Piano Red Perryman

I Once Was Lost But Now Am Found: Atlanta's Fabled Bluesman Emerges from the Shadows

Willie Lee "Piano Red" Perryman. Photo courtesy Tony Paris Archives

Willie Lee “Piano Red” Perryman. Photo courtesy Tony Paris Archives

“The old music spirit is beginning to move around in here now. I gets it from the universe, and I’m fixing to pass it out there to you.”

If legendary roots musician Piano Red sounds a tad boastful in that quote, maybe he’s entitled. (Like the others below, it comes from his stage patter on the newly released live CD Piano Red: The Lost Atlanta Tapes.) Not a lot is known about Red, though in a handful of interviews, he comes across as modest and self-effacing. Shocking though the idea may be in today’s showbiz world, he gives the impression that it’s the music that counts, not the musician.

But like all the great ones, Piano Red is both of his time and above it, and if he felt like saying so to a well-oiled audience at Atlanta’s Excelsior Mill one evening in 1984, why not? Like other of his utterances, this one comes with a wink, but in no way should his sly demeanor undercut his importance as one of the giants of our time.

One task of the historian is to spotlight the men and women who are the real glue in our culture, who hold the house together yet are no more visible than the nails that keep the walls and ceiling intact. In recent months, a pair of devoted music enthusiasts has done just that. Thanks to two Atlantans, restaurateur Michael Reeves and writer and producer David Fulmer, a key figure in our shared history is stepping into the light of day.

Well, not full daylight, maybe. It’s hard to imagine William Lee Perryman, better known as Piano Red, in any ambience other than that of a hazy saloon, a place where he could beat a piano silly and shout the blues as only he could.

In that saloon are many mansions, though; the doors lead both back and forward in time, and Piano Red’s varied career covers the full panoply of American roots music in the twentieth century. His roots reach back to the kings of ragtime and jazz, James P. Johnson and his pupil Fats Waller; in interviews, the self-taught Red says that one of his early influences was the Fats Waller records his mother brought home, and critics have compared his mastery of the difficult stride method, in which the left hand travels long distances across the keyboard, to that of the better-known Waller.

As his career developed, Piano Red found himself part of another great movement in American music. The wandering blues troubadour is personified by Robert Johnson, but hundreds of others plied their trade on the circuit, chasing that dollar from one juke joint to the next. During the Depression, Red joined such Georgia bluesmen as Barbecue Bob Hicks and his brother Charlie, Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell as they wandered the Peach State as well as Alabama and Tennessee, looking for a well-paying gig or at least one that promised a hot meal, a jar with something stronger than sweet tea in it, and a place to stay.

For an apt pupil, hard times can be the best teacher. Playing in dives taught Red how to hold an audience; his songs were quick, spirited, and loud. In the 1950s, as so-called “race music” began to morph into rhythm and blues and then rock ’n’ roll, Red found himself on the cusp of change again, and he helped create a standard that influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other members of rock’s nobility, many of whom later came to pay him court during their American tours.

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Piano Red

From ragtime to rock, then, Piano Red doesn’t so much bestride the musical universe as sit happily at its center, hands poised over the keys of an upright piano, the wrinkles of his face obscuring every feature except a big toothy grin. In one of his most widely circulated photos, Red sports a straw fedora and a shirt whose pattern resembles that of the wallpaper in a cheap hotel; his mouth seems to be on the verge of opening, and he looks like a leprechaun getting ready to tell you what you need to know.

Now no true keeper of the secrets is going to give everything away, but today we have a lot more of Red than we used to, thanks to Michael Reeves and David Fulmer, co-producers of Piano Red: The Lost Atlanta Tapes, released by Landslide Records on Aug. 17 in North America and Aug. 23 in Europe. Produced by Bang Bang Lulu Productions, the CD features 18 songs recorded live at Atlanta’s Excelsior Mill in 1984. Piano Red’s last recording, it features a mix of Red’s classics and fan favorites as well as eight previously unreleased numbers.

Piano Red was born William Lee Perryman or “Willie” in Hampton, Georgia, on Oct. 19, 1911, the son of a blacksmith. Sources differ as to how many brothers and sisters he had—some say as many as 15—but one much older brother, Rufus, who, like Willie, was an albino, was already an accomplished musician by the time Willie was born and performed and recorded under the name of Speckled Red. The family moved to Atlanta when Willie was six years old, and though he traveled widely, the capitol remained his home for most of his life.

Both brothers had the poor vision associated with albinism, so neither took formal music lessons. But their mother bought them an old Gainsborough upright piano, and they learned to play by ear. Willie recalled imitating Rufus’s style after watching him play, but more likely he learned more from imitating Fats Waller. As he says in David Fulmer’s excellent liner notes to the CD, he taught himself to play by “ping-pongin’ around, just bangin.’”

By his teens, Willie was good enough to play at rent parties and fish fries, where he perfected the barrelhouse style that allowed him to be heard over laughter, drunken shouts, fist fights, breaking glass and the freight trains that sometimes lumbered past. During the Depression, he hit the road along with his fellow troubadours, hitching rides to wherever the music was. He also began to work as an upholsterer, often spending his weekdays at that trade and playing clubs on the weekend.

During this period, he acquired the name Piano Red. At some point RCA Victor scout Steve Sholes caught word of a wild man down in Atlanta who played a bughouse piano and could sing over a bar full of drunks. He signed Piano Red to the label and on May 5, 1950, “Rockin’ with Red” became RCA’s first hit on the rhythm and blues chart; a newspaper article from June 16, 1951, shows Red in shirt and suspenders under a headline that reads “Piano Red First Victor R & B Artist to Hit Best Seller List.” Though there are many equally worthy candidates for the honor, “Rockin’ with Red” is sometimes called the first rock ’n’ roll record.

“Red’s Boogie,” also recorded at the WGST radio studios in Atlanta like “Rockin’ with Red,” made the Billboard R&B chart as well, as did his most famous composition, “The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo).” This thinly disguised treatise on sexual incompatibility has been covered by so many singers that most of the lyrics websites attribute it to “various artists.”

Publicity photo of Piano Red

Publicity photo of Piano Red circa 1970

Piano Red’s recording success meant he could say goodbye to the upholstery business. Always on the lookout for the next paying job, though, in the mid-’50s he worked as a disc jockey on radio station WAOK in Atlanta, broadcasting “The Piano Red Show” directly from a small shack in his back yard. Later his slot became “The Dr. Feelgood Show”; as Red explained to writer Tony Paris, “I’d tell the people I’m going to make them feel young and good, the old folks feel young and young folks feel good. I got so much mail from people telling me how good I made them feel, I started calling myself ‘Doctor Feelgood.’”

 

He kept the show going for 14 years and the nickname for the rest of his life. In the early ’60s, he capitalized on the popularity of such doctor shows as Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey on television and formed a group called Dr. Feelgood and the Interns. Their hit “Dr. Feelgood” got the attention of British bands; several covered the tune, and four mopheads from Liverpool recorded the record’s B side, a song called “Mr. Moonlight” that was written by guitarist Roy Lee Johnson.

“Everybody loved Red,” recalls Johnson. But business was business, and “Red didn’t go nowhere unless he got his price.” The band played fraternity houses up and down the East Coast, and at every stop, Red insisted that his musicians show up on time with hair cut and shoes shined, and he often put them through six or seven costume changes per show. In the segregated South, his albinism sometimes made the difference between the band getting fed and not: “Red would walk into some place to get food for us,” Johnson remembers, “and they didn’t know what he was!”

In fact, like many other roots musicians, he was more appreciated abroad than at home and toured Europe extensively in the 1960s and 1970s. Back in the States, he got a nightly gig at Muhlenbrink’s Saloon in Underground Atlanta from 1969 to 1979. Visiting musicians playing venues like the Omni and the Fox Theatre dropped by regularly to pay their respects, including Eric Clapton and members of The Rolling Stones. Later, Piano Red opened shows for Peter Tosh and Keith Richards’ band, The New Barbarians; Richards once demanded that a grand piano be taken apart and reassembled in a hotel suite for Red’s use. When Muhlenbrink’s closed its doors, Red began a regular gig at the Excelsior Mill in 1981.

Which brings us to the CD.

Lost Atlanta Tapes

“I know you’re going to like it, and I’m going to give you exactly what you likes, and this is it.”

In the late ’70s, restaurant and music club entrepreneurs Rocky and Michael Reeves took over The Excelsior Mill (now the Masquerade), a hundred-year-old factory, turned it into an entertainment hall, and hired Red to play four nights a week. Not long after, Red buttonholed Michael Reeves and told him he wanted to cut a live album. The arrangements were made, and the recording happened on a random night. “As always, he put on a show,” Reeves says.

Piano Red: The Lost Atlanta Tapes is that show. It’s a raucous affair; on the disc, you can hear Red grab the audience’s attention, lose it and reel it in again. Between songs, the level of crowd noise is often deafening; for a more intimate Red, you might want to listen to the vinyl LP from Arhoolie Records called Piano Red: Dr. Feelgood All Alone With His Piano.

But The Lost Atlanta Tapes really captures the excitement of actual performance. Piano Red and his brothers and sisters in roots music were playing for drunks, makeout artists, and lowlifes (not to mention music lovers) long before anyone ever shoved a studio mike in their direction, and as you listen to Red work his show here, you get a sense of what it must have been like in the ’30s as his devotees fanned themselves in a roadhouse and tossed some change into the bluesman’s hat.

The Excelsior Mill was a family place; independent radio producer Philip Graitcer remembers taking his young sons there for pizza and says, “The kids climbed all over the stage, but Piano Red didn’t mind. He made everybody smile.”

Still, most of Red’s double entendre-laden hits are on the CD, including “Rockin’ with Red.” One of the most important lessons the Beatles and other English groups learned from showmen like Red was how to disguise an ode to sex as a harmless ditty, and while he mentions “a rockin’ chair” in the first verse, the rest of the song is devoted to his baby’s skill as a rocker: “She sure can rock me / Ooh, rock me, rock me / If ya ever been rocked / You know just what I mean.”

But Piano Red pulls back and croons quietly on slow-drag blues like “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” one of the eight songs never recorded previously. There are several cover songs on the disc, though he puts a distinctive stamp on each: “Cottonfields” sounds like an upbeat gospel tune, “Corinna, Corinna” has a ragtime sound to it, and Red adds a New Orleans-style syncopation to “St. Louis Blues.”

One of the best features of this recording is that it reminds you of the closeness of rhythm and blues to country music. Both R&B and country are poor folks’ genres, and if you had a song that you thought might pry a hard-earned quarter out of somebody’s pocket, you didn’t ask who wrote it; you tuned up and played. “The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo)” was covered by country artists like Carl Perkins and Ferlin Husky, and on the CD Red plays and sings country numbers like “Pay It No Mind” and “That’s My Desire,” prefacing the latter with the simple comment that “the reason why I’m doing this one is because I gets so many calls for it.”

Michael Reeves remembers Red’s final months at the Excelsior Mill. “Sometimes he would have trouble getting up the steps to the stage,” he says. “He would have to stop for a minute. But he always made it. And he’d rock the place.”

Then came the day Reeves received a call from a family member who explained that Red was not feeling well enough to play that night. “The next I heard,” says Reeves, “he was gone.” Piano Red died at in Atlanta’s DeKalb General Hospital on July 25, 1985.

All these years, Reeves, who co-founded the Mellow Mushroom chain of pizza restaurants in 1974 and is now the co-owner of Smith’s Olde Bar and Fox Brothers Bar-B-Q, held on to the live tapes. He says he knew he had a valuable recording but was waiting for the right moment to share it with the world. When the time came, he asked award-winning Atlanta writer and producer David Fulmer to join him in the release.

“Over the past years, Michael and I have worked together on some small projects,” Fulmer says. “This one is by far the most significant. Piano Red was a one-of-a-kind blues and R&B artist.”

Twenty-five years after Red’s death, then, he’s back. And how: Michael Reeves trusted restoration of the original four-track tape to Grammy Award-winning audio engineer Michael Graves at Atlanta’s Osiris Studios, and when they listened to the original, Reeves says, “It sounded like Red was in the room.”

[Other sources for this article include Chris Strachwitz’ liner notes for the 1972 Arhoolie Records LP Piano Red: Dr. Feelgood All Alone with His Piano as well as the Wikipedia entry on “Willie Lee Perryman.”]

David Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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