Barrelhouse and Blues Piano
This is a specially interesting CD as well as recommendably of the highest musical quality. Peter Silvester’s A Left Hand like God is in many respects an admirable telling of “the story of boogie woogie”, but I’m not the only informed reader to have seen a big hole in the index above the name of Buck McFarland. No McCoy? He sings well too, but listen to “Church Bell Blues” or “Gone Mother Blues” for among other wonders a demonstration of the verb “to rock” (as not to be done to any cradle!). “Gone Mother” reminds me of one of the few pre-war recordings on which McCoy was accompanist. Behind James Sherrill, whose nom-de-disque “Peanut the Kidnapper” represents one kind of inventiveness, every successive McCoy chorus is a fresh creation: no routine, and that was rare.
When Ben Sidran on a music film years ago talked of going back to boogie piano for inspiration he mentioned, meant and played “Down the Road Apiece”—a second-handism from the 1940s period boogie woogie wasn’t so much in the sun as under the lamp. The same ‘40s vogue did inspire Joe Duskin and Willie Littlefield, who made up for a lack of full roots with hard work and energy. Joe had to learn a lot of repertoire. Unlike them, Otis Spann had been a child prodigy of a Mississippi school. I’ve heard no evidence supporting recent contentions that the even more tragic person of his cousin the wonderful Little Johnny Jones was an abler pianist (we are at a summit of the art) but I wonder was McCoy. Well, I marvel at him.
He’s the same real thing, born more than twenty years before Spann, and in Alabama. His seventy years were spent almost entirely in Birmingham, and it’s hardly worth doubting he could have fitted into the sort of Chicago ensembles Spann was a member of, not merely filling in trills but providing the amazing depth and character of the very best blues and boogie pianists’ playing. It used to be commonplace to say their music derived from what was played on guitar, presumably earlier. When? That sad old tale confuses the centuries-long progress from monochord (who knows what its single string was made of, and stretched over and between?) to Steinway with the incredibly short gestation period of a music represented on an obscure Californian label of the 1940s equally by One String Sam and a cavernous-voiced singer called Goldrush singing Roosevelt Sykes’ words and playing piano with a strong Texan accent. Pianos were comparably common with maybe monochords if not guitars, across the South, and men without formal tutoring worked out how to produce new unprecedented music on instruments no less readymade than the guitars which invaded even my native Scotland’s folk music years thereafter.
Blues pianists had different fingerings one from another, let alone from Van Cliburn or found at the bottom of various Scottish dance-bands, which do fit stereotypes of the postcolonial. They were different again from the more Europeanly straight New York contemporaries who also played rent parties, and from jazz pianists (Pete Johnson was another miracle and does anybody know how great Jay McShann is?)
Comparing McCoy with Big Maceo is fair, but except in joint borrowings from Leroy Carr, and unlike in the case of Johnny Jones, the resemblance is confined to one or two items only—and either as part of an attempted emulation of a recorded Maceo performance, or as an appropriate enrichment. Both reinforce basses by playing successions of fifth chords, but McCoy does that in an older Alabama idiom. McCoy does have his distinctive rhythm, which is nobody else’s!
He doesn’t sound as some critics have said like either a Texan or a St. Loui’an. His nearest musical relative is Jabo Williams, also from Birmingham and on a St. Louis website because his wanderings took him there for a time. (His too few records are never in any St. Louis kind of style). In these recordings, McCoy doesn’t retain much of the older Alabamian sound to be heard sometimes in Cow Cow Davenport—and Avery Parrish on “After Hours”, which Wilbur Bascomb said was a blues by his Birmingham blues pianist brother Arthur which they brought to the Erskine Hawkins band (but in notes played and how Parrish played them on the initial recording it seems unlikely he didn’t simply have to remember it from episodes in a not wholly misspent youth. McCoy is wholly grounded in a very distinctive style never loosened by things he heard only off recordings. He plays the “Jump Steady Blues” of Pine-top Smith, another Alabamian, much like the recording he had Patrick Cather help him imitate, with its opening spoken dialogue. On the vinyl disc Cather heroically produced it was called “Bessemer Rag”, and McCoy at one point improves it with a rephrasing which is a straight lift from Jimmy Yancey. Why imitate when you can interpret-create, or improve (with love)? It’s amazing the way he picks up ideas without imitation or mimicry. He cites a motif from his long-time associate Willie Perryman (Piano Red, from Atlanta, Georgia) only to cascade away from it like some grand 1920s master.
His is a whole style, and where on a second and last vinyl album not used for this CD he performs Blues and Boogie Classics, he does so with an instrumentation different from that on the original recorded performances: his own fingers.
Jimmy Oden’s “Goin’ Down Slow” has a wholly new accompaniment, as does “Let’s Get Together”, which Delmark missed identifying as also off a St. Louis Jimmy record (not to be confused with a 1940s wartime patriotic song by Alexander Lightfoot which made lots of money for a later smooth performer and—equally purged of references to Tojo—turned up selling Japanese cars in a television commercial—oh, story of the Blues!).
“Pratt City Special” is McCoy despite being a Jabo Williams original and having the distinctive bass pattern heard also on Williams’ ancient performance (Williams’ whole output is on a Document CD; alas, only a poor copy exists of one of the most virtuoso of all blues-boogie piano performances, cramming in a dazzling string of emulatory quotes from an indefinite number of other pianists: a competitive business that music).
For the three hundred or so spirits who’ve shared my gratitude and joy in owning McCoy’s first vinyl album I report that the entire 1963 session is here, with some additions Pat Cather would surely have put on a third twelve-incher if—not long after the second LP—his life hadn’t turned into an extended painful inoculation against being at all enthusiastic about discretional drug-taking (see liner notes when you’ve bought this stupendous CD). Incidentally, the second McCoy album reappeared on the European “Oldie Blues” label years back.
The initial recording fi was hi, and McCoy’s puissant left hand almost made my own piano rock, across the room from the speakers. A first suspicion that it had come out a little thinner on CD was bombarded into wariness of the machine by the happy sound which came out of another CD player I tried. Check your bass, dear listener. The 11 tracks here added to album one are well integrated, the studio Steinway being again heard on five unissued additions. The other six are the CD’s coda, beginning with a happy mid-fi “There’ll be some changes made” (oom-pah comic relief) which usefully adjusts the ears to two 1958 “field” recordings stunningly played (one on the original vinyl, the other not). The last five tracks are home-mid-fi duo performances with Clarence Curley on drums—and to my ears sharing some vocal duties. The CD doesn’t say. McCoy and Curley were colleagues with a trumpeter and a reedman on a 1937 session by “Bogan’s Birmingham Busters”, there perhaps an imitation Fats Waller & His Rhythm, but really accompanying band to the greatest non-guitarist lady blues singer. Lucille Bogan was not however recorded by the mobile unit that day.
The reunited pair plainly had a lot of fun on the unknown day (late 1960s?) they got together, The duets attain another kind of climax in a version of “Sent for You Yesterday” in the noble Franz Liszt tradition of piano transcriptions of orchestral music. Eddie Durham’s melodramatic atmospherics from the 1939 Basie-Jimmy Rushing recording are captured with real wit, and the performance belongs to a select group of lovingly witty pastiches adorning the periphery of recorded jazz.
The CD belongs to a select group of wholly individual top-drawer performances in the blues idiom, and the blues and boogie piano idiom. There aren’t so many of these, so you wouldn’t need really to be a collector to want to own them all. You can buy at least one here, and with a joyful confidence and conviction McCoy’s performance exemplifies brilliantly.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article