the Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer



(WILLIE PERRYMAN, 1911–1985)

Do you feel good? The doctor is here!
I'm telling you, I gets the spirit from the universe, and,
as the old man sends it down to me, I'm gonna send
it right out there to you. Music is medicine.
I cure more people than any doctor in the world.
I use music to do it, and I'm gonna fix you up where you be
feeling good for weeks after I'm gone.

That was just one of many variations on how Piano Red a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood addressed his audiences. His sheer exuberance sparked tumultuous applause before he even started to play. Just the way he looked was enough to jolt most people out of a bad day. In a pink, light blue or gold jacket, ruffle shirt and a black bow-tie, his arms spread wide open, he took a bow, and generated a mixture of amusement, excitement and respect. It wasn't for nothing they called him Dr. Feelgood. His squinting eyes couldn't see those who applauded him, and he could only go by what he heard. It didn't matter if he was playing for German chancellor Helmut Schmidt or in a smoky club in a small town. Everywhere he went, people sensed that they were witnessing a relic of times passed, and perhaps that was so. He played in a style that was on the verge of extinction, making good any technical shortcomings with humour and sincerity. He was one of the last of the rough-and-ready, two fisted barrelhouse piano players. The irony, though, was that off-stage Willie Perryman was a rather quiet man with a shy demeanor.

It's worth taking to clear the air about his name, his nickname, and others who used similar stage names. Willie, like his brother Rufus, was an albino black man with reddish hair which earned him the nickname Piano Red. All of his records for RCA Victor, Groove, Jax and Checker were released under the name 'Piano Red'. In 1961 he recorded Doctor Feel-Good for OKeh which was released as by Dr. Feelgood, a name he kept on subsequent sessions for OKeh, Columbia, Master Sound and 1-2-3 into the late 1960s. From 1970 until his death in 1985 he recorded albums simultaneously as Piano Red or Dr. Feelgood.

To compound the confusion, Checker Records released a single by one 'Piano C. Red' in 1964. The 'C.' indicated Chicago, but even legal Chess reissues have mixed up the two Reds. Piano C. Red was born James Wheeler in 1933 in Alabama and lived in Atlanta from about 1950 to '60 before settling in Chicago. Then there was John Williams, another albino who labelled himself 'Memphis Piano Red'. Born in Germantown, Tennessee, in 1905, he played only in the Memphis area and made his recording debut as late as 1969. Never having a whole album of his own work, tracks were released on Blue Thumb, Flyright, Albatros, L+R and Ornament. He toured Germany in 1981, and was found beaten to death in February 1982. There's also Robert Potts, who recorded a few singles in the early '80s for the Memphis-based 8th Street label as Dr. Feelgood.

Willie Perryman, the original Piano Red and Doctor Feelgood, is a man whose style was never successfully copied by his namesakes — or anyone else.

The Story of Willie Perryman by Norbert Hess

The Sound archive of Rock 'n' roll & Boogie recordings:

PIANO RED (1950–59)


DR. FELGOOD (1961–66)

© 2006-2013 Valeri Orlov