviors historically associated with boogie-woogie music. Their African origin is also consistent with the evidence that the music originated among newly emancipated African Americans.

Boogie-woogie, or “barrelhouse” is a blues-based piano style in which the right hand plays an accompaniment figure that resembles a strummed rhythm, such as is typically played on the guitar or banjo in rural blues dances. This could be expressed as a walking octave, an open-fifth pounded out with a blue third thrown in, or even a simple figure such as falling triad; the approach varies with the pianist. The style probably evolved in the American Midwest alongside that of ragtime, to which it is closely related. The earliest description of the style occurs in print circa 1880.

As far as audio recordings are concerned, the first appearance of “Boogie” in the title of a recording appears to be a “blue cylinder” recording made by Edison of the American Quartet performing That Syncopated Boogie Boo in 1913. (heard here by the Premier Quartet, since I have been unable to locate a copy by the American Quartet)
Premier Quartet That Syncopated Boogie-Boo

“Boogie” next occured in the title of Wilbur Sweatman’s April 1917 recording of Boogie Rag. (Unfortunately, I do not have a copy as yet of this song.)
However none of these sheet music or audio recording examples contain the musical elements that would identify them as boogie-woogie.

The 1919 recording of Weary Blues by the Louisiana Five is the earliest sound recording that contain a boogie-woogie bass figure. (heard here)
Louisiana Five Weary Blues

Blind Lemon Jefferson used the term Booga Rooga to refer to a guitar bass figure that he used in Match Box Blues. (heard here)
Blind Lemon Jefferson Match Box Blues

Jefferson may have heard the term from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who played frequently with Jefferson. Lead Belly said he first heard boogie-woogie piano in the Caddo Lake Area of northeast Texas in 1899. Lead Belly was among the first guitar-players to adapt the rolling bass of boogie-woogie piano.

The first time the modern-day spelling of “boogie-woogie” was used in a title of a published audio recording of music appears to be Clarence “Pine Top” Smith’s December 1928 recording entitled, Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie, a song whose lyrics contain dance instructions to “boogie-woogie.” Smith’s record was the first boogie-woogie recording to be a commercial hit, and helped establish “boogie-woogie” as the name of the style. (heard here)
Clarence “Pine Top” Smith Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie

Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie was closely followed by another example of pure boogie-woogie, Honky Tonk Train Blues by Meade “Lux” Lewis, recorded by Paramount Records; (1927), first released in March 1930. The performance emulated a railroad trip. (heard here)
Meade “Lux” Lewis Honky Tonk Train Blues

When this new form of piano music moved from Texas, it moved out towards Louisiana and it was brought by people like George W. Thomas, an early pianist who was already living in New Orleans by about 1910 and writing New Orleans Hop Scop Blues. George W. Thomas composed the theme of the New Orleans Hop Scop Blues – in spite of its title – basing it on the blues he had heard played by the pianists of East Texas, which really had some of the characteristics of the music that we came to know as Boogie. (heard here)
Jimmie Noone and his Orchestra New Orleans Hop Scop Blues

George Thomas and his brother Hersal Thomas migrated from Texas to Chicago, and brought boogie-woogie with them. They were an immense influence on other pianists, including Jimmy Yancey, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Albert Ammons and many others. Many elements that we now know as elements of boogie-woogie are present in Hersal and George Thomas’ The Fives. (heard here)
Count Basie and his Rhythm The Fives

The Thomas brothers’ musical composition, deserves much credit for the development of modern boogie-woogie. During the 1920s, many pianists featured this number as a “get off” tune and in the variations played what is now considered boogie-woogie. Indeed, all modern boogie-woogie bass figures can be found in The Fives, including swinging, walking broken-octave bass, shuffled (swinging) chord bass (of the sort later used extensively by Ammons, Lewis, and Clarence “Pine Top” Smith), and the pervasive “oom-pah” ragtime stride bass. The thing that made The Fives so special was the greater amount and variety of boogie-woogie bass figures that were present in the music as compared to boogie-woogie bass figures that had been present in previously published sheet music, such as the already mentioned 1915 Weary Blues by Artie Matthews. In February 1923, Joseph Samuels’ Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded The Fives for Okeh Records, considered the first example of jazz band boogie-woogie.

The cover of the The Five’s (usually referred to as The Fives without an apostrophe), copyright registered in 1921 by Hersal and George, and published in 1922

The cover of the The Five’s (usually referred to as The Fives without an apostrophe), copyright registered in 1921 by Hersal and George Thomas, and published in 1922

A song entitled Tin Roof Blues was published in 1923 by the Clarence Williams Publishing Company. Compositional credit is given to Richard M. Jones. The Jones composition uses a boogie bass in the introduction with some variation throughout. (heard here)
New Orleans Rhythm Kings Tin Roof Blues

Jimmy Blythe’s recording of Chicago Stomps from April 1924 is sometimes called the first complete boogie-woogie piano solo record. (heard here)
Jimmy Blythe Chicago Stomps

Boogie-woogie gained significant public attention in 1938 and 1939, thanks to the From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall promoted by record producer John Hammond. The concerts featured Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson performing Turners tribute to Johnson, Roll ‘Em Pete, now considered to be an early rock and roll song. (heard here)
Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson Roll ‘Em Pete

In addition to Roll ‘Em Pete, Meade “Lux” Lewis performed the above mentioned Honky Tonk Train Blues and Albert Ammons played Swanee River Boogie. (heard here)
Albert Ammons and his Rhythm Kings Swanee River Boogie

These three pianists, with Turner, took up residence in the Café Society night club in New York City where they were popular with the sophisticated set. They often played in combinations of two and even three pianos, creating a richly textured piano performance.

After the Carnegie Hall concerts, it was only a matter of time for swing bands to incorporate the boogie-woogie beat into some of their music. Tommy Dorsey’s band had a hit with an updated version of Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie in 1938, which was the swing era’s second best seller.(heard above)

From 1939, the Will Bradley Orchestra had a string of boogie hits such as the original versions of Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar) (The term “eight to the bar,” means much of the song is written in common time (4/4) time using eighth notes, called quavers), and Down The Road A-Piece, both 1940, and Scrub Me Mamma With A Boogie Beat, in 1941. (all three songs are heard here)
Will Bradley and his Orchestra, featuring Ray McKinley and Freddie Slack Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar) Part 1
Will Bradley and his Orchestra, vocals by Ray McKinley Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar) Part 2
Will Bradley Trio, vocals by Ray McKinley and Will Bradley Down The Road A-Piece
Will Bradley and his Orchestra, vocals by Ray McKinley Scrub Me Mama, With A Boogie Beat

The Andrews Sisters sang some boogies, and after the floodgates were open, it was expected that every big band should have one or two boogie numbers in their repertoire, as the dancers were learning to jitterbug and do the Lindy Hop, which required the boogie-woogie beat. (heard here is an Andrews Sisters boogie woogie)
Andrews Sisters, Vic Schoen and his Orchestra Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Of Company C

Among the many pianists who have been exponents of this genre, there are only a few who have had a lasting influence on the music scene. Perhaps the most well known boogie-woogie pianist is Albert Ammons. His Boogie Woogie Stomp released in 1936 was a pivotal recording, not just for boogie-woogie but for music. (heard here)
Albert Ammons and his Rhythm Kings Boogie Woogie Stomp

In 1939, country artists began playing boogie-woogie when Johnny Barfield recorded Boogie Woogie. (heard here)
Johnny Barfield Boogie Woogie

Cow Cow Boogie was written for, but not used in, the 1942 movie Ride em Cowboy. This song by Benny Carter, Gene DePaul, and Don Raye successfully combined boogie-woogie and Western, or cowboy music. The lyrics leave no doubt that it was a Western boogie-woogie. It sold over a million records in its original release by Ella Mae Morse and Freddie Slack. (heard here)
Freddie Slack and his Orchestra, vocals by Ella Mae Morse Cow Cow Boogie

The trickle of what was initially called hillbilly boogie, or Okie boogie (later to be renamed country boogie), became a flood beginning around late 1945. One notable country boogie from this period was the Delmore Brothers Freight Train Boogie, considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. (heard here)
Delmore Brothers Freight Train Boogie

In 1948, Arthur Smith achieved Billboard Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of Guitar Boogie and Banjo Boogie, with the former crossing over to the pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar. (both songs are heard here)
Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith Guitar Boogie
Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith Banjo Boogie

The hillbilly boogie period lasted into the 1950s. The last recordings of this era, the exciting, driving boogie-woogie records, The Shot Gun Boogie and Blackberry Boogie, were made by Tennessee Ernie Ford with Cliffie Stone and his Orchestra, with the great guitar duo Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. (both songs are heard here)
Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliffie Stone and his Orchestra The Shot Gun Boogie
Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliffie Stone and his Orchestra Blackberry Boogie

I’ll end this brief history with two boogie songs that Bill Haley and the Saddlemen recorded in 1951. Haley, one of the early stars and legends of Rock and Roll, recorded several sides for Holiday Records, two of those songs being Sundown Boogie and Green Tree Boogie. (both songs are heard here)
Bill Haley and the SaddlemenSundown Boogie
Bill Haley and the Saddlemen Big Green Tree Boogie
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So now that you have this brief history, sit back, relax and enjoy the sound of boogie-woogie!


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One response to “Are You Ready For Some Boogie-Woogie?

  1. Pingback: Big Maceo Merriweather – Worried Life Blues | mostly music

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