More Than You Know


The annual West Coast Ragtime Festival, held in Sacramento, California, represents America’s contribution to the world of Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, Stride, Barrelhouse, Novelty and any other style of piano playing pre-1940. It is a wonderful three days featuring 25 pianists and a couple of bands. The youngest performer was a 13 years old boy who performed faultless renditions of Scott Joplin rags. “The Fingerbreaker” is, without doubt, ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton’s most difficult piece to play, and Emily Sprague, a girl of 15 from Missouri, astounded an audience of 900 with her performance of it. Among the seasoned performers were John Arpin from Canada (ragtime specialist), the wonderful Carl Sonny Leyland (boogie woogie and stride) and on hand to accompany ‘anybody who wants me’ was top drummer Hal Smith. Add to this great weather, it was a ‘pianofiends’ dream

Also appearing at the Festival was Ian Whitcomb (ukelele and vocals) who resurrected Tin Pan Alley and Music Hall songs from the 20s. Ian was born in England, sang and played piano with a Rock group who had a hit record in the 60s. He abandoned life as a Brit and moved to the USA in the 70s, diverting his interest to the history of Pop music from the turn of the century. An avid fan of George Formby, he attracted a large audience for his seminar on the great man, although the name meant nothing to most of those present.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912, where 1500 people perished, fascinated Ian – so much so, he decided to delve more deeply into the musical aspect, i.e. How many musicians were in the orchestra and which tunes were played before the ship went down. He then went into the recording studio with a similar line-up and re-created the exact programme the orchestra had performed on that fateful night. He got a record company interested and it was released in 1998. The CD sales were phenomenal – half a million sold world wide, and Ian received a Grammy award for his comprehensive sleeve notes. After its success, Ian suggested the record company do a follow-up, they weren’t interested, and inferred ‘there was only one Titanic’. For that we can all be thankful.

Composer of the Charleston, Father of Stride Piano, Teacher of Fats Waller. Yes, I am referring to  James P. Johnson who died just over 50 years ago, in 1955. His enormous talents went unappreciated and fewer than 75 persons attended his funeral in New York. As well as composing many wonderful piano solos, he was on something like 400 recordings as piano accompanist to singers in the 20s. His most famous composition was the “Charleston” – although he wrote dozens of others including “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight”, “Snowy Morning Blues” and the “Carolina Shout”. His “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” is without doubt the most difficult of all his Stride pieces (I’ve got the bruised knuckles to prove it!). By a lucky coincidence, I happened to be in the recording studio on November 17th. (50 years to the day since his death) in Sacramento, so what better way to pay my respects than record two of his compositions – “Everybody’s Doin’ The Charleston Now”, written in 1925 (four years after the “Charleston”), and a delightful song titled “Whisper Sweet, Murmur Low”. Unfortunately, his talents were not appreciated by his family either – they chopped up his piano soon after he died.

A New Jersey pianist was playing solo piano in a fashionable, very noisy restaurant. After a few nights, he talked with the manager, suggesting he add bass and drums to overcome the nightly din. The manager, worried that a trio would be too loud, was assured by the pianist that the music would be unobtrusive. Opening night came for the trio, but as the musicians were setting up, the manager hurried over and nervously said “Don’t forget to keep it soft, I’ve already received a complaint!”