Willie “The Lion” Smith: Born 1897; Died 1973
Musical Selection: “Crazy Blues”
Smith was born with the considerable name of William Henry Berthol Bonaparte Bertholoff, coming from a mixed-race marriage, Black and Jewish, but with his father dying when Willie was just four, and his mother’s subsequent marriage, the young Bertholoff later took on his stepfather’s surname. Smith was born in Goshen, New York, but grew up in Newark, New Jersey, learning piano from his mother, who was a church player. Smith’s main musical education was, by his own account, somewhat haphazard, but he was a quick learner and by 1914 he’d made his professional debut. Smith was soon plunged into the hectic and informal music world of Harlem, learning the emergent ragtime strain peculiar to the Eastern Seaboard, which, combined with elements of the gospel piano style and the urge to improvise on dance forms, would soon evolve into what would later be termed “stride.” He also learned the essential style accessories for the stride pianist, from his hat and cane (often accompanied by the biggest cigar available) to the braggadocio speech styles and flamboyant keyboard techniques, all of which would also be developed into a personal identifying trait by pianists such as Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, and which were very evident in the attitude evinced by New Orleans keyboard man Jelly Roll Morton, whom Smith often saw playing in New York prior to World War I.
In late 1916 Smith volunteered for active service in WWI, after a training period being shipped off to the Western Front in summer 1917. Trained in artillery, he proved highly capable and was promoted to the rank of sergeant; he also claimed to have picked up his nickname, “The Lion,” there, bestowed on him by an officer inspecting the front, who was told of his expertise with large-bore artillery and his unusual stamina. Smith made sure the nickname struck. Having left the military in 1919, Smith returned to his old ways in Harlem, fast becoming one of the standouts in the emergent stride school, striking up friendships during the 1920s with the likes of Fats Waller and, especially, Duke Ellington. Smith began appearing on records (he was the accompanist to Mamie Smith on her trend-setting “Crazy Blues” of 1920) and ran his own small group at Harlem’s Leroy’s as well as, later one, the Onyx Club, Pod’s, and, finally, Jerry’s.
Smith was a legend among fellow professionals but largely unknown to the general public until he began recording a series of piano solos for Decca in 1935. The striking individualism of these brought him a ready audience on both sides of the Atlantic, which he began to exploit after World War II through regular tours, even reaching North Africa in 1949-50. After that Smith was a regular part of the jazz and entertainment scene, his compelling character and stylized mode of dress making him instantly recognizable. During the 1960s he began to feel the need to document his life and the music he had grown up with: in 1965 he produced (with George hoefer) his autobiography, Music On My Mind, while for RCA in 1969 he recorded The Memoirs of Willie “The Lion” Smith, a two-disc LP set of his talking and playing. Smith died in 1973 an honored and feted man in the US and Europe.