Born Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff on November 25, 1897, in Goshen, NY; died on August 18, 1973, in New York; son of Frank Bertholoff and Ida Oliver; took stepfather's last name of Smith; raised in Newark, NJ; married twice. Education: Studied music privately with Hans Steinke, 1930s and 1940s.

Willie the Lion Smith was a pianist who stood at the center of the New York City jazz world in the roaring 1920s. He performed at the most fashionable nightclubs in New York City's predominantly African-American Harlem neighborhood, accompanied other musicians on recordings, and inspired and mentored a host of younger musicians. Smith is regarded as a pioneer of stride piano, the first important solo piano style in the jazz tradition. He is less well known than other pianists of the 1920s such as James P. Johnson and Thomas P. "Fats" Waller, primarily because he made few recordings under his own name until later in his career.

Smith was born Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff in Goshen, New York, on November 25, 1897. In his memoir Music on My Mind, Smith described his father, Frank Bertholoff, as "a light-skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling"; his mother, Ida, worked as a maid for a wealthy family. After Frank Bertholoff's death in 1901, Ida married New Jersey mechanic John Smith and moved to Newark. Willie Smith's complex ethnic ancestry included French, Spanish, African, and Native American Mohawk elements.

Learned Hebrew

In Newark, Smith's mother did laundry for a local Jewish family, and Smith sometimes sat in on the Hebrew lessons the children received from a local Rabbi. He learned to speak the language himself, a trait that endeared him to local shopkeepers, and he adopted the Jewish religion, receiving his bar mitzvah at age 13 and later serving as cantor in a Harlem synagogue. "Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you--and now you take a second one right down the middle," exclaimed a friend (as Smith recalled in his memoir). But he remained an adherent of the Jewish faith.

Smith's musical life began when he found an organ missing half its keys in the basement of the family home, and began trying to imitate the music he heard his mother play in church. He was about six. An uncle named Rob who danced and sang gave him some pointers, and he began hearing and learning the ragtime hits of the day, pieces like Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and George Botsford's "Black and White Rag." Attending school in Newark, Smith played basketball and track, trying to stay out of the neighborhood's numerous street scuffles. When he was 14 he began to walk boldly into Newark saloons and offer his services as a pianist. "It wasn't long," he wrote, "before I was sporting around. I wore my first derby, smoked cigars, and drank my whisky clear." The cigar and hat would be his trademarks for the rest of his career.

While still in Newark, Smith met future stride piano legends Luckey Roberts and James P. Johnson. In search of bigger things, he moved on to Atlantic City, New Jersey--"a town crammed with good-looking legs and pretty underwear," he wrote--when he was 15. He heard ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, and it wasn't long before he was making trips into New York City to hear other piano players and, from time to time, to pick up work for himself playing in the back room of a saloon. Older pianists and club owners recognized Smith's talent, but his promising career was interrupted by World War I. Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1916 and became an artillery gunner. His all-black unit was sent to the front in France, where he dodged poison-gas canisters and inspired a commanding officer to remark, "Smith, you're a lion with that gun." From then on, he was Willie the Lion Smith.

Performed at Leroy's

Back in New York in 1919, Smith picked up where he had left off. He landed smack in the middle of the expanding Harlem nightclub scene, at first frequented mostly by African-American patrons but then gaining white followers at certain clubs with a "black and tan" clientele. Smith landed a job at Harlem's sharpest club, Leroy's, where owner Leroy Wilkins insisted that customers as well as employees wear tuxedos on weekends. Playing solo or accompanied by a small band, Smith established a reputation as one of New York's top keyboard players. Attending the club on any given evening might be some of the top names in African-American entertainment, people like dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and minstrel performer Bert Williams. Smith made friends with them all. In 1920 a young singer from Cincinnati named Mamie Smith got a chance to record, and asked Smith to put together a backing group, with himself on piano. The 78 rpm record they made, "Crazy Blues," is generally regarded as the first blues recording. It became a bestseller and touched off a decade-long trend in blues vocal recordings by women.

Smith's own style was evolving as well. Performing at Harlem cabarets and rent parties (a large one, he recalled, might draw guests from all classes of society), he began to loosen up the patterns of the piano ragtime he had always played, adding improvised rhythmic and melodic details. The new piano style came to be known as stride. It still kept to the basic marchlike rhythm of ragtime in the pianist's left hand, but the player was free to create tension with a detailed right-hand part that might include rhythms straining against the basic beat. Several other players, including Luckey Roberts and James P. Johnson, began experimenting with stride ideas around the same time, but Smith was certainly one of the style's creators.

Johnson became better known than Smith among jazz historians because he made numerous 78 rpm records as a soloist, while Smith's first solo releases did not come until 1939. Smith's busy schedule in the 1920s included tours to Chicago and other cities; it may be that at first he did not see recording as a crucial career step. Smith's influence, however, was evident in the large number of jazz pianists whose careers followed his. A 16-year-old Fats Waller came into Leroy's one day, dressed in clothes that weren't up to the club's snappy standards. Smith dubbed him "filthy," but both Smith and Johnson were impressed by the youngster's version of Johnson's "Carolina Shout," and Smith gave Waller a place that night on the piano bench.

Influenced Ellington

Another pianist who looked up to Smith was future bandleader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who later wrote the introduction to Smith's memoirs. There Ellington declared that "the Lion has been the greatest influence on most of the great piano players who have been exposed to his fire, his harmonic lavishness, his stride--what a luxury. Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Count Basie, Donald Lambert, Joe Turner, Sam Ervis, and of course I swam in it. ... Even the great Art Tatum ... showed strong patterns of Willie Smithisms after being exposed to the Lion." Ellington also honored Smith with a pair of compositions called "Portrait of the Lion" and "Second Portrait of the Lion."

New trends in jazz in the 1930s eventually overshadowed Smith's status as a top jazz attraction, but his career lasted much longer than those of other musicians of jazz's first generation. Smith, who had always had a strong interest in classical music, took classical piano and theory lessons from a German immigrant, Hans Steinke, in the 1930s. He began to write short, classical-influenced original compositions, to which he turned when he finally got the chance to record. After making some small-band records with a group he called Willie the Lion Smith and His Cubs in 1935, he was signed to the Commodore label and in 1939 released the group of sides for which he was best known. Several were Smith originals, with names like "Passionette" and "Echoes of Spring"--little tone poems on the piano that mixed jazz elements with classical harmonies.

As the harmonic language of jazz began to expand after World War II, Smith remarked that he had long been using such devices as augmented chords and extended harmonies--he just hadn't known what they were called. Jazz writers such as the French critic Hugues Panassié admired the harmonic sophistication and idiosyncratic qualities of Smith's playing, and the new LP recordings he turned out in the 1950s and 1960s were consistently popular. He made several European tours. Jazz historians, too, came to prize Smith's recollections, as he was an articulate observer with a huge fund of memories about the early days of jazz. Smith continued performing frequently until his death in New York on April 18, 1973.

by James M. Manheim

Willie the Lion Smith's Career

Began performing in New York City, early 1910s; served in military on front lines in France during World War I; returned to New York and resumed performing, 1919; appeared as pianist on "Crazy Blues," first blues recording, 1920; appeared at Harlem cabarets, including Leroy's and Sontag's, and at rent parties, 1920s and 1930s; numerous original compositions in classical-influenced style, 1930s; recorded with band Willie the Lion Smith and His Cubs, 1935; made solo recordings for Commodore label, 1939; recorded about 15 solo LPs, 1950s and 1960s; wrote memoir, Music on My Mind, 1964.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

BooksOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

willie the lion is for me an essential inspiration for music and life in general .echo of sring ,my first love.!!!!!