Tell My Story

The Life and the Music of Meade Lux Lewis, Celebrating His 100th Birthday

By Michael Hortig

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Blues & Rhythm, The Gospel Truth, issue #201, August 2005.

Early Life

In the early 1930s, when John Hammond Sr., the noted jazz collector and promoter first heard a copy of Honky Tonk Train Blues (Paramount 12896), played by Meade Lux Lewis, he could hardly imagine that this incident would lead some years later to the nationwide boom of boogie woogie music.

Meade Anderson Lewis was born in Chicago on September 4, 1905 to George A. and Hattie (maiden name Johnson) Lewis. He had two older brothers Joseph and Milard, a younger brother Julius, and a sister Bessie (whose married name was Gordon). His father, who worked as a porter on the New York Central Line, played guitar and was fond of the music of bandleader and violinist Erskine Tate. He arranged for Meade to have violin lessons, but shortly after his father's death he stopped playing violin and switched to the piano. At this time, he had known Albert Ammons for years as both attended Webster School on the Southside of Chicago. Their first contact with the piano was with player pianos: "We use to unlock the keys as they went down and learn different tunes by taking a pencil and marking the keys. Then we'd stop the player and place our finger upon the keys we had marked. We found out, that was a chord and we just continuously kept doing that until the thing caught on."

At that time Lewis was very much interested in automobile mechanics, but when an unknown fellow came up from St. Louis, bringing the number The Fives to Chicago, he returned to the piano. "So I told Al, 'we gotta learn how to play that stuff, lets get together.'" In 1924 the Lewis family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, the birthplace of Lewis's mother. Some time later, the Lewis family split -- Milard and his family moved to Minneapolis, Joseph stayed in Louisville, and Meade, Julius and Bessie returned to Chicago. During the following years, he and Albert Ammons had various jobs: playing piano, driving taxis, and during the worst years of the depression, washing cars. In his own words: "my shoes were so thin, that I could step on a dime and tell you whether it was heads or tails."

Honky Tonk Train Blues

In 1927, at a rent party, Lewis became acquainted with a girl named Amelia who worked for a publishing company with connections to the Paramount Record Company. She liked Lewis's playing and arranged a recording session, which took place in December 1927 at the Paramount studios on Wabash Avenue, one year before Pinetop Smith recorded his famous Pinetop's Boogie Woogie. "I called it the Freight Train, but the engineer said 'Oh no, that sounds like honky tonk music. We’ll call it Honky Tonk Train Blues.'"

His next recordings were as an accompanist on four sides with singer George Hannah in October1930 and five issued sides with singer Bob Robinson in November 1930. From then he had several jobs, including driving for a dress salesman, with whom he traveled from 1934 until mid-1935. After his return to Chicago and with the help of his old schoolmate Albert Ammons, he joined a trio and became known on the south side. At the time when John Hammond asked Ammons about the whereabouts of Lewis, he had a trio called Lux and his Chips at a place called Doc Huggins. “He [Hammond] came over there and he listened to me play. So finally he told the waitress to tell me to play the Honky Tonk Train Blues, so I played it".

Lewis agreed to record the number again, and the session was arranged on November 21, 1935 for the UK based Parlophone Record Company. In the spring of 1936, Benny Goodman was appearing at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. While over there, he, Johnny Mercer, and John Hammond went to hear Lewis at Doc Huggins, about which Hammond later reported, "One blues took more than fifty minutes and the Honky Tonk Train ran for more than half an hour." His first trip to New York in May 1936 to play at the first "Swing Concert" was not a success, as he had to play on a new grand piano, and nobody knew him or the boogie-woogie style.

His next recording session, on January 11, 1936, for the American Decca Company produced his second hit, Yancey Special, and on May 7, 1937, he cut two titles for Victor: Honky Tonk Train again, and his famous Whistlin’ Blues. These recordings and the commercially successful release of Yancey Special by the Bob Crosby Orchestra in 1938 brought Lewis’s name to a larger audience.

His big break came with the invitation to play at the first From Spiritual to Swing concert, which was held on December 23, 1938 in New York at Carnegie Hall. Together with his fellow pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson and the blues singer Big Joe Turner, boogie-woogie music became a nationwide craze that lasted for the next couple of years. Now the so-called Boogie Woogie Trio became stars at nightclubs like the Café Society in New York and the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. A number of recording sessions for Solo Art, Vocalion and the newly established Blue Note label followed, and their live appearances were broadcast.

Solo Career

Lewis, who always had been a solo performer, left the Trio and went to California in the middle of 1941 to get better jobs, sometimes with Big Joe Turner. With the help of Downbeat magazine, he became a member of the ASCAP (Association of Song Composers and Publishers), a hard position to get for black musicians.

Between 1941 and 1946 Lewis cut four short musical films, called "soundies," appeared on several Jubilee radio shows, recorded three numbers for V-Disc, and cut several records for the Ash-Company. 1946 was a big year for Lewis, as he was part of the second Jazz at the Philharmonic (the first one was in 1944, from which a two-disc album of his live recordings had been issued), which toured the United States. He had a short sequence on the beloved American Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, featuring James Stewart, and appeared playing the Honky Tonk Train Blues in the first jazz film, New Orleans, with Louis Armstrong.

During the next decade Lewis kept on playing at various clubs and bars, not only in the Los Angeles area, but as far away as Detroit and New York because, as he said, "the money is right and I get to play the way I want." In 1952 the Gale Organization organized the Piano Parade Tour with Lewis, Pete Johnson, Art Tatum, and Erroll Garner, playing across the USA and Canada. Afterwards, Lewis teamed up with Johnson and they played together for some time. When he returned to the West Coast, he was engaged at Club Hangover eighteen months and made several broadcasts from there. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he continued his club-work and recorded several albums; for Atlantic in 1951, Verve in 1955, ABC and Tops in 1956, and Riverside and Philips in 1961.

In the early 1960s he appeared on TV shows such as the Roaring Twenties, the Steve Allen Show, and on an NBC produced two-part TV special entitled Chicago And All That Jazz, where he played Honky Tonk Train Blues and a high speed version of Pinetop's Boogie Woogie. He also was asked twice by agents to tour Europe but he said: "They don't want to pay any money, they want you to do it for nothin'!"

He got invitations to play in New York, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. He especially liked going to Minneapolis, and he had plans to leave Los Angeles and settle there, because the family of his brother lived there, he liked the climate, and, as he said, "the fish is also fine!"

He was often invited to play at the White House Restaurant in the suburb of Minneapolis and it was on June 7, 1964, when, after finishing a concert there, his car was hit by a drunken driver. He was thrown 146 feet from the car, hit a tree, and was killed immediately. This tragedy happened only months before Lewis was scheduled for an appearance at a major jazz festival in Berlin, the Berliner Jazztage.

Meade Lux Lewis, the Man

At his peak Meade Lux Lewis weighed 298 pounds and stood 5' 6" tall. But in contrast to his former friends and partners, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, he stopped drinking hard liquor, began medical treatment and had a regulated diet.

He also managed his money well. Although he never achieved the star status of black jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Lionel Hampton, from the late 1930s on, he was the most popular artist in the boogie-woogie field, which not only brought him a stardom of sorts, but also financial security. He bought a house in the suburbs of Los Angeles, was fond of big cars, buying a new one each three years, and was very generous with his family.

He was generally regarded as a jovial person, friendly and cordial, but in most ways quieter, perhaps more thoughtful and introspective than his buddies Ammons and Johnson. He was very close to fellow pianists like Joe Sullivan and Art Tatum and he liked Chopin. According to Don Hill, it also seemed that he was more educated than his fellows, as he had many bookshelves with authors like Richard Wright or Langston. He also spent much time fishing and playing golf. He lived with his younger brother Joseph, who is said to have been a drag queen, and who had been married to a Dorothy Lewis, who he left in Chicago due to what he described as her mental problems.

The Music of Meade Lux Lewis

As Jo Westheimer described a performance by Meade in a 1942 Jazz Quarterly profile, "we saw a small dark figure slightly reminiscent of a man and more like that of a medicine ball, waddle up to the band stand, adjust the seat for about twenty seconds, sound out the piano and his position with a few licks and then go into the finest boogie woogie and blues in these United States, and that means, of course, the world."

The most apt word to describe the music of Meade Lux Lewis is "unique." Compared with Ammons and Johnson, he was a strict solo-performer, recording only a few times with larger groups (e.g. accompanying Edmond Hall or Helen Humes). He lives in a world of tone-clusters (e.g. playing two notes with the thumb), heavy crashing chords or single-note lines. He varied his bass-ideas, from mere punctuations in slow blues numbers to four and eight-to-the-bar figures in faster pieces while hardly using common boogie basses. His music was always swinging, and would build up to exciting climaxes. As Ernest Borneman put it, "where Johnson would repeat single notes, Lewis would repeat a chord and Ammons would trill the chord." From observers who had seen him in person and from concert recordings, we know, that his playing before audiences was harder and stronger than his studio recordings. Sometimes it’s said, club-owners complained that Lewis scarred the woodwork behind the keys with his fingernails while playing furiously.

Lewis’s recording career from 1927 to 1964 can be divided into three periods: the blues years, up to 1939; the boogie-woogie years, up to 1954; and variations on themes, up to 1964.

The first period includes his masterpiece, Honky Tonk Train Blues, with its steady chorded bass line; and Yancey Special, with its single-note bass line. During the 1939 sessions for Solo Art and Blue Note, he mainly recorded slow blues tunes and some medium pieces with special stride bass patterns. But he also had jazz standards in his repertoire which you can hear on his recording of I’m In the Mood for Love.

Due to the success at the Spiritual to Swing concerts in 1938 and 1939, his boogie numbers came into demand. During this period, considered his musical peak, he recorded some of the masterpieces of boogie-woogie music: Six Wheel Chaser, Chicago Flyer, Tell Your Story, and the best version of Honky Tonk Train Blues. During the first two periods, he also made several recordings on the celeste and the harpsichord. At the end of the 1940s, his Honky Tonk Train Blues had gotten faster and flashier with a new 4/4 time chording in the left hand. He melded his other boogie tunes into two standards, Six Wheel Chaser and Lux’s Boogie, which seem only to differ in the beginning chords. In 1951 he recorded an album for Atlantic, called Meade Lux Lewis Interprets the Great Boogie Woogie Masters, where he played easy-going versions of Hersal Thomas’s Suitcase Blues and Cow-Cow Davenport’s Cow-Cow Blues, the later being his new crowd pleaser for a while.

The biggest change came during the last period when he changed his repertoire to include more pop songs and jazz standards, played with stride or single note bass patterns. Some say he was pressured to update his style by club owners and/or the bigger recording companies he was recording for. During that time, he recorded oddities like Someday Sweetheart, Bill Bailey, Call Me Darlin', but still showing his incredible skills, for example in Ain’t She Sweet.

His last issued albums were recorded in November 1961 in New York. The first one, The Blues Piano Artistry of Meade Lux Lewis, a bluesy album with Frompy Stomp as a highlight, was reminiscent of the Blue-Note recordings. The second one, Boogie Woogie House Party, includes really fine boogie tunes like Bear Trap Stomp, and his final recording of Honky Tonk Train Blues, and stupid pop-tunes like Georgia Camp Meeting. On this album, he was accompanied by a confusing group of guitars, horns and drums. Rumor has it that these instruments were overdubbed later.

Some weeks before his death, a short appearance at a Los Angeles jazz club was privately recorded, showing Lewis to be still in the demand, creating fantastic music and entertaining the audience.

Thanks to Denise Buckner (grandniece of Meade Lux Lewis) for providing information and the photos used in this article. Also to the following people for their support, memories: Charlie Booty, Charles Castner, Maximilian Gmeiner, Phil Kiely, Dick Mushlitz, Dr. Konrad Nowakowski, Bob Seeley, Peter Sylvester, and Axel Zwingenberger