Rock and roll is a conglomeration of numerous musical styles: country, blues, soul, and a touch of jazz. Listening to Delmark's compilation, Boogie Woogie Kings, provides a taste of rock's beginnings, the throbbing bass of the boogie woogie piano predicting the rhythms of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and other 1950s denizens.
Boogie Woogie Kings mostly features recordings made at Chicago's Sherman Hotel in 1939. Meade "Lux" Lewis amazes with his "Doll House Boogie," an improbable combination of blues with some notes sounding as if they are coming from a child's toy piano. Chicagoan "Cripple" Clarence Lofton demonstrates the winning combination of blues and swing with "I Don't Know," which resembles Louis Prima's brand of swing. His vocals may come straight from a blues background, but his driving piano compels listeners to dance. A relentlessly catchy track, "Boogie Woogie Prayer" is a tour de force, performed by Lewis, Pete Johnson, and Albert Ammons; listening to three pianos at once thrills, further emphasizing how no other instrumentation is needed to create a powerful song.
The sound quality of these recordings is pristine, such as on Ammons's "Pinetop Blues." Each note, from the bass line to the melody, can be heard perfectly. Listening to this track on headphones reveals how difficult boogie woogie piano is, the intricate notes working together to create the illusion of a full band.
Also included on the compilation are classics recorded in St. Louis after rock began to grow in popularity. Henry Brown's "Deep Morgan," recorded in 1960, contains elements of ragtime, while "22nd St. Stomp" features a bass line typical of '50s rock music. Speckled Red, hailing from the South, brings a decidedly New Orleans feel to his songs, his gritty vocals adding an element of danger. "Dirty Dozens's" rollicking rhythm sounds as if tailor-made for a lively nightclub. He also covers Clarence "Pinetop" Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," obviously enjoying the performance as he calls out to the audience. "Right String But the Wrong Yo Yo" may contain innuendo-filled lyrics (similar to early R&B tunes), but the dizzingly fast rhythm remains impressive. Both of these songs represent Red's last recordings, made in St. Louis in 1971.
The album closes out, appropriately, with "Closing Time," a Lewis composition that sonically emulates the winding down of a lively evening. Recorded at the Sherman Hotel, the song features crowd noise in the background, adding to the nightclub atmosphere. One can imagine Lewis sitting at his piano, playing the lazily swinging rhythm, with revelers sipping their drinks.
All tracks feature only piano—no other instrumentation is needed. Indeed, boogie woogie piano functions as the rhythm section, providing the background for the pianist's solos. These artists play with vigor, lending a full sound that resonates with the audience.
Boogie Woogie Kings provides an education in rock and roll's roots, showing how the genre borrowed from these early masters. Today, these recordings still sound fresh and somewhat rebellious, with the artists clearly enticing their audiences to dance instead of sitting quietly while listening to the music. The techniques of Ammons, Johnson, Lofton, Lewis, Brown, and Red still inspire awe, and this compilation demonstrates their early contributions to modern music.
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