Meade's Last Ride
A look on the later career of Meade Lux Lewis
By Michael Hortig
This article first appeared in Frogs Annual #4, 2015.
It was on the 30 August 1941, when the Pittsburgh Courier announced under the headline: "Meade Lux on Coast", that "Meade Lux Lewis, one of the best known and original purveyors of the Boogie Woogie Piano style made his West Coast debut at the unpretentious but cosy Swanee Inn in L.A. last week".
This marked the end of the Boogie Woogie Trio partnership with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, that had been so successful since their first public appearance at Carnegie Hall in December 1938.
For Lewis it meant an opening to the famous nightclubs in the Los Angeles and San Francisco, and led to his settlement in this area for the rest of his life. This change brought Lewis new fame as a solo entertainer. He was booked for the first "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tour in 1944, he continued to record for Blue Note and Ash labels, had a short sequence in America· s most famous Christmas movie "What a wonderful world" and could be seen, together with Louis Armstrong, in the first jazz movie, "New Orleans", playing his signature piece, the "Honky Tonk Train Blues" in 1947.
By that time, the Boogie Woogie craze was over. Albert Ammons, after some commercial success with his 1946 Mercury recording "Swanee River Boogie" died in 1949, and others like Jimmy Yancey or Clarence Lofton again dropped into obscurity. But not Lewis: he continued to record for various labels like Atlantic in 1951, Clef in 1954, Verve in 1955 and for Tops and ABC in 1956.
He had regular broadcasts from the famous Club Hangover in San Francisco, where he had a steady engagement for more than one year, went on the "Piano Parade" tour package with Errol Garner, Art Tatum and Pete Johnson in 1952, and appeared in the 1956 thriller "Nightmare".
But something had changed. Lewis never had been a Blues or Boogie Woogie pianist (as were Albert Ammons or Pete Johnson) as billed - he always had pop songs and jazz standards in his repertoire (see his "I’m in the mood for love", "Try again" or "Nagasaki", recorded 1936 and 1939, the later a duet with Albert Ammons). People who heard him during his live acts, playing such numbers in his own style, were surprised at not hearing only Boogie Woogie tunes, and were quoting as saying "he played wrong". But now he had the chance to record such tunes for the ABC and Tops LP's. For he always had a good ear for melodies, putting these together with either a single note line or his unique stride bass in the left hand, and his usual chord clusters in the right hand, providing an immense drive or swing, best heard in his 1956 recording of "Ain't she sweet". That he always had been an entertainer is proved by some recently discovered tapes, recorded during some private parties in the early 1960’s. There, you can hear Lewis singing numbers like "Sunny Side", "My Baby Don't Care" or "Sugar" and his "Whistlin' Blues" had turned into a real show-piece, lasting nearly ten minutes. But the critics were interested in why he was doing it: for them he always had been the simple "Boogie Woogie Master" and they punished Lewis with their misunderstanding, a fact that hurt the big man. At about that time, his popularity sank, the reason possibly to be found in the increasing popularity of Rock & Roll and the urban Chicago Blues.
But the turnaround did not last too long. He recorded twice, in 1961, an album for Philips and one for Riverside, the later being one of the best recorded outputs of Lewis. These ten selections were recorded in little more than two hours with only one take, a fact which proves the genius of the man. He was a regular guest at L.A.'s TV stations, had a guest appearance in the Steve Allen Show in 1960, and was invited to appear in a two part TV special titled "Chicago and all that Jazz", produced by NBC. Many nationwide newspapers carried articles about this appearance, indicating that Lewis was back again. It is said that he received a thousand dollars for that appearance, which was big money at that time!! In a 1959 interview, he also claimed that he only took work "when the money is right and I can play whatever I want". He also talked about having turned down two European promoters, who were planning a concert series for him across the Atlantic because: "They all want you, but nobody wants to pay any money". This is one of the main contrasts to his old buddies Ammons and Johnson. Lewis always handled his money well, having bought himself a house in one of the better suburban parts of L.A., and buying a new big Chrysler every two or three years and playing golf, not really a sport for the common black people. Also, he started taking care on his health very early, for he normally weighed around 298 pounds. He stopped drinking booze and changed his usual eating habits to a diet. His engagements brought him again around the nation to New York, Minneapolis and as usual around all the main Jazz Clubs in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and San Francisco.
But the next change was on its way. When I found members of his family in Minneapolis, I was told by his grandniece, Mrs. Denise Buckner, that Lewis was thinking about moving there. He thought that he could earn more money in the East, and although he liked the Californian climate, he "missed the cold air hitting against my face and the changing seasons. I've been living here since August 1941 - and I guess it's time I have a change of environment".
But the main reason was, although he lived together with his younger brother Julius, he had a deep family tie to the family of his older brother Millard, especially to his niece in Minneapolis. He also played at several places there, for example the Dyckman Hotel and the White House Restaurant, where he had regular appearances since 1957. In the middle of May 1964, he began a three week engagement at the latter venue. It was on the 7th June 1964, after finishing his gig, when he drove his car out of the parking lot. It was hit by the car driven by 24 year-old Ronald Bates, who was driving at more than 65 miles per hour in a 50 mile zone and was drunk. Lewis 's car was pushed some 150 feet away, into a tree. Lewis was thrown out of the car and pinned between it and the tree, dying instantly. Of the four people in the other car, one died some hours later, Bates was in serious condition and the rest were slightly injured. Six days later, Meade Lux Lewis' funeral was held in Armstrong Family Mortuary and he was buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in L.A.
What can be said at the end: Meade Lux Lewis put his name into Jazz History when he recorded the "Honky Tonk Train Blues" in 1927. He too was responsible for the Boogie Woogie Craze of the 1940' s and he continued being a successful entertainer until his death. He was scheduled for a major Jazz Festival in Berlin for autumn 1964, where a concert meeting with Germany's then foremost Boogie Pianist Leo von Knobelsdorf had been arranged. And if you think about, that the interest in Blues and Boogie music in Europe had increased through the AFBF, tours of Roosevelt Sykes, Champion Jack Dupree and of course the reissuing of records of the Boogie Woogie Trio, then the career of Meade Lux Lewis would have been advanced again. And if you listen to the piece, presented here, which had been recorded at a private location in 1961, you will hear, that Lux Lewis hadn't lost any of his strength, power and his feeling during all those years. At last, I quote Mike Payette, who recorded this selection: “Meade was a huge, round, black man with a huge multicultured heart who loved people, booze, food and of course what I think all he loved most was music."
Thanks for their help on this article to Konrad Nowakowski, Axel Zwingenberger, Bob Eagle, Colin Davey and Denise Buckner. I also would like to thank Seaton Blanco, who provided the tape of Meade Lux Lewis private recordings, saved for a1ll those years by his father Horace Blanco.