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Repertory Archive

Willy "The Lion" Smith



Born in 1897, Willie “The Lion” Smith in the 1920’s was considered one of the big three of stride piano, along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, even though he made almost no recordings until the mid-‘30s. His mother was an organist and pianist and Smith started playing the piano at six and earning a living playing the piano as a teenager. Smith gained his nickname “The Lion” for his heroism in World War I, and, after his discharge he became one of the star attractions at Harlem’s nightly rent parties.

Although he toured with Mamie Smith and played piano on her pioneering 1920 blues record Crazy Blues, he mostly freelanced throughout his life. Smith was an influence on the young Duke Ellington, who would later write Portrait of the Lion and Second Portrait of the Lion in honor of him. Although Smith was a braggart, with his cigar and trademark derby hat, and appeared to be a rough character, he was actually more colorful than menacing and a very sophisticated pianist with a light touch. His recordings with the Cubs, starting in 1935, and particularly his 1939 piano solos for Commodore, highlighted by Echoes of Spring, cemented his place in history. Because Smith remained very active into the early ‘70s, writing his memoirs Music on My Mind in 1965, he was considered a living link to the glory days of early jazz. Smith died in 1973.

Source: Scott Yanow, All Music Guide