The Jazz Groove — Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith

The Piano Man

illie The Lion Smith. Image: The Daily Mail

When the great migration from the Southern States of America to the north, especially Chicago and New York, a new generation of jazz musicians began to grow.

Music On My Mind is pianist Willie The Lion Smith’s memoir, with Willie supplying the words, and Esquire journalist George Hoefer supplying the paper and the typewriter. But Hoefer is so good you wouldn’t know he’d ever been there.

My copy is a 1964 Jazz Book Club hard back first edition, which I see cost me seven shillings and sixpence, plus one shilling post and package way back then. It was a great day for a young jazz fan when that little book popped through my letter box.

What a great story too.

There are four George Hoefer ‘Interludes’ in the book where the writer gives us a bit more of Willie’s background and music:

The status of Willie the Lion in modern American music defies easy categorization. Many so-called jazz originals are products of a single era or environment. The Lion has managed to assimilate and operate in different periods, amid many influences. He is a user, not a copier.

In jazz, we have had frequent examples of an artist who establishes a style of his own and thereupon makes it a lifetime presentation. This is encouraged by the audience, even though jazz itself is, or should be, unpredictably spontaneous and ever changing. Willie Smith, selecting, originating, ‘shifting gears’ to move with his own ideas of melody and showmanship, has progressed and grown musically through the years.

Hoefer is right. Willie The Lion Smith was always a true modernist musician and composer, in other words an artist who changes and helps populate the artistic horizon, as did Picasso and Hemingway, Chopin and Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Louis Armstrong and James Joyce, Paul Robeson, Giacomo Puccini and Duke Ellington, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Elgar, Delius and Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and a thousand others. He and they changed our lives, and are still changing our lives, even if we have no idea that our lives are being changed by them, even if we argue passionately against such an idea, we have and are being changed.

Willie kicks off his autobiography full blast:

The Lion is here. Full name: William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith. Quite a name. Takes in French and Jewish. What I’m going to tell you is all the true facts.

First, the Lion has always had music on his mind.

My mother used to say, ‘Willie, you’ve got a real truth to tell the people and you’ve got a God-given right to scream it at them. But you must remember — that sometimes the screaming won’t do any good.’

She spoke the truth. This world is full of chirpers, belchers, and flips from the funny papers who like to go out on the town. I learned to go home when my antennae picked up vibrations from the off-key kids and the whisky tenors. You might as well try making love to each member of a girl quartet at the same time as try playing your music when the vibrations are wrong. The Lion knows. He was born under Saturn, the get-it-the-hard-way planet.”

Born in Goshen, New York State, and as Willie says:

According to the birth certificate, I came into the world on November 25th, 1897. My mother had told me it was November 23. It doesn’t make any difference, because, using either date, I was born under Sagittarius, the ninth sign of the Zodiac, which indicates that the Lion is philosophical, religious, and inspirational. My life has been guided by the cosmic laws taught to me by my mother. She had Spanish and Negro blood, in addition to her Mohawk, and it was to her that I owe my musical feeling and volcano-like temper.

As Willie points out, Goshen was a good place to live, a “…sportin’ man’s town…” where his father, Frank Bertholoff, was a gambler, drinker and womaniser, who, according to Willie, never did a regular days work in his life. Willie’s mother soon became sick of seeing the money she earned wasted on Frank’s ‘chicks’ and gambling and, when Willie was two, threw him out.

The family, with a new step-father for Willie, moved to a large four room house in Newark. Willie’s step-father, John Smith, was a meat packer who was good to his stepson, but after a night shift of packing pork, invariably ended-up in a local bar where he got plastered and was often sent home in the back of a horse drawn meat wagon.

The millionaire owner of the meat packing plant, a Mr C.M. Bailey, was good to the Smith family, often giving them used high class clothing, including a pair of blue suede shoes that Willie wore with great pride. Willie The Lion Smith was always a natty dresser, which he puts down to wearing those high class hand-me-down clothes.

In 1912 the Smith family moved to a larger house in Harrison, New Jersey, where John gave up meat packing to become a mechanic, which earned him, in those early days of the automobile, a good deal of cash.

Willie always remembered those childhood years with fondness, with the two biggest musical influences from those days being the sound of babies crying and pigs slaughtered.

As he grew Willie learned to box early and never got bothered by the bigger boys at school. He got caught trying to steal money from the cash register of a fruit and vegetable shop, was taken to court and ordered to pay a fine by weekly instalments.

He then joined the school cadets which straightened him out and got him interested in sport, where he excelled in basketball.

Before his school days Willie found an old battered organ in the cellar of the family home. There was no going back. And by the time he went to school he’d become proficient on the piano having listened to his mother play in church. At school he was elected to play the piano before and after assembly, learning more tunes as the months went.

It was around the same time that his uncle Rob taught him to dance and sing, and it wasn’t long before he found the courage to walk into a bar and show off his skills. And with his continued attendance at church, where he heard new music of all kinds, and his piano playing at school, and at home on a new second-hand piano, plus his singing and dancing, that Willie The Lion Smith was born, with “…music on my mind, all the time.”

And it wasn’t long before Willie became part of a new movement of pianists who were grooving out a new path that would change the world of music, with James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion Smith climbing to the top.

New York called, as did World War One. Willie The Lion Smith served with distinction in both, and thereafter on the world stage.

Willie went on recording his music, and touring the world playing his music for the rest of his life, becoming something of a star of European TV — especially the BBC — in the 1960s.

If you’re into jazz, or just music, or social history of any kind, Willie The Lion Smith’s memoir, with typing by George Hoefer, is an absolute must.

In his Foreword to Willie’s book Duke Ellington writes:

“ The Lion has been the greatest influence on most of the great piano players who have been exposed to his fire, his harmonic lavishness, his stride — what a luxury. Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Count Basie…and of course I swam in it.”

Willie The Lion Smith Died in April 1973.

But then, for the jazz musician, the world gets bigger, as do the bands!


Nat Shapiro & Nat Hentoff — Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya (Peter Davies, London, 1955 — Penguin, 1962); Orrin Keepnews & Bill Grauer,Jr — A Pictorial History of Jazz (Spring Books, London, 1958); Willie The Lion Smith, with George Hoefer — Music on My Mind (The Jazz Book Club, with MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1966); Richard M. Sudhalter & Philip R. Evans, with William Dean-Myatt — Bix: Man & Legend (Quartet Books, London, 1974); Sidney Bechet — Treat it Gentle (Cassell, London, 1960, Corgi, London, 1964)…

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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