Piano Red,
The Lost Atlanta Tapes
(Landslide, 2010)

Over the course of a long professional life, Georgia-born William Lee "Piano Red" Perryman (1911-1985) absorbed just about every strain of African America's vernacular music. In this live recording, capturing him at Atlanta's Excelsior Mill just months before he died, Red both looks back and sums up. He was in a happy, exuberant mood as he worked a crowd clearly come to appreciate him. With the passing of decades, there must have been many such evenings -- and no doubt many, as happens to even the finest, when he wasn't shown his proper respect. This particular evening, which happened to be preserved on a tape with first-rate sound quality, gives us a kind of aural snapshot of an unjustly neglected American master in top form.

Once upon a time, rural Southern black musicians who sang and played in a range of genres were called "songsters" -- Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly and Jim Jackson are three well-known examples -- but to the best of my knowledge, the phrase has never been applied to the big city-oriented Red. It could have been, however. It certainly fits better than "bluesman," which is the usual lazy description dropped on him and other black musicians of his era. True, blues is nearly always some sort of reference here -- blues was, after all, once a kind of lingua franca of African-American folk and popular music -- but just about every approach Red grew up with is represented in his repertoire and on this CD. That includes stride, ragtime, folk, r&b, Tin Pan Alley standards and proto-rock 'n' roll. And, yes, straight-ahead blues.

If Red's time on the charts -- ca. 1950 -- was brief, it left its mark. His "Rockin' with Red" is perennially cited among the records with a reasonable claim to being the first rock 'n' roll release. His droll "The Right String (But the Wrong Yo Yo)" has been covered in a variety of genres. I first heard it as a Western-swing tune and for years thought that's where it originated. Both "Rockin'" and "String" are here (Red must have played them just about every night he was on stage) along with others he didn't write but are just as much a part of the American musical vocabulary: "C.C. Rider," "St. Louis Blues," "Corinna, Corinna" -- though "Baby, Please Don't Go," a Red original, is not the folk-blues most often associated with Big Joe Williams. I am slightly surprised to hear Lead Belly's "Cotton Fields," though I'm not sure why; nothing wrong with either it or Red's version, of course.

Anybody who hears The Lost Atlanta Tapes will be pleased they were found. Its 18 cuts carry the testimony of a man who heard it all, then gave it back in his own charming, distinctive style.

by Jerome Clark
6 November 2010

If you were around Atlanta at any time from the late 1940s through the mid-'80s, then you know the music of Piano Red. A ragtime and stride piano player, Red was a legend. He'd been around forever, it seemed; a native of south Georgia -- although some writers claim he was born in Louisiana and moved to Georgia as a kid -- Red was an albino with a complexion the color of a trout filet and a shock of reddish hair that won him his nickname. He was so nearsighted that most people were surprised to discover he wasn't blind. Following the lead of his big brother Rufus, who developed some piano skills and split from their poor, overcrowded home as fast as he could to go north and become the blues pianist Speckled Red, Piano Red learned piano as a child, banging around on the keys until he was able to duplicate Fats Waller's sound.

He struggled on the chitlin circuit until 1950 when RCA Victor signed him and he put out "Rockin' With Red," a song that has been designated the first rock 'n' roll record by everybody who doesn't believe that "Rocket 88" was the first. As a middle-aged man, Red found he'd become a rock star.

At that time, Atlanta music producer and personal manager Zenas "Daddy" Sears bought a soul station, WAOK, and hired Red to do a daily radio show, where he would spin a few records but would mostly play, sing and tell stories about the old days. Nights, he'd play the clubs around town and occasionally he toured, but mostly he liked to stay home. When his records stopped selling, he renamed himself Dr. Feelgood, formed a band called the Interns and became famous all over again. Eventually, though, it all dried up and Red found himself a steady gig playing a club in Underground Atlanta, a group of shops, restaurants and nightclubs beneath the city.

In 1984, he decided he wanted to record his live show there and cut this album, his entire set of 18 songs, eight of which he'd never recorded. Shortly after cutting the album, though, Red died and the songs sat on the shelf for 25 years. Now they've been released and, Lord, was it worth the wait! Red might have been old and sick and past his commercial prime when he cut these songs but he hadn't lost any of his power or his love of performing. Accompanied by a bassist and a drummer, Red mixes his standard repertoire with new songs. Sure, "Rockin' With Red" is here, along with his signature songs, "Right String Baby, But the Wrong Yoyo" and "Let's Get It On," but the new material is also solid.

In his comments to the audience, Red says that he gets the music from the universe and passes it on to us. It's a good description of what comes across on this CD -- an mature artist, still filled with wonder at his owns creations, still in love with music and the musical processes, still radiating the spirituality, hope and joy that the best blues contains.

My advice? Buy this CD. In fact, buy several. Give them out as Christmas presents. Musical experiences this good are rare; they need to be treasured.

by Michael Scott Cain
6 November 2010

Buy it from Amazon.com.