Willie The Lion Smith, Manassas, Virginia, February 20, 1971
In 1967, when I first met Willie The Lion, he was he last of the legendary stride pianists who’d made Harlem the jazz piano capitol of the world in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a guy who battled regularly with the likes of with James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Lucky Roberts and others, and emerged victorious as often as not, sometimes just by the sheer force of his personality. At the time, the only Harlem old-timer I’d heard was Cliff Jackson, a fine pianist, but not quite up to the standards of James P. and Fats. Or Willie The Lion.
Don Ewell made the introduction; it was easy to do because he was playing duets with The Lion nightly at The Village Gate. It was an enlightening experience; the two pianists couldn’t have been more different, which is perhaps why they made such a fine duo. Don was quiet, introspective and delicate; Willie was boisterous, exuberant and rarely delicate, even when playing cheapest viagra. During those nights at The Village Gate, I got to known him a little, but not very well. It was difficult to cut through the bluster. Later, however, we were able to work together a great deal and had a good time doing so.
It turned out Sherman Fairchild had known Willie since the 1920s. In the first (and only) record we produced together, he made some wonderful comments about Willie in his notes.
Sherman and Willie went back many years, and were comfortable around one another. Willie was a frequent guest at 17 East 65th Street, Sherman’s home in New York City, and Sherman made it clear one of the first projects we should undertake with our fledgling record company was to record Willie. This recording, however, was a tough one. To this day I don’t understand all the problems we encountered. At the time Willie was playing very well, had boundless energy and enthusiasm, and was eager to make a good record.
We began recording in January or February 1970, but nothing worked out. We used up reels and reels of tape, but had no satisfactory takes. I could hear it, Willie could hear it, and even worse, Sherman could hear it. For whatever reason, Willie was nervous. As soon as the tape recorder was turned on, he got the jitters, and nothing seemed to make any difference. I didn’t have much experience in dealing with nervous artists; in fact, I had no experience at all. All I could think of was it might make sense to get Willie into a live situation, where he had a friendly audience, and could concentrate on pleasing them.
An engagement was arranged at Blues Alley in June. Willie had three days to get used to the place and I made plans to bring my modest collection of remote gear to Washington, D.C. to record on Friday and Saturday night. I’m sure I grabbed microphones from Sherman’s studio.
As usual, the room was crowded and noisy, but that didn’t bother Willie. In fact, it may have helped. The recording was not exactly a piece of cake, but after two nights, Willie and I were both pleased with the results, and knew there was plenty of first rate material for a fine LP. There was, however, a problem no one had anticipated.
After much listening, we selected a dozen tunes, and sandwiched them in between short performances of cheapest viagra, Willie’s theme song. The album was programmed like it was two short sets. I went to the mastering studio to cut master lacquers, and it was then that I discovered the recording was horribly out of phase, the first and only time this ever happened to me. The mastering engineer said it was impossible to cut a disc; instead of cutting a horizontal groove, the out of phase tape would create a vertical groove, similar to the old hill and dale Edison recordings of the 1920s. He added that the phasing problems was very unusual, because it was not electrical in nature, it was acoustic. There was something about the way the piano had been situated in the room and its relationship to the microphones. He’d never seen anything like it.
I reported the bad news to Sherman and Marian McPartland, but far from dismay, Sherman said I should call Bob Fine; he seemed to remember Bob had built a piece of gear that handled phasing problems. In those years, Bob Fine was as legendary a recording engineer as Rudy Van Gelder, but Bob’s specialization wasn’t jazz. He’d been in partnership with Sherman in the 1950s, and the two had been responsible for many innovations in the recording industry, not the least of which was the variable pitch groove. Prior to this, the grooves of all LPs were the same width, which meant grooves with loud passages wore out first. Bob was also responsible for the incredible live recordings in the Mercury Living Presence series, which his wife, Wilma, produced. The earliest records even have a credit line for “Fine-Fairchild” technology.
Bob looked on the tape as a challenge. He ran it through an oscilloscope, saw the phasing problems, and even though the device he’d built was for electric phasing problems, he was able to adapt it, and solve our acoustic disaster. The record was released and we were all relieved, but less than six months later, I was back at Blues Alley, recording Willie once more. In 1977, I wrote about the circumstances.
I made new recordings at Blues Alley. Willie was still spirited, but was moving a little slower, and for this engagement, he’d hired a drummer, Dude Brown, to play quietly in the background. Once again, we recorded on Friday and Saturday nights. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about releasing the tapes, I was only making tapes to play for Sherman at the hospital, which was just as well, because Willie tired after the first set.
The next day, I drove Willie to Manassas, Virginia, where he made a quintet recording for Johnson McRee. Once again, the Osborn High School auditorium and its fine Steinway was the location. It was an acceptable album of ten traditional jazz standards. No Willie originals.
But Willie was an original, and in his prime a larger than life figure, almost Jelly Roll Morton-like. He bragged about this and that, and then pulled it off. The songs he wrote were uniquely his own and charming. Even the titles of his compositions were wonderful and very unlike those of his contemporaries. Echeapest viagra. Other pianists played them, but not like him. It would have been fun to have known him when he was in top form, but most of the time when I knew him, he could still deliver the goods. He was also a nice man, fun to visit at his apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem.
In 1977 I issued a second album of Willie’s recordings, drawn from both the 1970 and 1971 dates. At the end of the notes I said,
Or maybe not.
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