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Meade Lux Lewis: Low Profile, Great Influence

Sometimes, lesser known musicians are responsible for the direction that music takes.

Anderson Meade Lewis – better known as Meade Lux Lewis (the “Lux” is a childhood nickname that stuck) – is considered one of the main developers of boogie-woogie piano. Others are Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson and Lewis childhood friend Albert Ammons.

From YouTube. The fact that this apparently appeared in Life magazine suggests that boogie-woogie piano had a great impact.

Lewis’ first recording and best known song is “Honky Tonk Train Blues” in 1927. He recorded it twice more in the 1930s. Key moments in the evolution of the style were performances by Lewis, Ammons and Johnson at John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall presentations of “From Spirituals to Swing” during the holiday seasons of 1938 and 1939.

Those concerts led to the creation of Blue Note Records and set up the folk and blues revival that blossomed after World War II. Hammond played the deceased Robert Johnson’s music at the first concert, which was an important step in creating his mythic image. An interesting podcast on the two concerts is posted by The Blues File on WXPN, a University of Pennsylvania station.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding Lewis. Sources say he was born on September 3, 4 or 13, 1905 in either Chicago or Louisville, KY. He died in a traffic accident after a gig on June 7, 1964 in Minneapolis.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings provides a remarkably clear definition of boogie woogie: “Coming from early blues traditions though featured prominently in honky-tonks, juke joints, and barrelhouses, the boogie groove is at the heart of the American R&B and rock and roll traditions. The combination of the driving rhythm from the left hand and the stylized and syncopated bluesy improvisations from the right create a dynamic style which is percussive in force. Adapted for guitar, bass, horns, and other instruments, the boogie-woogie sound has become one of the most distinct idioms in the American blues repertoire.” Click here or on the image for an album featuring Lewis and other boogie woogie greats. All the greats at on this anthology offered by Amazon. Click here or on the image. It’s hard to resist an album entitled “Cat House Piano,” which is at iTunes.
Lewis also has another tiny but enviable presence in modern culture. He appears for a brief moment, uncredited, as a piano player at the beginning of the great scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which George Bailey and Clarence (Jimmy Stewart and Henry Travers) are thrown out of a Nick’s bar by Nick, played by Sheldon Leonard. Lewis’ music plays throughout the scene. (It’s not the only time that Stewart shared the screen with a superb musician in a classic movie, by the way.)

There is something to be said for being part of history: Lewis, according to Wikipedia, is mentioned in “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut and “The Moving Target” by Ross Macdonald.

The boogie-woogie influence is very much alive. Keith Richards was, of course, was a Chuck Berry disciple. Berry’s long-time collaborator Johnnie Johnson was a last link to the piano style made famous by Yancey Lewis, Ammons and Johnson. Berry performed “Roll Em, Pete,” a song credited to Johnson but also performed by Lewis, on Soul Train in 1973. It is a rather odd name to an easily recognizable tune.

The key is that it sounds just like a Chuck Berry song. It’s interesting to see how easily a type or style of music is updated and seamlessly integrated into the broader world of music.

Above is “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and below is “Roll ‘Em Pete.”

Smithsonian Folkway’s was excepted in the blue box.