“Lord have mercy!” The man known both as “Piano Red” and “Dr. Feelgood” had some fun at the piano and in front of a live audience! His legendary left hand that Eubie Blake called “a left hand of God” was the foundation of his playing skills, his career, and some say, rock and roll itself. He began playing ragtime piano, jazz, and of course the blues in the Roarin’ Twenties.
Before Jerry Lee Lewis was a year old, William “Willie” Lee Perryman had begun working under the name of Piano Red. The two Louisiana natives also had the piano and “boogie woogie” in common. Perryman was living the blues and developing his style before and during the Depression. Venues available for a Black musician (who carried the albino gene) in this era (juke joints and bars with loud drunk crowds) resulted in the evolution of a driving musical style with shouted vocals. He didn’t get into a recording studio until 1933 and when he did, became RCA Victor’s first artist to hit the best seller list. Later he often played in the Atlanta Underground where his show was attended by admirers such as Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Eric Clapton.
The Lost Atlanta Tapes CD was recorded at the Excelsior Mill in Atlanta on October 11, 1984 just a few months before Red’s death in 1985. That fateful night, Red played in a trio with drummer James Jackson and bass player George Miller. The tapes were “lost” in storage for years and now are being released by Bang Bang LuLu Productions on Landslide Records. The entire show of eighteen songs was recorded and is complete on this CD, including eight previously unrecorded tracks.
Red’s showmanship and engaging interactions with the audience add to the charm of this live recording and those of us previously unfamiliar with him realize what we missed. “The reason why I’m doing this one is because I get so many calls for it.” “Everybody’s having a good time and this guy’s talking about getting it on, and we know a song called ‘Let’s Get It On’, so….let’s [pause] get it on!” “I don’t know how you felt when you come here, but you gonna be feeling good when you leave!” “We gonna do this thing about C.C.Rider because we get so much reaction. Here we goooooo!” “The old music spirit is beginning to move around in here now.” He can often be heard laughing in the background during longer musical interludes.
He introduces track ten with, “This is a number that I wrote and I got a gold record for it of course we have to do this one.” Then he raises his voice like a circus barker and shouts, “It’s called, ‘The Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yo Yo’ Yeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhh.” It puts all the elements of his experience together and fuses ragtime, jazz, and blues in a fast -paced, upbeat song that tells a funny story. No wonder it struck gold.
Later he tells us that track 17 was his first gold record, “It’s called ‘Rockin’ with Red’.” It’s easy for this reviewer to see the influence this man had on others as the recurring theme in this number is hauntingly similar to “Rock Around the Clock”. Track 7, “Shake, That’s All Right” could have easily been the inspiration for “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Several tracks brought a smile for me with memories of the fifties and my sister spinning 45s (She was a senior in high school in 1958 and I was in first grade.) including, “C.C. Rider,” “Corinna, Corinna”. I’d never heard the lyrics to “St. Louis Blues” as my familiarity with it was via Glen Miller and also the Tonight Show Band. It was amusing to think of the scene in the movie, The Glen Miller Story where the soldiers were marching to the “St. Louis Blues” and what it would be like if Piano Red had been singing!
The liner notes contain an informative and interesting eight page biographical sketch of Perryman by David Fulmer titled, “Piano Red — A Not So Quiet Legend”. The Lost Atlanta Tapes was released on August 17, 2010. Before his encore, “Dr. Feelgood”, Piano Red tips his hat to the Excelsior Mill and offers his signature closing remarks, “You’ve been a wonderful audience.” with the emphasis on “wonderful”.