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Texas Piano Players: A Legacy (Part 1)

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The piano might not be the first musical instrument you think of when you think of Texas (Stay with me Van Cliburn fans...). The mystique of the guitar and the Texans who play(ed) it, including Blind Willie Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, and Albert Collins to name just a few, is well-deserved and thoroughly chronicled. The saxophone is also a popular axe of choice for many in this state. Houston saxophonist, big band leader, and educator Conrad "Prof" Johnson (now the subject of the recent award winning documentary Thunder Soul), is a part of a larger chorus of celebrated and multifaceted reed players who were crucial part to the development of American rhythm and blues, funk, and free jazz. (Can you imagine Ray Charles' classic sides without Texan sax players Don Wiklerson or later David 'Fathead' Newman?) But thanks to several pianists who in the early part of the 20th century helped develop if not outright invent the rhythmic concepts, bass lines, and melodic phrasing that infused pre 1950's rock and roll and jazz, the piano completes the holy trinity of quintessential Texan instruments.

In the early 1900's it wasn't unusual to find a piano in homes of both poor and wealthy families throughout Texas. Along with the guitar, pianos were played in sharecropping communities, the popular musical styles of the day being "rags" or "ragtime" and "slow blues." Classical and popular music would be played from sheet music note for note, but when the grownups weren't around, improvisation would inevitably happen. Going "off" from the written notes was generally frowned upon, even considered "sinful behavior." The pull between the secular and the sinful is a recurring theme in the biographies of many musicians in turn-of-the-century South.

King of the Hillbilly Pianists Polk County-born Aubrey Wilson "Moon" Mullican (1909-1967) felt that pull early in his life. He sang hymns and played organ with his religious family while keeping his ears open to the music of Cab Calloway, popular blues, and Texas swing. At the age of 15, instead of pursuing a community-approved career path that would've had him preaching in church, Mullican left home for Houston to gig as a musician.

His musical legacy both as a pianist and singer is rooted in a fearless embrace of whatever moved him, "sinful behavior" be damned. Mullican's wild piano playing, country-ballad singing, and eclectic repertoire had profound influence on many early rockers including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. His early recordings reflected the diversity of his experiences both in the church and among those sharecropping the land--the results being a new hybrid of country, gospel, and blues music. It's almost as if "Moon" Mullican gave a generation of artists coming up quickly behind him permission to use anything and everything that moved them - be it white or black, the church or the juke joint, the written or the improvised.

Here's the King of the Hillbilly pianists playing W.C. Handy's 1925 composition St. Louis Blues on a television show circa 1950. Dig the sudden switch to double time for a smokin' bridge and final verse.

"Moon" Mullican's 1951 hit "Cherokee Boogie" is rooted in the boogie-woogie style of piano playing heard throughout Texas as far back as the 1920s. Author Robert Palmer writes in his book Blues & Chaos: "The origins of boogie-woogie are generally attributed to anonymous black pianists who entertained workers in isolated, backwoods lumber and turpentine camps of eastern Texas and Western Louisiana, probably around the turn of the century." The earliest published and recorded examples of boogie-woogie piano are credited to two piano playing members of the Houston born Thomas family - George Washington Thomas (1885 − 1930 or 1936) and his brother Hersal Thomas (1909 − 1926).

The Fives and The Rocks In 1921, George and Hersal Thomas composed and published what is the first, or one of the earliest, examples of boogie-woogie sheet music. The piece's title "The Fives" refers to the mechanics of a locomotive as well as a ready-to-party state of mind. Like any classic piece of party music, "The Fives" was a standard tune pianists played if they wanted to keep people dancing and drinking. With that in mind, the sheet music and Hersal Thomas' recording should be considered as templates for what REALLY went down when this number was played live. "The Fives" was a means for pianists to go "off" the written notes and improvise.

Boogie-woogie pianists called their grooves "rocks." George Thomas' recording "The Rocks" is a fascinating example of stripped-down swinging boogie-woogie that would some 20 years later acquire snare hits on the two and four (i.e. the "backbeat") and become something new: rock and roll.

Here's Thomas' "The Rocks" recorded under the name Clay Cluster.

Brother Hersal also composed and recorded the classic "Suitcase Blues" - the title perhaps referring to his and his brother's travels across the U.S. Like many musicians, the Thomas brothers left Houston for other cities to seek their fortune as musicians. But their musical roots began in Texas.

Next up, we'll profile some post 50's and 60's Houston pianists, including longtime keyboardist for B.B. King, Eugene Carrier.

Special thanks to Ned Sublette.

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