The Story of

WILLIE PERRYMAN

a.k.a. PIANO RED
a.k.a. Dr. FELGOOD

by Norbert Hess

(extracts)

The first 40 years

As with many other artists, there were several birthdates published over the years. Here's what Willie Perryman himself said: “I was born October the 19th, 1911, in Hampton Georgia, it's a small place, 32 miles south from Atlanta. I came to Atlanta when I was six years old, been there ever since.” His father was Henry Perryman, who married Ada Westmoreland. It isn't clear how many siblings there were. Willie, never good at years and numbers, told Robert Springer: “It was nine kids of us, two albinos in the lot and both of us played piano.” He told me that there were John (the oldest), Rufus G. (better known as Speckled Red), Henry, Sally Mae, Druscilla Ada (just called 'Big A'), Ora and Dora, which makes a total of only eight. In another interview with Bob Koester, Rufus added Walter, Freddie, Lizzie, Cora, Pearl and two unnamed children who died in infancy.

At any rate, the Perryman household moved from Monroe, Louisiana, where Rufus was born in October 1892, to Hampton, Georgia, when Rufus still was very small. Willie recalls: “My father was a sharecropper, he worked on halves. You didn't own nothing until you've paid all the bills. We had pretty good family, collected a lots of grain and cotton, but never did get paid for it. So in 1917 my daddy asked the owner for a clearancy. They said yeah, they'd give it to him. We moved two days later to Atlanta.”

Willie remembers a horse pulling a wagon with the household effects and his brothers and sisters. It unloaded at 3 Oliver Street. “My father got him a job at a place called American Machine Shop. He finally wound up working for a company that distributed records and pictures. Warner Brothers, that's who he worked for when he passed. The first school I went to was in Atlanta.”

Willie insisted that his “parents were not into music, my daddy couldn't play nothing. I started in music when I was like twelve banging 'round on the piano. My mother had bought a piano. She paid a dollar a week. It was a used piano, but it was good. The more I banged the more interested I got.”

Willie and his brother Rufus, almost exactly nineteen years older, were the only two in the family who became musicians. “We dressed up and tried for it,” said Willie. He looked at Rufus playing, but he didn't learn from him. “It's a strange thing. Rufus left in 1925, I hadn't grown up then. I used to look at him. I thought he was the greatest even before he left. But I never did learn anything from him. Next time I saw him, he came back to Atlanta, it was 1960.”

Being extremely near-sighted and cross-eyed since birth, Willie, like Rufus, could never take formal music lessons, couldn't even see much of the keyboard of the piano, and basically learned and played by ear. “In the beginning I couldn't play too good, but the people thought it was good because they didn't have nothing any better. Wasn't nowhere to go but to those house dances. I'd get a little better every year. When I was about eighteen or nineteen I was doing pretty good.”

For most of Willie's early years, it's impossible to reconstruct what exactly happened. There were no precise dates written down, and the following recollections must be taken with reservations. Like so many other artists, Willie gave one date or location one day — and another the next.

Willie didn't meet many of the other piano players in the Atlanta area. He briefly heard Eddie Heywood and his son Eddie Heywood Jr., Ted Wright from Athens, and Colefield West from Spartanburg, “the same place I got a little glimpse of Fats Waller,” said Willie. In fact, he cited Waller as his only influence. “That was my main man. My mama used to buy his records. I always did admire him. Saw him only that one time... I was broadcasting for Croven Company, and I went to the theater that night. When I'm playing concerts, I play a lot of — not his numbers, but songs of the same style.”

In the early '30s, an itinerant Willie Perryman played house parties, juke joints and barrelhouses in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. “I used to go with Barbecue Bob and his brother Charlie Hicks, Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell. I used to walk the streets with those guys. We'd go to North Carolina and South Carolina and stop at places where we could find a piano. I met Blind Boy Fuller in Greenville, South Carolina. In the early '30s me and Jack Hemphill and Tom Fletcher were play in'together.” Generally, Willie worked as a soloist, trying to make himself heard above a torrent of voices and clinking bottles in the joints. The effect all this had on Willie's style was that he emphasised his percussive piano playing, hitting the keys with his hands wide open, and developed his harsh singing style (remember, there were no microphones at the honky tonks and fish fries!).

Willie made Brevard, a tourist town in North Carolina, his headquarters after he married Flora. Soon he was the father of two girls, Nancy (born 1934) and Willie Kate (born 1936). He constantly commuted between Atlanta and Brevard, picking up every job that was offered. “The first time I played for whites was back in 1934. We got a street in Atlanta called Peachtree, and the owner of the Moose Club asked me to play. I fold him I'd have to finish at twelve 'cause I had to go to the Chifter-Chafter on Simpson Road, I played there from one until four at night.”

Other places where Willie could be heard were John Mullen's place on Magnolia Street (one of the colored streets) and the Danceland on Peachtree. In one of these Willie was noticed by Clyde Ramsey, who owned a summer resort in the Clayton mountains in Raboun County (northeast corner of Georgia). The resort was aptly named You Want A Rest Camp. From 1936 to '40 Willie worked there, not far from Brevard, for an all-white clientele which wanted to hear pop standards rather than blues. Willie had to adapt quickly to a variety of musical styles and developed into an all-round entertainer. “I kept playing every summer in those mountains 'cause I made a pretty good name through that,” he said. Zenas Sears, the dee-jay who would later play a big role in Willie's career, added: “In 1937 Red appeared at a tourist camp in Tiger, Alabama, when he was 26, although he had played over several radio stations prior to that.”

Atlanta and its sites were immortalized in a number of songs by Bobby Grant, Cow Cow Davenport, Blind Sammie (Willie McTell), Barbecue Bob, Georgia Browns and others. Willie remembered seeing Bessie Smith at Charles Bailey's 81 Theater, where she regularly performed in the mid-'20s. In her 1927 recording of Preachin' the Blues, Bessie sang about the Underground complex, where Willie would entertain five decades later: “Down in Atlanta Georgia, under the viaduct every day, drinkin' corn and hollerin' hooray, pianos playing 'til the break o'day.”

The blues scene was flourishing in Atlanta in the 1930s. Eugene 'Buddy' Moss, Curley Weaver, Amos 'Bumble Bee Slim' Easton, Charlie Hicks and his brother 'Barbecue Bob' Hicks, Roy Dunn, Joshua Barnes, 'Peg Leg' Howell, and The Blue Harmony Boys (Rufus and Ben Quillian) are some of the better known rural bluesmen associated with Atlanta. Even so, there is general consensus that, as Bruce Bastin says in his book 'Red River Blues', “The most remarkable Georgia bluesman was undoubtedly Blind Willie McTell.”

“Blind Willie McTell, he played a 12 string guitar, he had been around for a long time,” said Willie. “He knowed me, my whole family. A guy name Calaway was his recording manager. Willie mentioned me to him, told him I was good.” He told Karl Gertzur Heide: “Willie asked me why didn't I try to get on records. I told him I didn I know how to contact nobody. He'd say, 'I know a guy if you write him.' He'd sit down and told me what to say, just like he was writing. Told him I was Rufus' brother.” Willie continued: “Mr. Calaway didn't want nothing but some Blues, and he wondered if I could write him some Blues. I fold him I got him some. Calaway had to do something in Augusta so he made arrangements with that radio station there to cut me and Willie.”

W. R. Calaway owned a motel in Augusta, Georgia, and rented the studio at radio station WRDW (which James Brown bought in 1968). Since the styles of McTell and Red really didn't fit together too well, one can only assume that it was Calaway's decision in the studio to team up these two incompatible musicians. Maybe Calaway was trying to reproduce the sound of the popular team of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell that had broken up the year before. Two sessions took place for Vocalion in Augusta, 150 miles east of Atlanta. The first, on June 26,1936, listed as 'Piano Red And Partner', resulted in two songs by Piano Red, accompanied by McTell on guitar, and one by Red alone. “If was this man Calaway, he knew my brother Speckled Red and said, 'Let's call him Piano Red,'” said Willie, explaining how he got his nickname. The second session took place on July 1, 1936 with McTell singing four titles, backed by Red's piano, and another five numbers just by Piano Red.

It was said that both received $300 each for their recording services, but Willie disputes this. “That's awfully wrong. I don't know what Willie got. I got a hundred dollars and my expenses paid. I know I ain't got no three hundred.” On another occasion however, Red had recalled: “I knew Blind Willie since 1933. He took me to Augusta see a man named Calaway to record for 10 dollars. It was supposed to come out on Brunswick.” Ten dollars per song might have added up to a total of $100.

None of the titles were ever issued, and the masters have since disappeared. McTell's widow Kate told David Evans: “Willie couldn't play with Red, he played so fast. He sang and played too loud. The piano would drown the guitar out.” Red told Karl Gert zur Heide: “Willie and me wasn't going to play together anyway. Willie was supposed to have his session and I'd have mine.” In another conversation, he had a more technical explanation for the missing masters: “During that time, it was before tapes came up, they used to capture the music on a wax, it was a big, thick wax disc, then they would reproduce it from that wax some kind of way, that is, if luck will have it. It gets real hot in the summer there. We did the records alright, we got a little pay for them, but the waxes melted all before they could reproduce. So that's kind of the rough we had.”

Willie's marriage ended in divorce. He moved back to Atlanta for good, and in March 1941 married Miss Carrie Lou Bailey, which lasted until her death in August 1979. By the mid-'40s Willie couldn't get enough work as a musician. He played at some parties, but that wasn't enough to pay the bills so he took a job in a factory: “Seven years,” he said. “When I married, I went there, just to support her, going on sweeping up and faking the filling to those fellows what they put in them sofas. They was rebuilding sofas, and over a period of time the different upholsterers showing me different things I learned how to upholster. So the man named Frank Hicks, the boss, told me, 'We gonna put you as an upholsterer, you can do a good job. I upholstered there until this guy, Steve Sholes, came down and cut me that record. I upholstered up until fhaf time. Then I told Mr. Hicks, 'I'm gonna start playing, I can make more money by just playing these little honky tonk places since I've got me a record started.' He said, 'I don't blame you.' So I just walked away from it.”

During his years at the Southern Furniture Service Willie had only played on weekends. “The next time I went into a studio recording was in 1950 for Victor,” he said. “What happened, about two blocks from Underground Atlanta, it was what we called a colored street, Decatur Street. They opened a little place down there called A Hole In The Wall (next to the 81 Theater). I played there from 8:00 to 10:30 every night. There was the Central Record Shop across the street, a white fellow named John Young was the owner. He told me to come over there one night. He asked me how would I like to make some records, and I told him I'd be happy to. He said he got a big contact with Sam Wallace, who was a distributor here, he fold RCA Victor, told them Piano Red sounds better than a lot of the stuff they were selling. So in two weeks from then, they sent a guy down there, his name was Steve Sholes, the same guy that discovered Elvis Presley.

“We was at WGST, that was a radio station near me. That's where I cut 'Rockin' With Red' and 'Red's Boogie.' I wasn't playing it until that fellow came in town. I wrote them in a couple of weeks when they told me he was coming down and I had to have something of my own. I used to play other peoples' tunes. During that time four songs was a session, but I didn't have but two, so he told me to get some more. I had to do a different style. He wasn't a blues and rhythm man anyway, he was what you call a country man at that time. When that guy Steve Sholes come down from RCA, he said he put a drum and a bass with me, and the local union sent William Jones and William Green to me. I didn't even know the fellows. I had to join the union before they let me make the record. When RCA Victor hadn't put it out in four weeks as they promised, Mr. Young got on the phone, he talked to the distributor here, Sam Wallace. So RCA Victor got the records out in October. They just put them out in the Southeastern territory to see how they would go there. If it was going good, then they'd release it all over. Sh.., it was movin'! It had a different sound, that was the first blues and rhythm record that Victor ever had. Sam Wallace, the Southeastern distributor, said he'd have stores calling for the record and Victor couldn't press it fast enough.”


A RCA Victor press release elaborated: “Red's sudden rise to national fame came about because one of the spots where he played last year, when not hammering at his upholstery tacks, adjoined an Atlanta record shop. The proprietor, noting the crowds who gathered to hear Piano Red's ivory-knuckling, engaged him as soloist for a disc jockey program on a local radio station which advertised his store. The audience response to Red on the airwaves was so tremendous that the store manager called RCA Victor's attention to this unusually potent attraction. The upholsterer-turned-pianist was immediately signed to an exclusive recording contract.”

The record wasn't released until November 11. Once it was played on the radio, people would come into the stores asking for that “rocking record you can roll to”, which popularized the term rock and roll in Atlanta. Billboard reviewed Rockin' With Red: “Red's a brother of the legendary Speckled Red, and he lives up to the family tradition with a powerful, crude boogie woogie piano and shout vocal. Should be a hot item in the South.” It was indeed, and it swiftly went on to become a national hit, entering Billboard's Best Selling Retail R&B Records chart on December 30, 1950 and peaking at #5 during its six-week stay.

Under the headline “Major labels challenge indies in rhythm and blues field”, Billboard explained, “The major record labels are now taking on the indies in one of their strongest specialty markets, the rhythm and blues field. RCA Victor has come up with a hit, Piano Red's 'Rockin' With Red.'

The song was covered several times, sometimes with the lyrics and title altered. In 1953 it appeared on Trumpet as Rock Me by Lucky Joe Almond. Later that year, Little Jimmy Dickens had Rockin' With Red on Columbia. Then Little Richard cut it as She Knows How To Rock in October 1957 for Specialty just after his return from Australia where he had announced that he'd quit his secular career. He cut the song to fulfil his contractual commitment to Specialty, which held the single back until November 1958. Specialty boss Art Rupe tried to collect royalties by crediting the song to his Venice publishing company, but it was changed on later LP issues. Jerry Lee Lewis also did a version as She Knows How To Rock for Sun in 1957. [His recording titled 'Rockin' With Red' has been released only in 1983 on the 12-LP box 'Sun Years', Sunbox 102. — V.O.] Charlie Feathers did the song as She Sure Can Rock Me in 1973 for Barrelhouse and a year later as Rockin' With Red. [In reality Charlie Feathers cut this song for the first time as '(She Knows How To) Rock Me' as far back as 1968. — V.O.] In '75 She Sure Can Rock Me was cut by Jack Earls for the Olympic label. Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the proper title isn't mentioned anywhere in the song.

The second Billboard chart entry from Piano Red's initial session was Red's Boogie, which peaked at #4 in March 1951. Red was the oldest among the hottest hitmakersof 1951, like Roy Brown, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield, Ruth Brown, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, the Dominoes, Clovers and Five Keys. He was surprised at his sudden success with a style he had been playing for twenty years. He was surprised too that youngsters came to his shows, because, almost forty years old, he was no teen-age idol.

The hits gave Willie the impetus he needed to find steady work in the joints and on the road. “Peachtree Street is one of the main streets in Atlanta. I played up there a place called Danceland, and then, right at the corner of Peachtree and Baker, I played another place called the Jitterbug. The owner had me in the front and a country band in the back. We just alternated back and forth. That place would be loaded Friday and Saturday. After I got with RCA Victor, I started playing for them colleges in Nashville every weekend. I'd have some money going. I played for black audiences all the time until I was up in those mountains, them was white audiences, but when I started making records, my records caught on most with the white audiences. But I always could get in the Blues department for the Blacks.”

The second session, also held at WGST, yielded another hit, The Wrong Yo Yo, which entered Billboard's R&B charts on May 26, 1951, peaking at #10. Billboard reported: “Redis handy not only at the keyboard but he composes as well. All of his recordings, with the exception of 'You've Got the Wrong Yo-Yo', have been his own compositions. Red got the idea for 'Rockin' With Red' riding in an Atlanta bus when he saw a little girl rocking her brother in a rocking chair. He had the number completely composed in his mind before he got off the bus.”

The RCA Victor file lists Red's third hit, Wrong Yo Yo, as 'traditional'. “Rufus made that song,” Willie told Valerie Wilmer, “and gave it to me. He said, 'I never could do nothing with it,' and he said I could have it. People go crazy over if. I play if a little different from him, but every word of if is his.” Whether Willie got it from Speckled Red, who recorded Wrong Yo Yo in 1930, is doubtful, since Willie hadn't seen his brother since 1925 when he was about fourteen. At least two more songs with the term 'Yo Yo' were recorded in Atlanta by Barbecue Bob (Yo Yo Blues) and Blind Willie McTell (Let Me Play With Yo' Yo Yo). Willie may have learned it from the radio or, more likely, from a record. It's not even clear where Speckled Red got it from.

Paul Oliver suggests in his book 'Screening The Blues' that Wrong Yo Yo probably came from black songwriters Cecil Mack and Chris Smith who wrote You're in the Right Church But the Wrong Pew in 1908, which inspired a number of variants, notably You've Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole, which was recorded in New York for OKeh in October 1924 by Virginia Liston with Clarence Williams' Blue Five (including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet). This bawdy song was revived in Vernel Bagneris 'One Mo' Time' musical and Alan Parker's movie “Angel Heart”, where composer credits read Clarence Williams. In November 1929, Douglas Finnell and His Royal Stompers recorded The Right String But The Wrong Yo Yo in Dallas for Brunswick. The writer credit on the label reads Finnell. Next was Speckled Red's version, recorded in Chicago on April 8, 1930, which was also released on Brunswick and credits Finnell. By that point, Rufus had been gone from the Perryman household for five years.

Piano Red's 1951 hit The Wrong Yo Yo became his signature tune. His remake on Groove was just out in '56, when Speckled Red recorded another version in September 1956 for Bob Koester's Delmark label (with no credits at all). He cut it again for Storyville (as by Speckled Red) in 1960 during his sole trip to Europe. In between, a cover version appeared on 'The Dance Album of Carl Perkins' in 1958 on Sun which had no writer's credits. Piano Red came up with yet another version released on OKeh as by Dr. Feelgood which hit the #26 slot on the Cash Box “Hot 100” chart in August 1962. Then it was credited to P. Red. Willie may have claimed authorship, probably because he felt that he had made a new arrangement.

The Wrong Yo Yo went on to become Piano Red's most recorded song. It appeared on seven more albums recorded throughout the 70s, and in the '80s, it even gave Red a late hit in the country charts. It was still being covered as late as 1988, when Elvin Bishop included it in his 'Big Fun'Alligator album. “Over a period of time I've made quite a bit of money on that number from the publishers, not from the record company,” remarked Willie.

Red's third session in February 1951 produced his final two hits for RCA Victor, Just Right Bounce which pegged out at #10, and Laying The Boogie which got as far as #8 on Billboard's R&B charts. Billboard reported in mid-June 1951 under the headline “Piano Red's 'Layin' the Boogie' Among Victor's Best Pop Sellers”: “RCA Victor label's well publicized efforts in the rhythm and blues field are breaking new ground for the major waxery. For the first time in the label's history, one of their R&B artists, Piano Red, has a current platter, 'Layin' the Boogie' rated number three among the company's top pop best-sellers.”

The press release from 1951 boasted, “Piano Red Acclaimed as New'Primitive' Pianist”: “'No more upholstering for me,' says Piano Red after achieving an overnight hit on RCA Victor Records, following decades of upholstering furniture and picking up small change playing his piano in neighborhood bars and grills around Atlanta. With 'Red's Boogie' and 'Layin' The Boogie', Piano Red has skyrocketed up among RCA Victor's fop best-sellers, the first time that a blues and rhythm artist has achieved such a bracket with the diskery. Even the blase metropolitan critics now have taken notice. The Saturday Review of Literature recently acclaimed Red as a 'true primitive' who 'assaults the piano with a savagery ordinarily reserved for African war drums.' Now he is in demand for big city theatre dates and makes his Manhattan debut at the Apollo Theatre October 5th.” Red remembers sharing the bill with Ruth Brown.

The RCA Victor promotional text gushed on, “Since the appearance of his first record, 'Red's Boogie,' he has become one of the most popular instrumentalists on the RCA Victor label. As an unabashed demonstration of loyalty, he rides around Atlanta in a bright red station wagon with his name and the RCA Victor trademark printed conspicuously on its sides. He is also in constant demand for southern nightclubs and after his trip to New York will fry out his unique piano and blues shouting style on more Northern audiences. Piano Red has come a long way since his humble beginnings in 1913 as a blacksmith's son in Hampton, Georgia. [Here's an early example of spreading the wrong birthdate]. Although acclaimed for his rhythmic piano technique, Red has never had any musical training and is entirely self-taught. He mastered the keyboard by practising two hours everyday. He supported himself in school by doing odd jobs, and his first professional musical engagement was playing at a tourist camp for $35 a week plus food. Now he gets top billing at Atlanta's biggest night club, the Royal Peacock.”

“Red is a big man, weighs 200 pounds, and the hands which have become so strong with his years of nailing upholstery tacs, now put all of their power into pounding the ivories with a lusty vigor which is carrying on a family tradition with his RCA Victor success. Many years ago his brother Speckled Red recorded for RCA Victor, and rare copies of his discs are now eagerly sought as collector's items.”

End of the road

So, in October 1977, I had the pleasure of bringing Willie to Europe fort he first of five extensive tours which included dates in England and East Germany. I arranged that he meet Willie Dixon again as well as Jack Dupree. He received tumultous applause at the Berlin Jazz Festival before he even hit the first note, and he played for chancellor Helmut Schmidt's inauguration. He was still recording and working steadily. Sandwiched between LPs on Euphonic and Poodle, he supported the presidential campaign for Georgia's Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1976, but bad luck hit when his wife of nearly 40 years, Carrie Lou, died 1979 from a stroke. The same year he lost his long-standing engagement at Muhlenbrink's when the Underground complex closed its doors.

In 1981 Willie secured another residency at the Excelsior Mill, which lasted for two years. He opened for Peter Tosh at the Fox Theater, and for the New Barbarians (including Rolling Stones Keith Richard and Ron Wood). He played at the Georgia Grassroots Music Festival, and started touring the US again as a single. In 1983, Willie was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and was presented with the Pioneer Award by the Georgia Music Association for his contributions to the state's musical heritage. Albums on Zytglogge, Southland, L+R and Southern Tracks completed his recorded legacy. Shortly after his fifth tour through Europe in 1984, cancer was diagnosed. He was in and out of the hospital, but his strong willpower never deserted him and he even cut another record.

Yes, in early 1985 Piano Red, then 74 years old, grazed the charts again in a duet with country singer Danny Shirley doing yet another version of Yo Yo. A few months later, at 1:00 a.m. on July 25, 1985, Willie Perryman a.k.a. Piano Red a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood, lost his long struggle with cancer a day after he entered DeKalb General Hospital in Atlanta. Keith Hayward attented the funeral services on the 29th. “He looked simply asleep for his skin had always been pale. Willie was suited up and ready for business. Only this was his last trip. Many people filled the small church, important people like the mayor of Atlanta and the governor of Georgia.”

Willie Perryman was laid to rest at Dawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery. He was survived by his sister Dora, two daughters, Nancy and Willie Kate, a son, Skip, five grandchildren, and two adopted children.

In an obituary wired by United Press to newspapers around the world, Bill Lowery is quoted saying: “Red was a pioneer. In 1950, he cut what I call the first rock 'n' roll record, 'Rockin' With Red, Rock, Rock, Rock.' Of course, a lot of people claim they have invented rock 'n' roll, but Red's record came out years before Bill Haley made 'Rock Around The Clock.'” Bill Lowery still has a photo of Willie Perryman hanging in his office.

His legacy lives on. Among the posthumous honors are a 'Piano Red Memorial Fund' at the Atlanta Songwriter's Association, and the Clark College music department established an educational fund bearing Piano Red's name. The most important tribute, however, is this first-ever complete reissue of Piano Red's early recordings*, spanning sixteen years and a variety of styles from boogie to blues to early examples of what was to become Rock 'n' Roll. Willie's positive spirit lives on. Playing his music still makes his listeners stomp their feet, — smile, and just plain feel good.
© NORBERT HESS
Berlin, September 1993
(From the Bear Family Records'
4 CD box BCD 15685 DI's booklet)

The PIANO RED's home page

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

PIANO RED (1950–59)

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